Certified water sommelier in S’pore answers water-related questions you didn't know you had

All your burning questions about water, answered.

Lean Jinghui | March 19, 2022, 01:34 PM

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PERSPECTIVE: Why does water from different brands taste different, and is there one that reigns supreme? Should one order still or sparkling water at restaurants? How does NEWater taste to a professional? How exactly does one form an opinion on water?

We spoke to 31-year-old Sam Wu, who is a certified water sommelier in Singapore, to find out more. Here's what he shared. 

What is a water sommelier? What does it mean?

You could say I'm a professional or expert in water. Someone who's able to recommend the best water to suit a customer's needs and wants, and who has professional knowledge about the characteristics of water, like its taste and source (is it natural, or purified?).

I'd say it’s very much like being a wine sommelier.

Sam Wu, with a range of imported natural mineral waters.

So your full-time job is to taste different kinds of water every day?

My day-to-day actually comprises importing and selling water. The brands that we carry are usually more atas, smaller as they can't be found in the supermarkets, but very good brands.

I also carry out water tasting courses. It's generally a two to three-hour course, where I'll bring a person through about 30 different brands, and educate them on the different types of water. I'll also share about marketing gimmicks to look out for.

How did you get into this career? Did you always have an affinity for water?

It started during my studies in London, 10 years ago.

In London, every student starts off with tap water, because it is safe to drink. But the tap water there is much higher in minerals, and I was not used to it.

So that started everything because it got me thinking: "Why is the water [in London] like this?"

Then, I started buying mineral waters, and I wondered: "Why do some brands taste good, but not others?" I remember back then, some of my classmates would criticise me and accuse me of being posh.

When I returned to Singapore, I discovered the videos of Martin Riese, a famous water sommelier, and found myself agreeing with him — that there are taste differences in waters.

In 2018, I attended the Water Sommelier Course at the Doemens Academy in Germany out of curiosity, and that really changed my life and answered all my questions about water.

Everything made sense after that.

What training did you undergo?

The whole course was about two weeks long, and very intensive.

We did a lot of tastings. Because you need to understand why certain waters taste a certain way, and it all comes down to the minerals in the water.

The most basic is to differentiate between low and high mineral waters (i.e. the intensity of water).

After that, you dive into waters with specific mineral profiles, like calcium vs. sodium vs. magnesium. Then you start to identify how certain mineral combinations have a certain profile. For example, calcium sulfate would be bitter-dry.

You also get to explore waters of different carbonation intensities, and identify "off-flavors". For example, water that was left in a plastic bottle and placed out in the sun for a very long time. These usually have a "smell".

Do you need very sensitive taste buds to be a water sommelier?

No, the truth is I really don't have a godly tongue. Many people, I would say 90 per cent, can taste the difference for various water brands.

It's really about the knowledge and exposure that you get [to different types of water], rather than about the sensitivity of your taste buds.

Also, some people just don't care enough to perceive the differences. That’s okay, and that is acceptable.

Do you ever get sick of tasting water, or find yourself analysing every element of a leisurely drink of water?

I don't, because it's my passion and interest. Also because it's essential, whether you like it or not, you have to drink.

But, if I'm drinking water, then I want to drink something that is not only good for my health but tastes good.

You know that cliche phrase: Life is like a box of chocolates? Water is very much like that for me. I enjoy the thrill of exploring waters of different brands; the composition of every brand is unique, it is like a thumbprint.

That said, I don't usually consciously drink water and start breaking it down. I just enjoy it, unless there's something about the water that pops.

How exactly do you form an opinion on water?

The only make-or-break criteria I have is whether it is purified or natural.

I just feel that the human body needs minerals, and therefore you should drink water that contains natural minerals in it. Highly purified water is often mineral deficient, meaning almost zero.

For context, water can essentially be divided into two main categories: purified water and natural water. For purified water, we have different types — distilled water, desalinated water, reverse osmosis water (NEWater).

Natural water can include rain or natural mineral water, which just means water from a spring containing minerals.

Tap water is purified too, but usually contains water from a natural source, which is then cleaned, so it's considered as drinking water.

When it comes to describing the types of taste, it's really the same kind of words that we use to describe food.

So there’s sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, depending on the mineral and the intensity. Something like calcium, for example, will give a bitter, dry taste. Sodium would be salty.

How do you cleanse your palate between different waters? Do you use a "neutral" water to do so?

For water tastings, I'd suggest not taking anything strong prior, so no durian, chilli, etc.

You can cleanse your palette with a very low mineral water. But from my experience, because what you taste before has an impact on how you perceive the taste of the water that comes after, you don't really require a palate cleanser.

What kind of water do you normally drink?

I do drink tap water. But I try not to drink from the tap direct, because I don't like the taste of chlorine. It tastes to me like swimming pool water.

Nowadays, I have my own bottles of imported natural mineral waters, so I drink my own waters too.

Left: Vichy Catalan [imported from Barcelona]. Middle and right: Hildon (which is drunk by the Queen of England).
I also buy brands from the supermarket to drink. I mean, sometimes I just crave for a certain taste profile or a certain intensity of water, so I’ll buy it.

I like different tastes and experiences. And different mineral waters give different health benefits.

For example, I love Vichy because of its salty taste, and usually pair it with food, because Vichy is high in the mineral sodium bicarbonate, which is good for digestion.

True or false: Tap water from different parts of Singapore tastes different.

Definitely true, the tap water will taste different, because there's a variance in the level of Total Dissolved Solids (i.e. total mineral level).

The tap water across Singapore comes from different sources mah – so it depends on the mixture.

So across Singapore, the tap water will have different mineral compositions and taste different.

In fact even from the same tap, if you drink it now vs. two hours later, it may not even taste the same. Because there’s always small fluctuations in the mineral levels.

Remember when there was this pandan smell in tap water? I tasted it too. The issue then was with a certain source, which was only distributed to certain areas in Singapore.

On a side note, what does NEWater taste like?

Oh, it's horrible. NEWater is a highly purified mineral deficient water.

It has a very specific taste profile, this distinct, metallic taste, like other labelled distilled waters from the supermarket.

If you're thirsty, just drink from the tap. It's free, and it's far better for you than buying distilled water from the supermarket. Distilled water is only good for your machines, because you don't want them to scale.

I believe drinking distilled water over the long term is bad for your body, as you're not getting the minerals you need.

Which water brands do you like most? Rank them for us please.

To simplify things, purified water bad, natural mineral water good.

Distilled water [which is a type of purified water] like Dasani is a negative 100. All of them. Ice Mountain, to me, also tastes distilled.

Remineralised water [distilled water with some mineral content added back to it] is maybe a negative 20. Taste-wise, it has a gentler taste compared to distilled water, and it tastes very similar to filtered tap water.

I’d rank [unfiltered] tap water at a positive 20, because it's free. It is purified drinking water, but I would classify the taste as neutral, and am thus on the fence.

Fiji, Evian, and Volvic are all natural mineral waters, so they're all good.

Left: Natural mineral waters like Volvic are good. Middle: Dasani's remineralised version of purified water. Right: All distilled waters are bad.

How does one identify different types of waters in the supermarket?

First of all, it's the labelling.

For natural mineral waters, the name and location of the source of water will always be named, because it is a regulatory requirement by Singapore authorities.

You'll also see the water's mineral profile on the label, for all natural mineral waters. You won't find it on distilled waters.

What do you say when a waiter asks "Still or Sparkling" in restaurants?

I'll ask which brand it is.

In 90 per cent of the restaurants, it's always San Pellegrino or Acqua Panna. Both are very good, as they are natural mineral waters.

It then depends on my mood. If I feel like drinking still water, I’ll choose Acqua Panna, But if I prefer sparkling water, I’ll go with San Pellegrino. Usually, to pair with food, I'll go for sparkling, so it usually is San Pellegrino.

But yeah, I think it is quite sad because you're usually limited to these two brands.

Sometimes, I do want to try something different. Otherwise, it’s always the same.

Have you ever said tap?

I might say that, if I feel like I don’t wanna spend money on bottled water that day.

However, more often than not, because I’m in this line, and I know the benefits of drinking natural mineral water, I will order sparkling or still water.

If I am ordering tap water, I’ll first ask if the tap water is filtered or unfiltered. If it is filtered, I will more likely order it.

Actually, nowadays, restaurants do charge for filtered tap water, and I think it's fair. At least they invest in something for me to drink that is cleaner lah.

Is there an ideal temperature for drinking water? Why?

Drinking water chilled is always nice, for everything.

In my experience, the majority of Singaporeans prefer water that’s lighter in taste, because we’ve grown up drinking low mineral waters [like tap water or distilled water].

So drinking water cold would help numb our taste buds, such that we perceive the taste of any minerals less, and the water tastes lighter.

Boiling water can also lighten the taste of water, because the minerals precipitate at a high temperature and evaporate. So, for tap water, one way to get rid of the chlorine taste is to boil the water.

Otherwise, you can just buy a basic filter, and drink filtered tap water. You just need a filter that can help to remove the chlorine, full stop.

What do others say when you tell them you are a water sommelier?

Some people think I’m pretentious lor.

But that's only because they assume that water is just the same, that you're just paying for the branding, and there are no taste differences or legit health benefits.

I have not received snarky comments since my university days; nowadays, the reaction will be more like "huh, is there such a thing?" or “wow, interesting”.

People generally seem to be more open-minded about it.

Maybe because people have gotten more exposure to different types of water, and some have also tried some brands like Evian etc. So, taste-wise, they would see a reason to purchase natural mineral water too.

Actually, if you just estimate the cost of purchasing natural mineral waters from the supermarket, buying six bottles of 1.5-litre bottles should cost you around S$20. As we need three litres of water a day, that would amount to about S$6 a day. If you are willing to pay S$6 for a cup of Starbucks every day, why can’t you invest that on your health to drink a natural mineral water?

It’s just a choice lor. I think it’s worth it.

What are common misconceptions people have about water?

There are quite a few.

Firstly, if you drink natural mineral waters, especially those high in calcium, you'll get kidney stones.

You wouldn't get kidney stones from drinking mineral water, because most mineral waters are not high enough in mineral content to let you "overdose".

The causes of kidney stones are usually more from your dietary habits, and from not drinking enough water (i.e. dehydration).

The "sediments" that you sometimes see floating around in natural mineral waters is also a natural occurrence, and not "dirt".

What you're seeing is actually the minerals in the water, such as calcium, precipitating; this usually happens because the water is rich in calcium, and is normal.

Another misconception is that drinking alkaline water is good for you. However, this is not proven. It's really just a marketing gimmick that was created by purified water companies, to promote their machine-purified waters.

I’m passionate about this, because there’s too much misinformation. And I see people paying so much – they refuse to pay S$1.50 for a bottle of natural mineral water, but they want to pay thousands of dollars for an alkaline water filter machine. That is mind-boggling to me.

So yeah, I strongly feel that this is my personal responsibility to educate others on these gimmicks, as a water sommelier.

I also strongly believe that everyone can taste the difference between waters. With a little bit of education and guidance, everyone can do it lah.

What would you say to those who remain sceptical about your job?

So far, I haven't had anyone who has ever emerged from a water tasting with me, thinking that all water is the same. Once they recognise that there are differences between waters, they start to understand why I'd choose to import some natural mineral waters.

Just come to a water tasting with me. And if you remain sceptical right, I’ll refund you your money.

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All photos by Lean Jinghui