Last month, gayot.com -- a website devoted to the finer things in life -- released its list of the world's best bottled waters. The run-down mentioned many of the usual suspects, such as Evian, Fiji and Perrier. Gayot's list also included Tasmanian Rain, an Australian export that comes in glass bottles and contains just what it says: water harvested from Tasmanian storm clouds.
Which leads us to our first question; would sipping on Tasmanian Rain take you back to your youth, back to a time when you'd happily head outside during a downpour to catch droplets of rain in your mouth?
"I grew up during the big acid-rain panic of the late '80s and early '90s, so catching raindrops on my tongue as a kid never really sounded like a great idea," says James Hope Howard, an Uptown magazine columnist who also pens a 'Peg-centric blog called Slurpees and Murder.
Glad we asked.
Two summers ago, Howard participated in a Free Press taste test of Slurpee-style beverages. Since there are now an estimated 3,000 types of commercially produced waters on the market, we thought it was time to invite Howard back, this time to sample H20.
But because it's camping season, and because people are loading up on flats of water before they head to the beach, we decided to forgo the San Pellegrinos of the world, and focus our palates instead on economy brands -- the sort you get at Safeway and Sobeys. (We also didn't want to rack up a humungous water bill; a "two-four" of Tasmanian Rain costs $69, plus shipping.)
Joining Howard on the panel were Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson, the Free Press's wine expert, Jenna Khan, a weather guru who reports on water in its various forms for Citytv's Breakfast Television, and Craig Lawrence, a writer who used to edit a trade magazine for the bottled-water industry.
Free Press: For reference's sake, I suppose we should begin by asking each of you what sort of water you drink on a day-to-day basis.
Ben: At home I have a Brita that I use with tap water but when I'm at work I do the Corpells thing. I really like Evian, too, but it's so expensive that I can't justify paying ridiculous amounts.
James: I usually go straight tap water when I'm at my place. My family has a cottage near Winnipeg Beach that has an artesian well, which is a much heavier water. So I'm used to two different types.
Craig: At home I drink from the tap; at work - the big jugs.
Jenna: I also have a Brita that I use with tap water. I will say that Winnipeg's water does not taste as good as Steinbach's, where I grew up. I will forever be faithful to Steinbach tap water.
FP: OK, the first water we're going to try is 7-Select's Glacial Spring Water, from 7-Eleven. We got it on sale: two 500-millilitre bottles for $2.
Ben: I'm not sure why I'm smelling it; just habit I guess.
Jenna: It's refreshing...it's cold...it's glacial...
Craig: I'm actually surprised, but I can definitely taste something. I just don't know what it is.
Ben: I can, too. It sort of has a mineraly, chalky taste.
James: It's sort of hitting the same idea as citrus notes, but without any actual citrus. It's kind of dry, if that makes any sense: dry water.
Jenna: That's interesting but I see what you mean about it tasting dry; it almost feels like I need a glass of water after my glass of water.
FP: Next up is Canadian Tire's Ice River Springs; it was the cheapest of the bunch: 24 500-ml bottles for $2.99, or about 12 cents each.
Jenna: I've gotta say; I've never really associated Canadian Tire with water. Unless maybe I was there picking up a bunch of camping gear and thought, "Oh, I should get a case of water, too."
James: It has a bit of a bite, at the start.
Ben: It definitely doesn't have that dry taste, or whatever you want to call it, that the last one had.
Jenna: It almost smells chlorine-y; I almost feel like I jumped into a pool and swallowed a little bit of water.
James: I don't think people should spend their Canadian Tire money on water, I think I'll hold on to mine until I need a wrench or something.
FP: This one is from Tim Hortons; at $1.40 a bottle, it's the steepest-priced one you'll sample.
James: I especially like the big Tim Hortons label on the bottle because everybody knows when you go to Tims, you're going for the water.
Jenna: I feel like it tastes clean. That probably sounds weird because they're all obviously clean.
Ben: This one feels heavier to me. When we rate wines, we often talk about light-bodied wines versus medium-bodied or full-bodied ones. So to use that analogy, this would be a heavy or full-bodied water.
Craig: Heavy is a good word but you shouldn't have told us the price; we should have tried to figure out which one was the least or most expensive. But I can safely say this one isn't 10 or however many times better than the last one.
Jenna: I'm liking this expensive water; maybe it's because I have expensive tastes.
FP: We'll see if you like this one, then. It's Compliments Natural Spring Water from Sobeys; it worked out to about 15 cents a bottle.
Jenna: I feel silly saying this, but I feel like it has an aftertaste; almost metallic.
James: I agree; when I had my first big gulp it just kind of hit me: garden hose.
Free Press: Garden hose? Now that would be a good name for a bottled water...
Jenna: It would sell in the country where I grew up for sure.
Ben: In the big city, too. Like if you were you were living in a downtown condo or some place without a backyard. On Friday night after work you'd be on the balcony saying, "Remember when we used to drink out of the sprinkler?" And then you could reach for a bottle of Garden Hose...
FP: The next one is President's Choice Natural Spring Water. We got it at Superstore for $2.89 for 12 bottles.
Ben: This is getting more and more difficult; it's not like beer or wine. The differences are so subtle that now I'm starting to wonder if I'm fooling myself.
Craig: No, there is a difference with this one. There's something about it at the back of my throat; it's almost bitter.
Jenna: It's definitely less pronounced than the Sobeys.
Ben: Not to get too technical, but I think we might be smelling the duct tape (on the glasses with the panelists' names on it).
FP: This one's from Rexall. It's a little bit different in that it came in a 1.5-litre jug, for 69 cents.
James: I don't know if it's because of the bottle style, but there is a distinction. Maybe it's because the water had more room to spread out and didn't have to spend as much time in contact with the plastic.
Jenna: I feel like this almost tastes soft -- more like silky or something.
Ben: Silky is a great term; I use that a lot when tasting wine.
Craig: This one tastes like tap water to me.
Free Press: You raise an interesting point; when you were editing the trade magazine, didn't you hear that a lot of bottled water is indeed tap water?
Craig: That's a trade secret I was never privy to. I wasn't in that deep.
Jenna: If they told him, they would have had to kill him.
Free Press: OK -- how about another "myth" then. When you read on a bottle that something comes from a glacier, do you believe it?
James: I do. But the part I don't get is how they get the glacier slivers into these tiny bottles.
Jenna: I've gotta say; this Rexall is kind of winning me over with its silkiness. I might have to start shopping at Rexall.
FP: Our final contestant is from Safeway. It's called Refreshe, but I'm not 100 per cent sure how you pronounce that.
Ben: I drink their sparkling water and when my wife is going to the store, I'll say, 'Get me some Refresh-ee.' Not sure if that's what they had in mind or not.
Jenna: I feel like you almost have to whisper the name; refresh-sh-sh-sh...
James: It's got a tang, strangely enough.
Jenna: I feel that it has something there, too.
Free Press: Maybe you're tasting the extra E?
Ben: Yeah, maybe that's it.
FP: To end the evening, before you arrived, I made ice cubes out of each of the various waters, which I will now serve with scotch. Do you have a preference as to which one you want to try?
Jenna: I'll take the Refreshe
James: How often do I get to say this: I'd like a scotch and Tims.
Craig: The 7-Eleven one, please.
Ben: I'll try the Sobeys -- the garden hose one.
FP: Any thoughts on your picks?
Jenna: I can definitely say that scotch and Refreshe go really well together.
James: If the scotch can't overpower the Tim Hortons ice cubes, then I've got an entirely new set of problems.
Ben: The Sobeys and scotch is pretty good. But I think I'm going to need another, just to be sure.