You sniff—nothing. You swirl—still nothing. You sip—no flavor. But notice the delightful mouthfeel, the slight effervescence. Is that a note of magnesium? A soupçon of calcium? A bit of bicarbonate? You pick up the elegant bottle to check out the source, the terroir of this oddly refreshing beverage.
Perhaps it comes from a glacier in Canada. Or a spring in Tasmania. Or from snow melting high in the Andes. Or rain falling gently in Oregon. Or maybe it's from a bottling plant across town. It's just water, after all.
Welcome to the latest trend in beverages: water connoisseurship.
From Paris to Tokyo to suburban Westchester County, New York, restaurants are stocking their water bars as carefully as their wine cellars, offering choices well beyond the usual sparkling, still or tap. With over 3,000 waters on the market, there's a bewildering range of odorless, tasteless liquids to choose from: Evian, Fiji, San Pellegrino, Badoit, Saratoga, Volvic, Ty Nant…
Can't tell them apart? A new book, Fine Waters, A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters (Quirk Books, $24.95), identifies the subtle characteristics to seek. According to author Michael Mascha, total dissolved solids (TDS)—the minerals in the water—play a role, as do pH and hardness. Carbonation is the biggest factor: the main difference between waters is how they feel in your mouth.
Another intangible flavoring is the water's "back story." There's a certain appeal to drinking last week's rain, or water that has been frozen since the last ice age.
There's also the attractive packaging—from Perrier's familiar green bottle to
over-the-top Bling, whose $40+ bottle is studded in Swarovski crystals and sealed with a cork, for the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.
Still not swallowing it? Go with the municipal flow. Most of the mass-market waters are just purified tap water anyway. For information, www.finewaters.com.
Most Asian food lovers are familiar with the rice wine, sake, but the sparkling version of this popular beverage is beginning to pop up at select sushi restaurants and liquor stores around the country.
Bubbles birthed during a second fermentation process make these unfiltered beverages fizzy, texturized and give them a cloudy appearance. They perform best in a Champagne flute and are an excellent starter to a meal. While some are lively, fruity and more akin to sparkling wine, others offer earthier rice flavors.
Sparkling-sake production can be traced back to Japan's oldest active kura (sake brewery), Sudo Honke in Japan's Ibaraki prefecture. The kura was founded in 1146 A.D. and the current owner, Yoshiyasu Sudo, in his late 50s and a 55th-generation owner, recalls his grandfather commercially brewing the bubbly beverages.
Beau Timken, owner of True Sake in San Francisco and author of Sake (Chronicle Books), sipped his first sparkling sake eight years ago in Japan and was hooked. He now carries several varieties in his store.
Timken calls these "new-school sakes," designed to court younger drinkers and fans of beverages with a lighter touch. He says they offer an alternative to the traditional sakes that the older generations in Japan, and many Americans, have known.
"They are really helping to cross that divide of 'my father's sake' and what people want today," he says.
For more information, www.truesake.com.
Sparkling sakes to try:
Hou Hou NV Shu Sparkling Sake (Marumoto Brewery): Syrupy with semi-sweet apple notes. "Hou hou" translates to "bubble bubble" in Japanese.
Poochi-Poochi NV Sparkling Nigori Sake: "Poochi, poochi" mimics the sound of bubbles. Strong rice tonalities and with a steamed-rice flavor. (8% alcohol, 330 ml)
Tsukino Katsura "Daiginjo Nigori" Sake: Unpasteurized, undiluted and unfiltered, this is the rawest form of sake. Elevated acidity level, crispness and with tingle.
Harushika "Tokimeki" Sparkling Sake: Bright and sprightly, and nicely balanced with semisweet pear notes.
What if you could walk into any wine store or restaurant and select, with just one word, a wine from any of eight countries and dozens of appellations, and feel confident that you were getting not only high quality but also good value? That's the promise of Oriel, a new global label from entrepreneur John Hunt.
Oriel has no vineyards, no winery and no bottling line, but those apparent deficiencies turn out, it appears, to be assets. By forging relationships with winemakers already in operation, Hunt has assembled an all-star team (including vintners associated with luminary brands like Penfolds Grange and Château d'Yquem) to produce numerous small lots—present count is 29 different wines and growing, each issuing anywhere from 50 to 3,900 cases—and sell them at reasonable prices under one label, sharing overhead. Most Oriel wines retail for between $15 and $30, though one Cabernet/Shiraz blend from Australia goes for $100.
Hunt asks winemakers he likes to create a special wine for Oriel, and each embraces the traditions and terroir of its home. The back label provides information from harvest date and varietal composition, to tasting notes and the name and signature of the winemaker.
Hunt likens his label to a model in the travel business: "With a brand like Four Seasons," he explains, "you can go to Milan, New York or other cities and be confident that you will be satisfied." He hopes the Oriel label on a bottle will instill similar confidence in the consumer, whether with a known commodity, like Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, or lesser known varieties and regions, like a Grüner Veltliner from Falkenstein, Austria.
A self-described "serial entrepreneur" who was previously in the coffee and hotel businesses, Hunt is now fully involved in wine, owning the Gran Clos winery in Priorat and partnered in Songlines Estates in Australia, in addition to the Oriel venture.
Retailers and sommeliers have embraced the project: Cru in New York and Tosca in Boston dedicate full pages to Oriel's offerings, and Sotheby's Café in Manhattan exclusively offers bottles from the label.
Members of the label's wine club, Orbit, receive two to four bottles a month for $79. For information www.orielwine.com.
Organic bartenders go for the gold with top ingredients.
You wouldn't want bacon-flavored bits on a salad of farmer's market field greens. Yet most folks settle for the liquid equivalent when they order cocktails at the nation's best restaurants and bars.
"I'm amazed how you can go into world-class restaurants that make amazing food with all sorts of organic ingredients and have fantastic wine lists, but when you go to the bar it's the same old mass-produced alcohols, same pre-fab (cocktail) mixers, and canned juices," says bartender Scott Beattie (pictured), a staunch supporter of the latest passion in the spirits world: organic ingredients. The goal is to teach a public that is boffo for all things organic to extend that mentality to their highball glasses.
"People don't settle for mediocre food or wine anymore," he says. "Why settle for mediocre cocktails?"
Beattie tends bar for the Healdsburg, California restaurant Cyrus, where his commitment includes efforts like procuring ice made only from the soft, calcium-rich water filtered through Kentucky's limestone soils for his bourbon on the rocks. A Beattie "Clermont Manhattan" is built with bourbon infused with vanilla beans and hand-zested lemon peels, and with Amarena cherries, the exquisite, tart fruit grown around Bologna and Modena, Italy. Don't even mention Maraschinos to Beattie.
At Prana, a new Indian fusion restaurant in San Francisco, bartender Alison Harper is working her own artisanal alchemy, making original concoctions with all manner of seasonal organic fruit and herb purées. Standards include her Bloody Krishna: a mix of chili, cilantro and curry leaf-infused vodka, Bolt House farms vegetable juice, a touch of lime, fresh horseradish and toasted cumin; and the English Rose, comprised of muddled English cucumber, Hendricks gin, rose essence, fresh mint and a splash of Pimms.
"You don't have to abandon healthful just because you're going out nightclubbing," Harper jokes.
Distilleries and others in the cocktail-industrial complex are also paying attention. Square One Organic Spirits is the producer of an organically grown and fermented rye vodka, and Modmix recently launched a line of organic cocktail mixers in flavor combos such as citrus Margarita, lavender lemon drop and pomegranate cosmopolitan.
But is all of this interest in the organic really about health to the average consumer? Harper says it's simpler than that.
"What it all comes down to is that cocktails made with good organic ingredients just taste better."