Growing up in North Carolina, I never thought much about what water tastes like—unless it was coming out of a hot hose or I accidentally took a gulp of pool water, water was just water. But then we’d go visit my family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I would really notice the taste of the water, and not in a good way. To me, the water tasted sulfuric and funky, while to my mom, who grew up drinking this water, it tasted wonderful. She’d always exclaim that this was the finest artesian water when we kids would complain about it.
As an adult, I’ve actually developed a taste for Baton Rouge water, although whenever I visit Louisiana it still takes me a while to adjust from my neutral-tasting (to me) tap water in New York City, where I’ve lived for most of the past 25 years. If water is just water, how is it that water from different sources can taste so different? What about well, spring, distilled and alkaline waters? What gives them their distinctive tastes?
For a deep dive into the world of water, I spoke to expert Martin Riese, a clean water access advocate and water sommelier, about how water gets its flavor and how you can drink the best-tasting water for your preferences.
Understanding Different Types of Water
To get to the bottom of water flavors, you need a basic understanding of different water sources. Here are the main types of drinking water you may encounter and the factors that affect the flavor for each one.
Municipal Tap Water
If the water that comes out of your tap is supplied by your city or municipality, it may come from a lake, reservoir, river or groundwater. Whatever the source, naturally occurring minerals in the water contribute to its taste and mouthfeel (yes, just like wine), which is why tap water tastes so vastly different depending on the source of the water.
U.S. tap water contains calcium, magnesium and sodium, along with other minerals and trace elements, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central. Along with the various minerals, one of the most prominent flavors you are likely to taste in tap water is the chlorine that’s added to make it safe to drink. Riese notes that some tap water can “taste and smell like a pool” if it has a lot of chlorine added. Residue from your pipes can also affect the quality and flavor of your water.
If you don’t get water from your municipality, you might get your tap water from a well that draws from the groundwater or aquifers. As with municipal tap water, this water can contain different minerals that will affect its flavor and hardness, but it isn’t treated with chlorine or in any other way unless you use a home treatment or filtration system. The flavor of well water can vary vastly—some people may complain about various flavors and aromas, including a taste of rotten eggs (sulfur), a moldy, musty or earthy flavor and fishy notes. Riese advises that it’s important to have well water regularly lab tested to be sure there are no contaminants, including those that you can’t taste.
Mineral water comes from an underground source and, in the United States, to qualify as mineral water, it must contain at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids, according to the Food and Drug Administration. And it must contain those solids—minerals and trace elements—from the get-go; they can’t be added.
Waters have a terroir, a natural environment where they’re produced, and that’s where things can get interesting in terms of flavor. Riese explains that mineral water can take 2,000 years to pass through different stone layers, where it can pick up all sorts of different minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, with different flavors.
As a water sommelier, Riese notes how different mineral and spring waters can be paired with different foods. “It will change the flavor of different foods when you have just the right water next to it,” he says. “It’s fascinating. It’s so cool.” Personal flavor preferences play a large role when it comes to which water brands you might like. Water’s perceived taste is affected by the circumstances under which you’re drinking it, as well, says Riese. You might find a bottle of water on vacation that hits the spot just right, while the same brand back home on a rainy day after you just got dumped is the worst you’ve ever tasted. “The taste of something, is this feeling, and where we are,” says Riese. “Flavor is so much more than just the taste of a beverage.”
Spring water must come from an underground source that flows naturally to the surface, but it can be tapped below ground or collected from where it rises to the surface, per FDA guidelines. Although spring water will contain some minerals, there aren’t minimum content guidelines as there are with mineral water. Still, spring waters vary in taste and can be paired with foods and tasted for pleasure, just like mineral waters.
Purified Bottled Water
Along with the mineral and spring waters in the grocery store water aisle, you’ll also find purified bottled water. This is municipal water that’s been filtered. Minerals are then sometimes added to enhance the flavor and perceived healthfulness. While these bottled waters may have added minerals, they typically contain far less than natural mineral water, notes Riese.
Distilled water has been boiled into steam, allowed to condense and then collected. The process strips out contaminants but also beneficial minerals. While you technically can drink distilled water, and it’s safe to do so, it will likely taste rather flat to you. Better to save that distilled water for your neti pot or your clothes iron.
Alkaline water is water that has a higher pH level than typical water—in other words, it is less acidic. While a host of health benefits—including curing stomach woes, fighting cancer and heart disease and “detoxifying” the body—have been attributed to alkaline water, there isn’t strong clinical data backing up these claims.
As for taste, some people think alkaline water has a smoother taste than regular water, while others can find it to have a bitter flavor. Whether you like the taste of alkaline water depends both on your personal preferences and the specific water, since some alkaline waters also have various minerals added.
Does Filtering Water Improve the Flavor?
The good news is that filtering the water that comes out of your tap can really improve the flavor. Riese says pitcher filters, tap filters, under-sink filters and whole-home filtration systems can all make your water taste better by removing chlorine, lead and other compounds that affect the flavor. Riese recommends filtered tap water for most of your water needs, including everyday drinking and making coffee and other beverages. He has a house filtration system and brings a pitcher filter with him when he’s on the go. And when it comes to everyday drinking water, filtered tap is his top choice.
Are There Flavors in Your Water You Should Be Worried About?
If you notice a sudden shift in the way your tap water tastes, it’s worth looking into. But, be aware that many contaminants in water are not things you can taste. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of any water quality alerts in your area. If you have a well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing the water every spring. Additionally, the water should be tested if you replace or repair any part of the well system.
Water can taste different depending on its source. If simple hydration is what you’re looking for, Riese recommends filtered tap water for the best taste. If you want to have a water experience and you don’t mind spending some money, try different types of mineral and spring water.