ENJOY A GLASS -- OR 8
Move over wine, because water's bubbling up the beverage ladder with an equal amount of epicurean snobbery.
Michael Mascha's book Fine Waters: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters (Quirk Books) provides as much detail (minerality, hardness, food pairings) as you'd find on the label of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Mascha has even developed a four-level rating system, from Still to Bold.
"Water is not just a commodity. It should be treated as a product with natural terroir," Mascha says. Case in point: the Restaurant at the Setai in Miami Beach recently introduced a water-pairing menu. "If you want to be a top-end hotel or restaurant, you also have to pay attention to the water, giving more options than still or sparkling." Other offerings could include rainwater (Tasmania is one great source for this), springwater (free-flowing water), artesian water (which flows from underground to the surface under natural pressure, without having to be pumped), and glacier iceberg water. There are about 3,000 brands of water from all over the world on the market, and in 2007 the industry was a $10 billion business, up from $5 billion in 2000.
To branch out from the usual, sip heavier mineral waters -- those with up to 3,000 milligrams of mineral per liter -- as they more accurately express the terroir. Or, try these suggestions from Mascha.
Antipodes (springwater, New Zealand)
This water spends 50 years under pressure in an aquifer that's 500 to 1,000 feet underground, and it surfaces with a low mineral content and a neutral taste. The modern bottle is modeled after New Zealand sherry and beer bottles. Light bubbles ensure that this water pairs well with all kinds of food. People who usually don't like sparkling water will want to give this one, which has a soft effervescence, a try. $3. www.antipodes.co.nz
Lauquen (artesian water, Patagonia)
Lauquen begins as ice and rain in the Andes, bearing low mineral content and a neutral pH. But after traveling up 1,500 feet from the aquifer under its own pressure, the water surfaces at 39 degrees Fahrenheit and with unique mineral content. $3. www.lauquenwater.com
Aquadeco (springwater, Canada)
The aquifer supplying Aquadeco was created during the last ice age (about 18,000 years ago). The art deco bottle is made in Slovenia by a company that has produced fine glass for more than 600 years. $8. www.aquadecowater.com
Cape Grim (rainwater, Tasmania)
This is a soft, very neutral-tasting water. Air pollution is nearly nonexistent in northwest Tasmania's Cape Grim, and clean air means unpolluted rain, which falls on the cold, remote, rocky site of the Cape Grim Water Company for about 185 days per year. This water pairs well with subtle flavors; try it with sushi and sashimi. $12. www.capegrim.com.au
Iskilde (springwater, Denmark)
Iskilde means "cold spring" in Danish. The spring was discovered in 2001 in the Danish Lake Highlands' Mosso Reservation area. The classic Scandinavian bottle design is elegant and functional. The water's nice minerality works well with food and red wine. $3. www.iskilde.dk
The Life Aquatic
"Water: H20=Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City through May 26, explores issues such as the need for clean, plentiful water; water shortages; restoring ecosystems; New York City stewards of water (from Savoy co-owner Peter Hoffman to a homeowner collecting water in a rain barrel); and how animals and plants rely on water. $22 Also occuring this May is the first annual Premium Water Summit, which will convene in Barcelona and feature various panel discussions as well as a water-tasting event. The mission on tap? A plan to create a premium water society.
Face Value » Celebrity endorsements can help sell any product, including water. Last year, Jennifer Aniston emerged as the face for Glacéau Smartwater. Leonardo DiCaprio's short film, Water Planet took a look at water shortages and pressed for better conservation.
And Sarah Jessica Parker hosted a UNICEF event that urged for increasing worldwide standards for tap water.
How to Serve It » Unlike wine, water does not need air -- but it still demands an ideal glass for sipping. Pour it into a straight-sided, narrow glass. This is especially crucial with a sparkling water, so as to enjoy the bubbles. Mascha, who is developing a line of glasses exclusively for drinking water, suggests Bottega del Vino's hand-blown crystal water glass ($40).