water sommelier
Image courtesy of Aaron Tilley

The water’s lovely: Inside the world of a water sommelier

Do you need a water sommelier in your entourage? Martin Riese, California’s finest, thinks so...

America’s O-1 visa for Extraordinary Ability is a permit for travel usually given to major league athletes, international rock stars or cancer-curing scientists: foreign nationals, in other words, with one-of-a-kind talents or skill sets.

Martin Riese, who moved to California from Germany in 2011, was granted it for tasting water. This tells you a great deal about California, but a lot more about Martin Riese — the world’s most successful water sommelier. A consultant, host and status symbol to the international beau monde, Riese has a palette that can detect a speck of magnesium at a hundred paces. He is to tap water as Jancis Robinson is to Romanée Conti. Forget Jesus — Riese is turning water into wine.

The German first noticed his uncanny talent at the age of five, when he began commenting to his bewildered parents about the various qualities of European tap waters whilst on holiday. Today, he is the water sommelier over at Petit Ermitage Hotel in West Hollywood and the creator of Beverly Hills 9OH2O — winner, unsurprisingly, of the World’s Best Water Award in 2013.

water sommelier

What was the first water you remember drinking that really blew you away?
I remember trying Cave H2O, a small water brand in the region of Weserbergland in Germany. Amazing water — almost fruity like gummy bears.

Is tasting water like tasting a fine wine?
Yes. We all know that wine has terroir, so you can taste the minerality and soils of the region where the grapes are growing. Water is 100% terroir driven. All water comes from the same source. It’s rain water that drips down onto different soils and will wash out the minerality of different stone layers. This minerality is measured by TDS (Total Dissolved Solids).

I taste water with wine glasses, which are designed to bring all the flavour out of a beverage. I don’t chill the waters and I open several bottles at once.

What are some of the common misconceptions in the world of water?
That water should be pure. I know tons of companies trying to sell the consumer the idea of purity, but really pure water does not exist. Water really likes to dissolve other substances inside itself. That’s because water molecules have strange Mickey Mouse shapes, with two hydrogen nuclei at one end and an oxygen nucleus at the other end, each with different electronic charges.

Water molecules use those charged hydrogen bonds to interact and cling to one another, but they also cling to any molecule that approaches them. That makes it likely that water will dissolve a bit of any object it encounters into itself. And the purer a sample of water gets, the more strongly it will try to dissolve ions from any object it encounters.

"I know tons of companies trying to sell the consumer the idea of purity, but really pure water does not exist."

Which locations have the best tap water in the world?
The more rain that falls in a country, the better the quality of its tap water. Countries in the northern hemisphere have better tap water than countries which are exposed to warm weather and less rain.

What are some of the most expensive, or rarest, waters in the world?
Svalbardi is clearly one of the rarest waters in the world. It’s 100% ice glacier water, it’s hard to harvest the icebergs before they dilute in the North Sea and they produce a very small amount of bottles per year. With a price tag of $150 per bottle in a restaurant it’s one of the rarest and most expensive waters I’ve ever tried. With its water, Svalbardi is proudly helping to keep the region of Svalbardi in Norway protected and the whole company is carbon neutral.

It’s actually an interesting topic anyhow. Bottled water is not just bottled water. There are tons of water companies out there who are protecting the nature where their source is located and promoting organisations to help people to gain access to clean and safe drinking water. I support VivaConAqua.org, a German-based organisation who do things a bit “out of the box” to help people around the world to gain access to water. Water is a human right and we need to do anything in our power to fight for that right.

Are there any brilliant waters that are often overlooked?
There are so many small little boutique waters out there, but they don’ t have the money to compete against larger, purified water brands. Aqui-Live from Australia, Iskilde from Denmark, Nevas Water from Germany, Tourmaline Springs from the United States and many, many more. They are all, in my opinion, superior to all purified water brands because they carry the taste profile of nature.

water sommelier

Which well known waters are overrated?
Everything that is labelled ‘purified water’. Smart Water is especially overrated — it’s just municipally sourced water from the United States. They even badmouth spring water on the US bottles, but then they use spring water in Germany as a base. What’s that all about?

What type of person comes to you for water consultation?
I’ve created water menus in many notable estates around the world. The best guests for me are the people who think that the water menu is a joke and are incredibly sceptical. I always invite them to a small water tasting and it’s fun to see how their own palate suddenly tells them that water has taste. It’s amazing to watch them change their minds.

What are some of the more outlandish requests you’re clients have had?
Ordering a bottle of Svalbardi for $150 and then asking for ice cubes and a lemon slice. When you pay so much money for a beautiful bottle of water, you want to enjoy its taste profile and not water it down with ice and overpower it with a lemon slice. But I am, first and foremost, in the hospitality industry. So when a guest asked me for this, I happily served it with no discussion, of course. In the end, the guest paid for the bottle and so he can decide to do whatever he desires with it.

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Further Reading