Ever wonder how a James Beard Award-winning sommelier might size up plain old bottled water? Well, we did.
Enter Belinda Chang: insanely accomplished wine pro, Chicagoland native, and all-around hilarious human. Belinda heads up the wine and spirits program at Maple & Ash, an upscale steakhouse smack in Chicago's chichi Gold Coast, and comes to the table (er, corner booth) with a boatload of experience, including stints as a wine director for the likes of Charlie Trotter and Danny Meyer (she nabbed a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service at The Modern). On a recent sunny afternoon, Belinda graciously allowed us to turn Maple & Ash's cocktail bar into a bottled-water research lab and, like a true champion, plowed through 9 different brands. Our somm evaluated each bottle in terms of flavor, aroma, texture, and finish and scored each out of 100 possible points, Wine Spectator-style.
"A good bottled water shouldn't have any off-putting aromas or flavors, that would be an automatic negative," the beverage master explains, taking our little experiment as seriously as humanly possible. "In wine, we always talk about terroir, and I think for water it's the same. You want it to speak of the place where it comes from. And, of course, you want it to be delicious."
So, which bottle dove gracefully into the glass and which belly flopped?
9. Propel, $1.49 per liter, 69/100
"The texture and flavor is a lot like Gatorade, but not masked with orange or blue raspberry."
8. Ice Mountain, $1.19 per 500ml, 81/100
"It's completely neutral in almost every way, which I think is a total positive. There's a slightly minerally, bitter aftertaste on this, oddly. It doesn't burn as clean as I thought it would. There's definitely a pipe-like flavor, but when you drink it cold you don't notice it at all. It's like how tannins can finish out your impression of a wine -- it coats the sides of your tongue, and not in a pleasant way. It's just fine."
There's definitely a pipe-like flavor, but when you drink it cold you don't notice it at all.
7. Aquafina, $1.50 per 500ml, 84/100
"It's actually pretty thirst-quenching -- it doesn't have those watery tannins that some of the other ones do. For an inexpensive water that you're just drinking because you're in the airport and you want to hydrate before you go on a flight, I think this is a good option."
6. Naleczowianka, $1 per 1.5 liters, 89/100
"This one definitely has a distinctive, stony smell and a really interesting palate feel, but not unpleasant. It coats your palate but with a soil character, if you will. There's a salt character -- I want it with a pierogi. I don't love this one, but I'm sure if you grew up drinking it, it would feel like home. It's like a wine that's not badly made, but just not to my taste. And it's not that thirst-quenching. It dries out the palate."
There's definitely some terroir in this sucker, like this would transport you back to the south of Italy.
5. Evian, $1.99 per liter, 90/100
"It's really clean on the nose, almost kind of chalky. It reminds me of Chablis a little bit, although I certainly don't think I'd get buzzed off of it. The water has a particular texture which I think is really interesting and it does have some flavor to it, so it's not just filtered out completely. I do taste the Alps -- I don't smell them, but I taste them. And I can definitely imagine myself apres-ski with a bottle of Evian."
4. Smeraldina, $1.79 per liter, 92/100
"This has that Evian-like chalky, stony thing, but like, on fleek. There's a lot of minerality and after you have a sip of it, it feels like there's this fine silt lying on your tongue. There's definitely some terroir in this sucker, like this would transport you back to the south of Italy. It's dusty, but not at all in a bad way, earthy like melted snow. This would be amazing with a great plate of spaghetti -- it's not thirst-quenching, but it stands up to food."
3. smartwater, $1.39 per 700ml, 93/100
"It actually does have a slightly metallic aroma, which I never noticed before, mostly because I've always chugged this the next morning when I'm hungover. There's a really interesting texture in the mid-palate which I presume is the electrolytes -- I just feel like I'm doing something good for my brain. After all the wine I drink on a daily basis, something to recover the brain cells is always a good thing. It's probably 1,000% the marketing, but it does taste different."
2. Fiji, $1.78 per 700ml, 98/100
"It's totally neutral on the nose, which I think is important. It's just fat -- I mean, if a water could be buttery without tasting like butter, Fiji water is buttery. It's viscous. There's something about the dissolved minerals in this water that make it really coat your palate. It's heavy water -- which is good, because if you want to drink a glass of water after a spectacular dish or, like, a great bite of a burger, you want something that cleanses, and this is it. I really love this water."
1. Roundy’s Purified Drinking Water, 99 cents per gallon, 99/100
"This is going to sound so weird, but it's a little sweet-smelling -- which I like! You know what? It's delicious. It has no pretension, it's incredibly thirst-quenching. It doesn't taste like anything, which is perfect. When you're drinking water you just want to be drinking water, and this is the most watery of all the waters. This is the Moet Imperial of bottled water -- it's simple, it's classic, and it does exactly what it's supposed to do. It delivers and that's my professional opinion."
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