ByMatt Meltzer/Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 11:17 am EST
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The muddied world of bottled water can be a difficult one to navigate, with sleek bottles advertising spring sourcing and pH balancing like any of us could tell if it's true. Sure, many people have brand loyalties. And regional bottled waters can oftentimes be a source of civic pride right up there with local beers and baseball teams. But when you get right down to it, what makes a water great is how it makes your mouth and body feel. And in that respect, there is some great variation.
Some waters make you want to chug the entire bottle, brain freeze be darned. Others you'll ignore as soon as you've quenched your immediate thirst. You'll find distinct differences between spring waters and purified waters, as well as glass bottled waters and stuff in plastic. So, we undertook a feat of exceptional hydration and tried 16 of the most popular brands of bottled water. We present our findings for which are best — and which are best left in the convenience store cooler.
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Remember how when you were a kid, on hot summer days, you'd drink out of a moldy garden hose in your backyard but it still tasted like a cold blast of heaven? Somehow, Aquafina hasn't even managed that level of desperation deliciousness. Ever after running on a hot day, when presented with a bottle of Aquafina, you often wonder if it's worth the painfully bitter aftertaste to stave off certain dehydration. The answer is usually yes, but it's a tough call.
Aquafina packs a punch, plain and simple, hitting your mouth with a heavy blast of plastic and chemicals before sedating into a mildly refreshing flavor. But once you swallow, all those chemicals come right back up, leaving you refreshed but still unsatisfied. In the any-port-in-a-storm sense of the word, Aquafina will do. But if you're in a place where tap water is safe, that'll still probably be a better option.
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Have you ever seen a completely empty bottle of Dasani anywhere, ever, other than maybe the finish line at a 5k? No. And there is a reason for this. Because Dasani is the kind of water you only want to drink until you're not thirsty anymore, kind of like a public drinking fountain but with a lot fewer germs. Not that Dasani is terrible, mind you, but it has a bitterness and a bite that makes you say, "Yeah, I'm done with this," long before you're done with the bottle, which makes it especially important that Coca Cola now makes 30 percent of the bottle from plants.
Dasani tastes the same whether it's warm or cold, sipped out of a bottle or poured into a glass. It's a vending machine staple, but its presence has fueled many a calorie-conscious consumer to opt for Diet Coke. It'll do in a pinch, and it won't make you sick. But it's definitely not anything you ever want more of, and at the price point is worth passing up for a store-brand generic.
14. Poland Spring
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Poland Spring is a little like the John Starks of bottled water: It's pretty terrible and the only reason it gets any respect is because New Yorkers seem to think it's great. NYC”s regional bottled water of choice gets a rep almost as underserved as its tap water, but at least nobody's claiming Poland Spring makes bagels taste better. Still, it hits with a mouthful of plastic and goes down heavy, leaving an aftertaste almost as bitter as a cab driver who gets perpetually stiffed.
We'll give it to Poland Spring — it is cool and refreshing, and we guess after spending an entire summer afternoon sweating your way through an hour-long subway ride, it probably tastes like it was sourced from the Garden of Eden. But, in fact, it's sourced in Maine, and while it's excellent cold, it absorbs an intense amount of plastic flavor as the water heats up. Transferring it to a glass doesn't eliminate the notes of petroleum, so if you're visiting the Big Apple, this is one local "treasure" you don't need to try.
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Essentia calls itself "Overachieving H20." And after tasting it, we have no doubt that if there were a classroom full of bottled waters, Essentia would be the one sitting in the front row asking the professor questions for ten minutes after she said, "Well if there aren't any more questions ..." As those types of overachievers do, it grew up to make claims like "too pure to be tested by pH strips," and stops to tell drinkers "a better you starts with better water." Essentia tries hard to be more than it is, but it's easy to see through. And not just because it's water.
Like so many overachievers, Essentia definitely tries to punch above its weight, using a process it says can turn water from anywhere into supercharged, ionized super liquid. The problem is, it still lacks the spring-fed smoothness of your Fijis and your Icelandics. So while it does very well for water from anywhere, it's still not as great as the ones with natural talent.
According to the label you'll find on your nextEternal water bottle, the water "filters through layers of ancient rock, absorbing essential minerals and making it naturally alkaline." The curvy bottle is also an attention grabber, and since it's a relative newcomer, Eternal is a strong candidate for a novel first try.
Though it's one of the more aesthetically pleasing waters on the market, the liquid itself tastes a little like a softened-up version of the stuff that came out of your grade school drinking fountain. Lots of minerals and metal, with a smooth finish and not much aftertaste. It has an initial blast of those flavors that sets you back for a second, and it's definitely not a water that invites you to drink an entire liter. Though the bottle is alluring, the stuff inside is not. And though it's not bad, you can do a lot better.
11. Life WTR
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If we could give an award for bottle art, we'd give it to Life WTR, whose bottles boast original work from rotating artists as part of the brand's effort to "advance the sources of creation and creativity." And if we could drink art, we're sure Life WTR would be absolutely delicious. As it is, it tastes more like a bronze sculpture that's spent a little too long in the local park.
While the bottles from this brand are pretty, the water inside is not, as it greets your palate with a smooth wave of metallic flavor. It's not quite the assault some of the waters lower on the list offer, but it's still enough that you feel the water's heft. Whoever added the electrolytes for taste did a nice job achieving a good mouth feel for Life WTR. But with other options available, this shouldn't be your first choice.
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SmartWater benefits from its placement in the cooler maybe more than any other brand of bottled water. Because when you walk up the case, it's usually situated right next to small, sketchy looking bottles of store brand water and imported bottles that cost about $1.25 a sip. SmartWater, however, looks like you can be relatively confident it didn't come out of a garden hose but won't cost more than a martini. Add in a nifty nozzle cap, and it's the perfect middle choice, right?
Well, tasing the stuff, you realize it's not so much SmartWater but smart marketing. It does, as the label says, have purity you can taste, and the vapor-distilled water is a lot smoother than other non-spring waters out there, especially if you let it breathe a little (yes, this applies to water as much as wine). But it still finishes with hints of bitterness and minerality, keeping it at the bottom of the top ten.
9. Icelandic Glacial Water
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This water, which the label asserts is taken from the Olfus spring in Iceland, boasts hands-down the coolest bottle on the shelf — a jagged glacier that makes you feel a little like Sir Edmund Hillary every time you take a sip. It claims to come from an underground spring caused by a massive volcanic eruption 5,000 years ago, meaning the glacial water is filtered through lava rock. This creates a water that's about as close to visiting Iceland as you can get without having to search for a $99 bargain fare.
The lava filtration gives this water a taste unlike any of the other spring-fed brands, which can come across as bitter and aggressive. However, this problem can be solved by chilling the water to near-freezing temps, at which point the extreme cold somehow nullifies the bitterness. This might explain why the water tastes better in Iceland. Either way, Icelandic, like hakarl, can definitely be an acquired taste.
8. Core Hydration
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Core is the ideal water for people who don't want their water to taste like anything. The big, ergonomic bottle with a standout O on the label is like the liquid equivalent of high desert air: It's thin and crisp, but you know it's clean. You'll get a tiny hint of minerality from Core, likely from the electrolytes and minerals added during the reverse osmosis process. But that same process removes pretty much any mouth feel, which is perfect if you're looking for something to chug.
That said, the emptiness of the flavor might lead some to call the water lacking. It's like an emotionally unavailable ex who never did anything wrong, per se, but never really lit up a room either. If you prefer your bottled water — and maybe your people — not too complex, Core might be the water for you. But if you're looking for something deep and interesting, you may want to look further down on the list. That's why it landed straight in the middle of our rankings.
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Once upon a time, Evian's brand name was so strong it was used generically to describe any bottled water. Like, the Google of bottled water. But the industry has gotten far more saturated since those days, and while Evian is still a luxurious standard, it's far from the best bottled water on the market. Sure, the bottle molded to resemble the French Alps is impressive. And the water is the odd bottled water with a signature flavor. But if you're not into minerals, it may not be for you.
This, we assume, is what happens when you source your water from French snow. And if you've ever bailed out hard while skiing Chamonix and gotten a giant mouthful of the stuff, you know they're not lying. That being said, French snow isn't necessarily the flavor one wants in a bottled water. And while it is clean and refreshing, it's also thick with minerals. Evian's not bitter and doesn't have much of an aftertaste, and those who love it will insist — usually in French — it's the best on the market. But if you don't love it, you'll probably pass it over in favor of something less earthy.
Those ever-loving fans of alliteration at Penta call themselves "purity perfected." And among the purified bottled waters, that claim is pretty solid. Its patented 13-step process takes 11 hours, according to the label, and the result is a bottled water with the lowest levels of heavy metals, salts, and organic compounds on the market. Or at least, so claims the California-based brand.
While it doesn't taste completely pure, it boasts the cleanest flavor of anything not coming out of a spring. And while minerals have been added, the taste is subtle and innocuous to anyone drinking it. Despite being cased in plastic, it doesn't take on much of the bottle's flavor. And when transferred to a drinking glass, Penta has even less of an edge. Penta still has a bit of a mineral flavor, but the purification rounds it off nicely. Of the smaller bottles on the shelf, this one might be the easiest to drink.
If you have ever walked into a Starbucks hungover and thought to yourself, "You know, I should probably have some water before replacing all the alcohol in my system with caffeine," you've probably had Ethos Water. You won't find it in stores, but you can often find it between pre-made paninis and Odwalla juice in the Starbucks cooler, as it's the coffee chain's own brand of bottled water.
Ethos Water has a cool, smooth finish, and really doesn't have near the bite of most waters you find in plastic. Transferred into glass, it's similarly refreshing and not bitter, kind of surprising from the people who made bitter coffee cool. An added bonus: Starbucks donates five cents to humanitarian causes around the world for every bottle you buy. So you can feel a little better about yourself as you nurse your hangover headache and scroll through last night's regrettable texts.
4. Acqua Panna
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A favorite of waiters who answer your request for water with, "Still, tap, or sparkling?" Acqua Panna is a restaurant staple that tastes just as good when it's not adding $9 to your check. Like so many fine items that come from Italy, Aqua Panna has a story that just sounds higher quality, boasting of the water's 14-year journey through limestone on its way to your bottle. And though we have no way to verify or dispute this claim, we'll go with it so we feel better about the price.
Acqua Panna is the only water on this list that's most commonly found in a glass bottle, and much like it does with soft drinks, a glass bottle makes a difference. The water is the smoothest on the market, offering a clean flavor with just a hint of minerality. Even sitting indoors, it's as calming to drink as a lazy afternoon in the Tuscan sun. For those who like some mineral flavor, though, Acqua Panna can sit a bit flat on the tongue. And if you don't serve it chilled, it can feel a little thick. But it is clean and crisp, and it's the perfect to wash down a big, heavy meal.
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Easily the best thing to come out of greater Tampa since the Cuban sandwich, this smooth, cool, refreshing spring water tastes like a spring-fed river on a hot summer day. Or, at least what one tasted like before it was surrounded by condominiums. To sip Zephyrhills is to taste natural Florida, a place where limestone aquifers purify water providing life to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the nation.
Of course, herons and manatees are a little less picky when it comes to their water tasting a little too much like it comes from the earth. And while Zephyrhills certainly tastes more natural than most plastic bottled waters, it can lean a bit to the mineral side. That said, if you blind taste test it next to Fiji, you won't know the difference. And the only reason it didn't top Fiji on the list is the bottle, a thin plastic container that's indistinguishable from lots of generics.
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Fiji water has become culturally synonymous with spoiled celebrities, where jokes about over-indulged celebs include barbs like, "He even demands a nightly bath in room-temperature Fiji water." It's the kind of waterMiss Piggy would drink and then send poor Uncle Deadly back to the store because it got warm between the car and her office. And while we wouldn't condone acting like a diva to drink it, it does taste pretty darned good. It is, legitimately, bottled from a spring in Fiji and is brought to your mouth via an iconic square bottle embossed with a scene that looks like a tropical vacation.
The water tastes like a cool trip to the South Pacific, refreshing and revitalizing despite not fitting a single cup holder on earth. It's got a hint of minerality, but only enough to give the water some life. And it would top the list if not for a faint note of bitterness brought on from the plastic bottle.
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Voss has somehow positioned itself as both a high-end bottled water to have with dinner, like Acqua Panna, and as a refreshing, small bottle for quick refreshment, like a cylindrical Fiji. Bravo. Or as they say in Norway, godt jobbet. It tastes amazing, and it looks just as good. You can grab it from a local convenience store or serve it at a nice dinner, so it has a diversity we can't help but like.
Voss also has the smooth, crisp, food-complementary tastelessness you want with dinner but just enough minerality to know you're not drinking wet air. That's certainly something we can't say for a lot of the other bottled waters on this list. The bottle fits perfectly in cupholders, and Voss has just enough cache behind it to look impressive. And on the plus side, it's just ubiquitous enough people know you didn't demand it in your rider.