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Can I see the water menu?

Jostling for space with wine lists abroad are chic water menus at restaurants and ‘water bars’

Fine waters have emerged as a beverage category.
Fine waters have emerged as a beverage category. (Istockphoto)

Could I tempt you with a bottle of our finest Chateldon 1650 to go with your seared foie gras-stuffed duck breast?” asks the sommelier. It’s July 2022 and I am having a solitary dinner at Bangkok’s Michelin-starred Water Library restaurant. The sommelier isn’t suggesting a tipple of sparkling wine; in fact, he isn’t even a sommelier in the true sense of the word. He is one of a relatively new breed of experts called water sommeliers who are attempting to change the way diners look at a glass of water.

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Admittedly, the trend has not caught on in India; in fact, we have just one water sommelier that we know of: Ganesh Iyer, managing partner (India and subcontinent) at the Finnish premium beverages company Veen, which has a range of bottled natural waters. Iyer, who currently shuffles between Bhutan (home to Veen’s factory) and India, has been certified as a water sommelier by the Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany, one of the few culinary institutes that provides this certification. “With the onset of fine waters as a beverage category, water sommeliers have become a necessity to differentiate between different types of waters,” he says. “Water as a beverage in general as well as in the hospitality context suffers from a paradox of being ubiquitous and experiential at the same time.”

Some Indian hotels did try out “vanilla” water menus, says Iyer. “Five-six hotels, back in early 2000-02 and again in 2008-10, attempted to get a whole set of water brands listed on their menu by merely mentioning brand names and their country of origin,” says Iyer. “They couldn’t delve deep into the characteristics of each of the waters and their mineral composition. It fizzled out because the listing had no tasting notes or USP of the water.”

Welcome to an era where you are expected to grapple with terms like zero nitrate, fruit-flavoured and 35 oxygen (implying that the water has 35 times more oxygen than regular water; in India, the reference point would be RO/boiled water). Oh, and for the curious, the Chateldon 1650 is regarded as the Rolls-Royce of sparkling water in France. It retails at around $10 (around 820) per 750ml bottle. London’s five-star luxury hotel Claridge’s, which introduced a water menu in 2007, today offers more than 39 mineral waters from around the world, from Hawaii, Japan, Argentina, New Zealand, Denmark and India. As it happens, the Just Born Baby Spring Drops water is said to come from a spring source deep in the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu. It’s not available in India, though.

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It’s not just the obvious markers, like brand name and price, that feature on such menus though. Any self-respecting water menu makes sure to annotate typically “wine-ish” markings like the country of origin, carbonation level, and, most importantly, TDS, considered the No.1 determinant of flavour, depending on the water’s terroir. For instance, the Spanish sparkling water Vichy Catalan is considered rich in minerals, while the Danish Iskilde is said to have exceptionally high amounts of oxygen.

Some menus—like the one at Taipei’s Paris 1930 at the Landis Taipei Hotel—also include details such as flavour and mouthfeel profile (sweet vs salty, smooth vs heavy, etc.), pH, and pairing recommendations. Curated by Taiwanese water sommeliers and distributors Yvonne Wu and Howard Hsia of Water Selection, a menu and sommelier consultation agency, the menu has 12 types of still water and 17 sparkling varieties.

Indian hospitality needs to play catch up, feels Iyer. “Frankly, they are leaving money on the table if they don’t leverage water—not just as a part of the dining experience but also as a critical revenue support to beverage sales,” he says.

In June, a water bar, AQUA Water Bar by LUQEL, opened in Dubai Media City. Billed as Dubai’s first gourmet water bar, with 30 types of water, it says it creates the blends by altering the ratios of the minerals and chemicals in it.

Besides distributing international brands, Wu and Hsia work with the Taipei-based Kai Ping culinary academy and train water sommeliers in a programme that has brought Germany’s Doemens Academy certification to Asia. Generally, certification is not mandatory; nor is there any universally recognised certification.

A few years ago, Ray’s and Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveiled its signature “water program”—an oddity at the time in that country. German water sommelier Martin Riese, who introduced a water menu in 2006 at the Palace Hotel in Berlin, had created the 45-page menu offering 20 waters from 10 countries, with everything from a Ty Nant, which comes in a cobalt blue bottle, to the Svalbarði Polar Iceberg Water, priced at an outrageous $150-per-750ml bottle at present. Today, I am told, they even offer a “water flight”, or a platter of samples, for $12 per person for those who wish to explore more waters in depth.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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