If there’s one lesson that the cocktail revival has taught us, it’s that every detail of a drink matters. Part and parcel to this way of thinking has always been the importance of ingredients as seemingly insignificant as water—whether it be in the reverence of clear ice, or the immutable dictums of how long to stir or shake a cocktail to achieve proper dilution. Now, bartenders have turned their attention to a different sort of dilutant: mineral water.
Without seltzer’s rise to prominence (looking at you, LaCroix) we might not be having this conversation. While mineral water has been a European staple for centuries, the majority of Americans have only recently caught on to what the category has to offer after riding the wave of the seltzer boom. With bartenders now well-versed in the world of seltzers, mineral water has positioned itself as the sensible progression for the cocktail-savvy looking to augment their highballs and prediluted cocktails with a terroir-driven ingredient. Mineral water’s subtle salinity and distinctive characteristics offer endless applications in drinks of all stripes.
“I love experimenting with different sparkling mineral water in my cocktails,” says Bruce Govia, assistant general manager at Little Bat Bar in London. “Compared to soda water, it can really elevate a drink in so many ways. The various salts and minerals really allow flavors to explode, and even add texture and body to a drink.” Soda water, by comparison, is devoid of the natural mineral content that makes its counterparts so dynamic. While some brands supplement their products with salts, powdered acids and bicarbonate of soda for subtle flavoring, there is no replacing the unique character of a mineral water.
As with any spirit, each expression of mineral water adds something different to the cocktail, whether in texture or flavor. After all, any given mountain range or valley has its own soil and specific mineral content that impacts a water’s flavor and mouthfeel. Water, just like wine, has terroir—that is hardly a new notion. In fact, one reason Kentucky’s limestone-rich soil is prized by bourbon enthusiasts and brands alike is the subtle, site-specific mineral character it adds to the whiskey by way of water. But, increasingly, bartenders have been going straight to the source to add nuanced mineral character to cocktails.
Two of Govia’s favorite mineral waters to use in cocktails, the Welsh Tŷ Nant and Spanish Vichy Catalan, bring unique characteristics to the backbar. The latter has a total dissolved solids (TDS) count of 2,900 milligrams per liter—an exceptional amount of minerals—while the former is subtler with 165 mg/L. “[Y]ou can have lots of fun playing around with different brands, but you have to be careful as some can overpower delicate ingredients in a cocktail,” says Govia. Low-TDS waters can have a slight tannic effect, while high-TDS waters taste viscous and sometimes even milky, depending on the source.
At Wildcrafters, a booze-free bar in Jacksonville, Florida, lead bartender Kelley Fitzsimonds strengthens the argument for mineral water’s role in drinks by pointing out that the carbonation paired with the lift in flavor due to the mineral content makes a world of difference in richer, nonalcoholic drinks. “At Wildcrafters … we make a lot of drinks with coconut cream and gomme syrups, so the consistent aggressive bubbles of Topo Chico [a brand of mineral water with a TDS of 630 mg/L] is what gives our cocktails the structure they need to work.” Just as a dash of salt can bring a Margarita to life, a ripping mineral water can invigorate and add depth to any fizzy drink.
To assert complete control of the flavor profile of the mineral water, some bartenders have even taken to crafting their own. While this undercuts the notion of terroir, it’s a practice that a handful of bartenders have experimented with as they look to better understand the influence of certain minerals in a cocktail’s flavor profile. “My current favorite is based on the mineral breakdown of Topo Chico,” says Jennifer Colliau, a bar consultant and former bar owner, of her house mineral water that features calcium, chloride, magnesium, sodium, potassium and sulfate, “but I add nearly twice the amount of minerals.” Colliau enjoys her custom mineral water in simple Japanese-style highballs, which benefit from the mineral boost, or any drink built around agave spirits or grapefruit, like a Paloma.
While carbonated mineral water is the most common form applied to cocktails, nonsparkling iterations make appearances, too. “We use flat Vichy Catalan in one particular drink—our ‘Clean Dirty Martini,’” says Jake F. Burger, co-owner of and bartender at The Distillery in London. In this clever Martini riff, Burger batches a mixture of Portobello Road Savoury Gin, green Gordal olive distillate (crafted in-house), Carpano dry vermouth and flat Vichy Catalan. The mixture is then bottled and stored in the freezer until ready to serve. While there are a number of high mineral content still waters that Burger considered for this application, they all lack one specific element that flat mineral water offers: carbonic acid. He believes that carbonic acid—the compound responsible for carbonation’s zippy flavor, caused by CO2 dissolved in water—is the main reason flat mineral water tastes and feels different from naturally still water.
Mineral water has yet to blossom in the way that seltzer has, but for many bartenders, its arrival is long overdue. “If you think water is just ‘boring’ as I hear all the time, I implore you to do some research and start tasting,” says Govia. “It will blow your mind.”