by Ketti Wilhelm
On a recent Sunday afternoon, on the waterfront in Wellington, New Zealand, an unusually large crowd gathered before a repurposed shipping container with a neat, black-and-white sign that read, “The Water Bar.” The bar was part of an exhibit of art installations inside cargo-shipping containers at the downtown harbor, called The Performance Arcade. Several attractive and busy-looking young people were handing little samples across a bar in shot glasses, tiny cups, and miniature porcelain spoons. The smiling crowd grew steadily in size and apparent interest. They were slurping saltwater slushies out of the spoons, sipping spring waters from the shot glasses, swirling and sniffing small tumblers, including one containing distilled water over a smoke-flavored ice cube. “The only thing missing to make it a legitimate water bar,” Kane Laing, the bar’s creator said, “is people paying for it.”
Laing wanted to create a project that poked fun at the spendy, gourmet, “connoisseur culture” he spent his college years immersed in. The twenty-three-year-old art school graduate drinks his “long blacks” (that’s New Zealand for “Americanos”), and the V60 is his preferred at-home coffee filtering method. He has attempted roasting coffee beans at home, in a popcorn maker. “I love this sort of stuff,” he said, referring to gourmet beverage stuff. “But I hate how these sort of things can be extremely exclusive. But that’s what I’m aiming to bridge with my projects.”
After performing his interactive installation at several local expos, Laing booked The Water Bar for a friend’s wedding, where he said his new “water mojito” was a hit. “There’s a sincerity on one side and also a total ironic side,” Laing said. “I want them to be both there at the same time.” Laing is clearly passionate about water as a beverage, just like coffee, beer, or wine. But he is also concerned about the pollution of local rivers and famously pure springs in his native country, and wants to raise awareness of it. “Art can give people an education in a way that’s not so linear or direct,” he said. “You can open people up to things.”
One of the waters on the menu is “100% Pure Manawatu River Water,” which has been “filtered, purified and sterilized for your drinking enjoyment.” It continued:
“The Manawatu River is … one of the most polluted rivers in the southern hemisphere. The main impacts are diffuse nutrient pollution from intensive farming and sedimentation. The dire condition of our lowland streams is directly related to the intensity of farming within their catchments and the vegetation clearance in steep country.”
The description of its taste reads, “River stones, algae and waterlogged wood are the main components of this muddy tasting water… A classic NZ river flavour, with a sad story behind it.”
Serving free gourmet water from behind a bar while wearing horn-rimmed Ray Bans, Laing looked, at first blush, sufficiently pretentious. But in conversation, he seemed nearly contrite for the seeming ridiculousness of his project. “I thought it would be sort of hilarious,” Laing said, of his original idea. “Before I realized it was a real thing.”
Even in the years before Laing’s idea was fermenting, restaurants and real water bars began serving selections of gourmet waters. One water bar, called Via Genova, opened in Chappaqua, New York in 2006, but has since closed. A few restaurants currently offer water menus in LA; one of the first was Ray’s & Stark Bar, a swanky restaurant in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They offer twenty-one different spring waters, ranging from four to twenty dollars a bottle, including Antipodes, an acclaimed New Zealand spring water, for $12 a liter, and Beverly Hills 90H2O, for $4 for a half liter. The man who designed this menu was Martin Riese, a German-born LA transplant who claims he is the only water sommelier in the U.S. (out of about a hundred worldwide). His gives lots of specific-but-vague advice that’s hard to put to use, such as: “Low mineral water with a smooth mouth feel pairs perfectly to salads.”
Riese helped design Beverly Hills 90H20, “the first crafted water,” with specially engineered levels of calcium, potassium, and silica. You can buy in a bottle with a diamond-encrusted lid for $100,000. The price tag includes delivery to any location in the world, and a private tasting with Riese himself. Riese appears in a GQ “Most Expensivest Shit” video with 2Chainz and Diplo, letting the rapper and DJ sample the diamond-bottled stuff, which you can also buy a case of in plastic bottles for $3 each.
It’s disconcertingly easy to get sucked in to the world of water — how the ground a particular spring water comes from affects the mineral content and thus the taste, just as the soil grapes are grown in affect the taste of a wine. Sommeliers of both beverages use the same term for this: “terroir.” Riese said he designed his water menu with the idea that people needed more choice in their water. It should be like wine, he said.
Mark Smith, owner of aquadeli, a “concept store for water” that sells New Zealanders bottled waters from eight countries, echoed that sentiment with a simple explanation. “People will always drink cheap wine, beer, and instant coffee,” he said in an email, “but a minority will appreciate the pleasures of quality products, including water.” But the quality Smith is talking about seems to have more to do with taste, and perhaps the thrill of savoring something unusual, than with an occasional diamond lid or other flash.” Most commercially bottled waters now come from a limited range of sources, all very similar in mineral make up,” Smith said, “Hence the common misconception all waters taste the same.”
Those commercially purified tap waters, like Dasani and Aquafina, have been stripped of all natural minerals to standardize their taste, which makes them of no interest to Riese or the customers of aquadeli. They have no unique flavor, none of their original nutrients, and no sense of origin — no terroir. As Riese and Smith were quick to point out, mineral waters and spring waters are of far more interest in Europe. Only about one percent of the bottled water in the U.S. is imported. In 2014, sixty-three percent of the bottled water we bought was the boring, purified kind, according to Gary Hemphill at the Beverage Marketing Corporation. “Most (American) consumers don’t seem to rank water source high in importance in their buying decision,” Hemphill said in an email.
Laing serves filtered spring waters, purified waters, and local mineral spring waters. He’s also added flavored waters for entertainment value. One was a home-made sports drink for the kids. Another was a “sea-water granita,” which the menu says was “the cleanest and most mellow water” he found, “after sampling an assortment of sea waters around the lower North Island.” He also gave out a version of thickened water, which normally is for people who have medical problems causing difficulty swallowing.
His idea for The Water Bar was born of “a semi-drunken conversation about hipster culture” in art school, while Riese’s is a passion steeped in pedigree and luxury, but they do share an earnest appreciation for their subject. “The problem these days, is that a lot of people have forgotten the importance of water.” Riese said in an email. “I give water the value back it deserves, and when people see water has value, they might stop wasting it.”
Laing is interested in the science of filtration and in developing cheap, accessible, emergency water filters for use in the aftermath of earthquakes, of which New Zealand has many. He likes his art and his water best when they are of the people, just like his personal favorite type of water: Rain. He also spoke highly of Antipodes, whose water is shipped all over the world in recycled glass bottles (the company says it is certified carbon-neutral to any shipping destination). Riese said in an email he likes the spring water’s “extremely refreshing taste.” He explained, “Even when Antipodes is warm and not chilled, it feels in your mouth (as if it were) chilled,” Riese explained. “So much fun.”
I asked a representative from Antipodes Water named Morven McAuley what he thought about Laing’s tongue-in-cheek project. He wrote, “I understand that (…) there was some satire involved, but anyone else who is prepared to make people think twice about water is a bit of hero in my opinion.” It occurred to Laing while he was developing The Water Bar that “There’s actually more potential to this than just a joke,” he said. “But it’s also a joke.”