Sparkling water is the new Coke. In 2016, bottled water is set to overtake syrupy soda pop in U.S. sales for the first time. And while Portlanders who drink still water out of anything but the tap should be shunned, sparkling water is not only flavorful and refreshing, but natural mineral versions have theoretical healing powers for the gullible.
The wildly popular La Croix is just the gateway drug, as it turns out—there are better sparkling waters, and a wide difference between them. A team of five staffers tasted 19 sparklers, all the carbonated water available at World Foods, New Seasons, Tienda el Campesino and multiple co-ops. Here are the results—from the best to the very surprising worst.
Score: 87 points
Jarritos, man. The Mexican company's Toronja is a better Squirt, and its Mineragua club soda—essentially seltzer with minerals like sodium salts added—is bright, refreshing and balanced enough to knock out all of the natural mineral waters. Tasters praised its clean, consistent effervescence. It's also got more sodium than many of the waters we tried. What can we say? Turns out salt is delicious. Mineragua is not in many grocery stores, but you can usually pick it up at any taqueria that also sells Jarritos soda.
Tasting notes: "Little bubbles dancing on your tongue." "Flossy." "Fresh, light minerality." "Super-bright effervescence, minimal aftertaste. Nice."
Voss water—an imposing column of Norwegian mineral water called "bullshit" by renowned and highly respected online food-criticism source Vice—looks ridiculous and costs twice as much as water should. A documentary in its home country alleges Voss fills its bottles from local tap water—a claim the company CEO has vociferously denied from behind expensive spectacles, declaring it came from a southern Norwegian aquifer "free of contact with the air or other pollutants." Well, you know what? It's fucking delicious. Elle magazine and all those throwback club-bros with popped collars were totally right about it, and you were wrong and so was Vice. Sorry, America.
Tasting notes: "Light and bright, like a mountain spring—super-clean." "Dry and steely in a good way." "Nice alkalinity. Refreshing."
We tasted the original yuppie water twice in the blind test—as a control to see if we were just making things up. It scored about the same both times—80 the first time, 83.8 the second. It was also the only water any taster identified by name from a blind tasting. A natural mineral water bottled from an artesian spring in Vergèze, France, Perrier has large, satisfying bubbles and a pleasing minerality. It's also owned by Nestlé, which means it's inherently evil and probably causes its drinkers to become evil over time.
Tasting notes: "Fizz magic!" "This one is upgraded. Better bubbles." "Like a massage inside my mouth."
Smeraldina is bottled from an artesian spring that emerges on the isle of Sardinia, where the inhabitants live to be, like, a hundred something. "This is not by chance," says Smeraldina's ad copy, which seems to imply that this water preserves you in amber made of gold. Either way, the water's natural granite filtering makes it taste distinctively mineral while remaining gentle, with a bit of natural salt to keep it lively. It is the finest of the Italian waters.
Tasting notes: "This is what clouds feel like when they're excited." "Mild, nice, delicious." "A little salty."
5. Natural Directions
As a name, Natural Directions sounds like either a pyramid vitamin scheme or a hospice that doesn't believe in painkillers—and as a label, it looks like a generic club soda for vegans. But it's spring water from the Apennines in Italy, full of mineral flavors and quite lovely.
Tasting notes: "Some light minerality with medium bubbles that linger." "Dry, gently mineral with a smooth finish. Very pleasant."
Radenska comes from Slovenia, in a part of the world where mineral water is as prized as vodka—and every bit the source of national pride. Well, suck it, Georgia and Russia. Slovenia kicked your butt with a clean brightness one taster described as "steely." Its logo is three red hearts, meant to symbolize the health properties of minerals.
Tasting notes: "Cold, hard steel." "A little sterile, but overall pleasant." "Bright, refreshing, nice."
7. Vichy Catalan
Spain's Vichy Catalan comes from a mineral spring that's served as health spa to Moors, Spaniards and Romans since ancient times—and the mineral content is pretty much off the charts. This proved divisive, with some loving the intensity of flavor, and others making faces.
Tasting notes: "This is some health-spa shit." "Full of flavors. Minerals galore!" "Crazy sweet and salty and vivid."
8. Topo Chico
Mexico's most famous mineral water—sourced and bottled in Monterrey for 120 years, and the drink of choice for Texans everywhere—scored pretty high. But as with Vichy Catalan, the intensity of both minerals and carbonation proved polarizing. Topo Chico doesn't just refresh; it damn well lets you know it's there.
Tasting notes: "Pop Rock and volcanic!" "Very active volcano water." "Tastes like a wrung-out sponge."
9. Crystal Geyser
The sparkling version of Mt. Shasta spring water—as local as it got in this tasting—just barely edged into the top half of the voting, providing a bit of aesthetic validation to every company picnic in Oregon. But it merely managed inoffensiveness.
Tasting notes: "Big, flabby bubbles. A little saline." "Fine. It doesn't make me smile." "Hollow. Missing something."
The still version of Lurisia mineral water—from the Piemont region of Italy—wins awards for its cleanliness, neutrality and balance. The sparkling version, on the other hand, was a bit gentle for some palates—and some detected a lot of sweetness.
Tasting notes: "Flat and soft." "Like lightly sugared granite." "Very sweet."
This might as well be the national mineral water of the country of Georgia, harvested from its namesake river's gorge—as salty and sour and intense as the nation itself. It proved divisive.
Tasting notes: "Dry, chalky—weirdly and interestingly subtle." "Round and dry; extremely interesting." "Salt water straight from the ocean." "Fucking SpongeBob soap. Gross."
12. Field Day
Field Day is like the Maggi of non-GMO, organic, hippie-mart fare—the only sparkling water stocked by People's Food Co-op. The blue-plastic-bottled, "triple-filtered" sparkling water, harvested from "the Apennines of Italy," was…not great.
Tasting notes: "Like sweet chlorine." "Tastes artificially filtered. Gross." "La Croix?"
13. Mountain Valley
Mountain Valley spring water—an ancient brand that began bottling in 1871—is like a lot of things from Arkansas. Which is to say, there's not much to it.
Tasting notes: "Light…airy…whatever." "No mineral content. Tastes like carbonated Bull Run water. "Blah."
The essence of Russian Narzan, according to its website: "It takes future Narzan 6 years to travel from the glassier to the spring and in this journey Narzan is acquiring its highly valued properties." Aside from one taster, who found it "intriguing," we didn't value its properties.
Tasting notes: "Is there sand in this? It tastes grainy." "Warm riciness—like spoiled sake." "Like where the river meets the sea. Plus fish."
Gerolsteiner will pump you the fuck up. The only German entrant, it had carbonation and mineral levels that were the equivalent of a full chemical peel—almost everybody seemed to be tasting something different, perhaps because our taste buds were pressure-washed clean away.
Tasting notes: "A weird off-flavor upfront—almost good, but gross." "Explosive fizz, like Coke and Mentos." "Aluminum foil." "It stings."
16. La Croix
There was a weird gender gap in opinions on the favored flavor water of many WW staffers. The two women in the tasting liked the unflavored version, while the three men disliked it almost aggressively. But all agreed it tasted like tap water.
Tasting notes: "Chemical." "Crisp, refreshing—like tap water with little bubbles." "Oddly chemical, like treated water." "A light garbage-water flavor."
Had we done research before drinking, we would have discovered that the FDA warned against drinking Armenian-sourced Jermuk in 2007. Because of arsenic. We're like Madame Bovary up in this piece.
Tasting notes: "Hard to get down. Punchy, spicy, aggressive, harsh." "Swampy." "Like piranhas in your mouth."
Cadia, labeled as a natural Italian spring water, is a generic, non-GMO, do-gooder food brand. But it was way worse than Field Day.
Tasting notes: "Hose water. Like a carbonated puddle." "Mildewy.'
19. San Pellegrino
A week before this tasting, a friend asked, out of the blue, "Hey, did you notice San Pellegrino has gotten really terrible lately?" Belatedly, we will answer yes. The terrible performance of San Pellegrino surprised us—but it was also unanimous. Despite coming in a glass bottle, it tasted like a plastic one.
Tasting notes: "Big toilet, plastic-bottle shit." "Rusty toilet seat." "Tastes like the bottle."