April 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Eau spéciale

By Richard Cooke
Fancy bottled water is sometimes worth the price

Cape Grim is not the most outlandish gourmet bottled water in the world. The claim that its Tasmanian rainwater is so pure that “even the ice you put in it will pollute it” seems restrained compared to those of some of its competitors. It isn’t like MaHaLo Hawaii Deep Sea Water, piped from a freshwater aquifer almost a kilometre under the ocean, or VEEN, which taps sources in Lapland and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Even these are pedestrian next to GLACE Rare Iceberg Water, harvested from 10,000-year-old icebergs in a Greenlandic fjord. GLACE (gourmet-water makers seem to disdain lowercase lettering) is then bottled in a “unique glass carafe”, because “something so dangerous to capture, so rare and so pure, must be presented with the reverence it deserves. It must be worthy of the battle it takes to acquire it.”

But harvested rainwater is rare, even in a place where it drizzles 187 days a year, and Cape Grim consistently rates among the world’s most expensive bottled waters. In an Australian restaurant, 750 millilitres can cost $16. “Everyone’s claiming to have the purest water in the world,” says Mike Buckby, head of Cape Grim’s production. A fourth-generation farmer from the far north-western tip of Tasmania, he now farms rainwater, checking the collection facility every two or three days. He is reluctant to enter a purity arms race.

“It’s a silly game to play. A good question to ask these companies is, can you defend your brand? Can you provide the data about what you collect off a glacier, what you take from your mountain spring in Upper Mongolia? Where’s the independent laboratory analysis? And we can do that.”

The Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, run by the CSIRO, shows the area has the cleanest air on earth.

That same clean air is also invoked by two other Tasmanian gourmet-water brands: Tasmanian Rain and Cloud Juice, the latter of which is collected and bottled on King Island. Cloud Juice was featured on Claridge’s first water menu, launched by the famous London hotel in 2007. The menu offered 32 of the world’s “finest waters”, which were detailed in tasting notes such as “light and not aggressive, it is suitable for all ages”. Notably shunned was Bling H2O. At $85 for a bottle studded with Swarovski crystals, it was (for a time) the preferred libation of Paris Hilton’s dog.

In 2003, the Penn & Teller television series Bullshit! featured a water sommelier as a joke: “Instead of a wine steward, we created the world’s first water steward. We printed our own elegant water menus with phony imported waters.” The waters cost as much as $7 per bottle. Po-faced diners then rhapsodised about the complexities of each eau spéciale – all of them were, of course, tap water. It was a good joke, but tardy: the first real water steward was Filip Wretman, who had started worked at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York two years earlier.

The Ritz-Carlton no longer has a water menu, and before it wrapped up Wretman admitted that he hadn’t in fact known very much about water (“not much more than anyone else”) when he debuted his job. The Ritz-Carlton water menu failed as dining experiment, but it did successfully launch a micro-genre of journalism, where baffled newsmen query their way through water tastings, make fun of pretentious Europeans, and then say that water tastes like water. (“Let’s face it. This is just a glass of water”, Daily Mail, 26 November 2007.)

Claridge’s water menu didn’t last long, either – it was abandoned as part of a drive to become “more environmentally conscientious”. So too the water menu at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney, which evaporated shortly after its launch in 2008. More than one marketing book has suggested that water menus might have been useful chiefly as a discreet, luxury-enhancing publicity stunt. As a source of media, however, gourmet water remains a bottomless well: this year a restaurant in LA that offers $50-per-person tastings has made worldwide headlines.

Soon, those at a tasting could sip from the world’s first drinking glass dedicated to fine water. It’s offered by finewaters.com, a site that rates the world’s best bottled waters, educating water drinkers and the water curious alike. The Premium FINEWATERS Water Glass (there are those capital letters again) is “a tall and iconic, hand-blown, high-end, lead-free crystal glass of proud proportions standing 240mm (9.5”) tall with straight cup. The straight lines of the glass communicate to the world and your waiter that this is not a wine glass.”

In the bar of the InterContinental Hotel in Sydney’s Double Bay (Cape Grim is not available in mere shops), I have to make do with an ordinary curved wine glass, the kind that, for a water connoisseur, can create a communication breakdown with both waiter and world. In front of me is a receptacle shaped like a wine bottle, containing a colourless liquid collected on a day when the air contained less than 600 particles per cubic centimetre. I refuse the pollutant known as ice, and, unsure whether to sniff first or not, take in a small mouthful. To my surprise (and journalistic dismay), it tastes good, very good. A little floral, and sweet. The bill comes to $10 for the bottle, a sum that, for a taste of almost heartbreaking purity in a world filled with outrages, feels disappointingly congruent.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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