In any acquisition of knowledge, there is the acquisition of dissatisfaction.
That’s what I found myself thinking at the 26th Annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting in February as I stared down a line of glasses, each one filled with tap water from a different municipality. As I raised each glass to my face, occasionally detecting scents or flavors of chlorine, iron, sulfur, I knew I’d never again be able to respond to a waiter’s “Sparkling? Still?” with a glib “Tap is fine.” Water is water, I once might have said, but not anymore: This is yet another arena where I’ve learned too much.
I went to West Virginia to participate in the water tasting — in which judges assess tap, purified and bottled waters from around the world — because I’d been wanting to dive into the issue of water in cocktails, in part after I’d heard that the Columbia Room, Derek Brown’s reopened cocktail haven in Shaw, would be bringing in specialty waters to pair with particular spirits.
Specialty waters? It was the sort of thing that my inner proletariat might once have pooh-poohed as the height of elitist cocktail cockamamie — if not for our former refrigerator.
That malevolent appliance polluted my cocktails for months. From the day of its installation, it made everything inside it smell a little like fish. Especially my ice. Cleaning it out, scrubbing it down: Nothing helped. Though my drinks were loaded with premium spirits and fresh juices, none of that mattered: I’d get codmopolitans and tuña coladas. I took to sealing my ice trays in plastic bags before freezing, then rinsing the cubes before using them.
It made me more aware of the impact water can have on a cocktail. In my case, the fridge was at fault, but sometimes it’s a taint from a faulty pipe or from the chemical treatment the municipality has performed to make the water safe. (There’s a reason one of the most common complaints about tap water involves a hint of swimming pool.) Given that a properly diluted and chilled drink can be one-quarter or more water, if your water has issues, so will your cocktails.
If you’re in Clearbrook, B.C., or Eldorado Springs, Colo., you’re probably good with water straight from your taps; your municipal waters took top spots in our judging. But even among the waters entered in the municipal category — waters that, I assume, were submitted by cities proud of what’s coming out of their taps — we tasted distinct off-notes. They were a clear signal that even those who aren’t stuck with a Fridge of Fishification may be having H2-Oh-nos; and they showed the dramatic differences possible in tap water, making me less inclined to scoff at the idea that some wonderful waters out there might have me floating off to bliss.
When we sat down for a tasting recently, the Columbia Room’s head bartender, JP Fetherston, acknowledged the guffaw that artisanal waters might induce. On occasion, he has perfected a cocktail spec (using the bar’s good ice) and then made it at an event later (using ice supplied by the venue), and it hasn’t turned out the same. And he is experienced with spirits tastings, where water is regularly used to bring out flavors in whiskeys and other drinks. But still, he says, when it came to specialty waters, “probably my first initial instinct was” — he blows a raspberry — “come on.”
“Even now we still feel quite ludicrous, though we do think there’s credence to it,” he said. “It seems over the top at first, but then you taste the result, and there are just massive, massive differences.”
After trying a Four Roses bourbon with a splash of Old Limestone Mixing Water, I was a convert: The spirit that, neat, had been all vanilla-caramels, spice, pepper and oak was suddenly bursting with fruit — over-the-top notes of apricot, cherry and even pineapple. Pairing a Glenlivet with a lower-mineral-content water from Speyside Glenlivet produced a subtler but still noticeable effect. (Both mixing waters can be ordered online.)
Old Limestone Water, which is drawn and bottled underground in Kentucky and has a velvety texture and a distinct flavor of calcium, was conceived after a tap water ruined company president Doug Keeney’s bourbon. “I was with a bunch of my guys at the bar, and we were having some Woodford,” he says, “and I added a splash and I looked at the bartender and I said, ‘This tastes terrible. What’s going on?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s the water.’”
According to Keeney, Kentucky’s limestone-filtered water — the qualities of which, many would argue, are why the vast majority of bourbon is made in the state — is not what’s coming out of most Kentucky taps. Much of the state’s tap water is sourced from the Ohio River and undergoes treatments similar to those of most municipal tap waters. And although water treatments usually make tap water safe, safe is not always the same as tasty.
Adding any water to any whiskey will affect the flavor; much of the effect has to do with taking off a bit of the burn of the alcohol, letting your palate experience more of the subtleties of the spirit. Whether particular waters do particular things to particular spirits will probably depend partly on your palate but also on the water itself. Is the water low or high in mineral content? How do its flavors interact with and enhance the flavor of the spirit? The waters that the Columbia Room is bringing in, after all, came trickling out of the same geologies as the water that went into the whisk(e)ys they’re being paired with.
Even if the thought of ordering artisanal water makes you roll your eyes, you may still want to protect your drinks from water pollution. As a newly certified water taster (an advanced, prestigious certification I acquired in 30 minutes of training in Berkeley Springs), I offer some tasting tips I learned from moderator and “water master” Arthur von Wiesenberger, who must be the most hydrated man on the planet.
Don’t smoke, drink or eat a bunch of vindaloo before you conduct a taste test. Run your tap on cold (water heaters apparently can affect flavors) for at least a minute to clear the pipes. Run the water into a clean, residue-free wineglass, then give it three short sniffs. Taste it, noting flavor, mouth feel and any aftereffects (a taste or residue left in your mouth). What do you think? Do you want more of it? Does it taste saline, chemical? Does it taste like fish have been spawning in it? (You think I’m kidding, but “guppy water” was among the terms that we learned might apply to bad water.)
Even if your tap water tastes like the dew on an angel’s wing, that will mean nothing if you freeze it and it picks up stale or off-notes from the food it’s sitting next to. Fetherston says he regularly advises home bartenders to fill their ice molds and then seal them in airtight containers to protect them from scent invasion.
In the wake of what has happened in Flint, Mich., I’ve found this brief hydrological education galling. I actively resist the idea of becoming a snob over the very substance that enables existence — that makes up more than half of my own body — when people in our own country can’t safely drink out of their taps and when people in other parts of the world face deadly parasites in their water supply or long journeys to acquire the water they need for their families, crops and herds.
Nonetheless, you can’t un-know something, as Fetherston understands all too well. He’s getting married soon, and the venue is a restaurant on the Rappahannock River. And for some reason, the water they serve there is super salty. “I assume it’s because it’s coming from the Rappahannock, and it’s kind of interesting because you’re like, ‘Oh, I can kind of taste the oysters in this glass of water,’” he says. “But it’s very brackish. And now I’m worried: Is that the water that’ll be in our punches?”
Thankfully, Fetherston is marrying someone in the industry who knows good drinks. So if he has to be the guy who shows up at his wedding announcing that he has brought his own ice, she’ll probably understand.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.