Testing the differences between bottled waters is much like discerning the subtleties of shades of grey: it's way more masochistic than sexy. But while the variation from one to another might not be as pronounced as those in the realms of mac and cheese or frozen pizza, distinct differences do exist.
As proof, every year a group of water professionals meet in Berkeley, CA to judge over 100 waters, and crown superlatives like best municipal water, which can be found in Emporia, Kansas. Don't move there yet, keep reading! Although we don't have access to any water sommeliers, we did have five friends who blindly tasted eight of the biggest bottled waters around: Aquafina, Evian, Mountain Valley, smartwater, Fiji, Dasani, Voss, and Pure Life. (Coca-Cola and pretzels were used to help dirty/clean the palates of the tasters.)
Read on to determine which waters you should use to wash down your food, and which waters you should wash your hands with.
The story: The folks at Glacéau have their heads in the clouds. Their vapor distilled water is pulled from the sky, then given electrolytes for taste. On the bottle they trash talk spring water by making fun of people who like the taste of stuff that comes from under the ground. Snarky!
Tasting notes: Tangy. Tart. Reminds us of water that went through a Brita multiple times.
Final score: 3.9
The story: Aquafina is purified water that goes through a 7-step HydRO-7 filtration process that they claim takes out way more solids than other filtrations, making for the purest water possible. Foreshadowing!
Tasting notes: Starts off good, but the aftertaste wasn't to our liking. It's a voluptuous water. Very full-bodied. The Cabernet of water. This tastes like American excess.
Final score: 4.4
The story: The soda titans over at Coca-Cola own this purified water imprint, which is remineralized with magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, and salt.
Tasting notes: It feels buoyant in your mouth, which our tasters didn't fully embrace. Very clean and fruity. Hints of unchanged Brita filter.
Final score: 5.1
The story: Evian is naive spelled backwards, but it's also the name of a town in the French Alps that was founded way before people learned about spelling things backwards to create secret messages. The company claims their water is a geological miracle because it passed through a few very scientifically unlikely permeable layers. Over the course of 15 years, rain and snow makes its way into an underground spring where the water is harvested already full of electrolytes and minerals.
Tasting notes: Whoa, that's a lot of minerals. The electrolytes levels are on overdrive. There is worry amongst the group about over-hydration. The texture is a little on the thin side. If this was a pair of jeans, it would be skinny, not apple-bottomed.
Final score: 5.6
4. Fiji Natural Artesian Water
The story: Tropical rainfall on the island of Viti Levu in Fiji is naturally filtered through volcanic rock where it picks up minerals and electrolytes, then wells up in an underground aquifer.
Tasting notes: It's got the most lab-created flavor, but by a meticulous scientist from an exotic land; not one of our sloppy, disheveled American brainiacs. There's no aftertaste or lingering mouthfeel. So many minerals it'd pair well with rocks.
Final Score: 6.4
3. Nestle Pure Life
The story: Nestle owns 64 different brands of water, from Perrier to Poland Spring, but we tested their most popular: Pure Life. It's classified as purified water, which means it comes from a well or municipal source and is then carbon filtered, softened, demineralized, re-mineralized, and disinfected with ultraviolet light and ozone.
Tasting notes: A clean taste, with no trace of minerals at all. Neutral in flavor. If you're a marathon runner, this would be a great choice. It quenches in a very direct and pleasing way.
Final score: 6.6
The story: Found in an artesian well in Norway and also in fancy hotel rooms, Voss ties Mountain Spring for the most expensive water on the list.
Tasting notes: This has a lot of character. It's expressive. Gravelly, but we liked it -- it's the Jack Palance of water. There's a roughness around the edges. It seems like there's a ton of minerals in there.
Final score: 6.8
1. Mountain Valley Spring Water
The story: This Arkansas-sourced spring water has been quenching thirsts since 1871 and has been a favorite of everyone from presidents like Coolidge and Eisenhower to Elvis Presley to Secretariat, who stands alone as both the first horse to take home a Triple Crown and first to have an opinion on water flavors. It takes 3,500 years for rain water to make it's way to the aquifer (geez, that rain water sure does take its time) and its naturally high pH supposedly works well to neutralize highly acidic food.
Tasting notes: Sweet flavors. Incredibly high drinkability. Rejuvenating. Buttermilk flavors, but not so sour. Tastes like it's been filtered through a geological treasure. Rich and luxurious mouthfeel.
Final score: 7.7
Although at first most of these just tasted "clean", by the end of the test, our tasters were able to clearly distinguish differences and develop actual opinions unfiltered by brand loyalty thanks to the transparency of the blind tasting.
It's perhaps proof of quality that the two most expensive waters (Mountain Valley and Voss) came out on top, but since the third place finisher was also the cheapest option (Pure Life), someone who knows about statistics might disagree.
And although not everyone had the same favorite, by the end, there was one thing each tester could agree on: they really needed to use the bathroom.