The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

Well, we did it.

After a daylong sampling of nearly 60 different municipal, purified, bottled and sparkling waters from across the world, me and a handful of fellow food/travel writers and water experts chose winners in the prestigious International Water Tasting in Berkeley Springs last night.

And for the first time since 2004, the top five tap water winners at the annual festival all came from towns and cities in the United States. Even though it was a blind tasting, I guess our palate’s preferred to “drink locally.”

Daytona Beach, FL, was rated the best tasting water in the world, a title they also won in 2005. A pair of California waters – Desert Hot Springs and Santa Ana – won second and third respectively.  Desert Hot Springs has won two gold medals in the past.  Oxford, MI, and Kent, Ohio, rounded out the list. 

Rain waters were surprise entries this year, and two of them won first and fifth in the purified water category. Texan Independence Water from League City, TX, won best purified for their harvested rain water, while their sister water, Virginia Natural from Charlottesville, won fifth.

Another Texas water, Rain Fresh, won second, although it is not harvested rainwater despite its name. Mothers Finest of North Carolina was third and the hometown Berkeley Springs Purified was fourth.

Bottled water came literally from all over the globe to compete, including Argentina, Japan, Tasmania and Switzerland. Selected as best bottled water in the world was perennial entrant – but first time winner – Muskoka Springs from Jarratt in Ontario, Canada.

Second place went to Pristine Springs from nearby Clear Springs, MD, while third was captured by first-time entrant, Highbridge Springs of Wilmore, KY. Almost Heaven from Manassas, VA (bottling water from Berkeley Springs) placed fourth and former gold medalist, English Mountain Springs Water of Dandridge, TN, was fifth.

Winning sparkling waters included two Bosnian waters in first (Esparanza) and third place (Tesanjski Dijament). Second place went to Mountain Valley Springs Water from Hot Springs, AR, fourth to Antipodes from New Zealand and fifth to Arctica of Marchand, MB, Canada.

Including both preliminary and final tastings, judges spent hours tasting 99 waters from 23 states and 10 foreign countries to determine the winners. That’s a LOT of H20!

Want to catch all the action in person next year, the 22nd annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. For more information, call 800-447-8797 or visit

Or as I like to call it, Float & Bloat …

The judging panel has tasted 33 different municipal and purified waters so far — multiple times each — and we’re only halfway done. Frequent trips to the bathroom notwithstanding, this is WAY harder than I expected.

I’ve judged countless food and wine events, but water is so much more nuanced, making it much harder to decide which ones are truly better than the rest. (Was it #3 or #17 I liked best … I can’t remember … They both look the same!)

But while most fall to the middle of the pack (taste fine, nothing exceptional or offensive) you really can start to detect different aromas and flavors and textures if you keep at it and concentrate. Never thought I’d say this, but there really is an art to it all.

Heading back now to judge the bottled and sparking divisions, then it’s time for judges, competitors and visitors alike to kick up their heels and celebrate at tonight’s awards party. I will NOT be drinking water there, thankyouverymuch.

I’m having a great time up here in beautiful Berkeley Springs as an official judge at the International Water Tasting Festival. It’s both wild and wonderful on so many levels …

  • In that there actually is such a thing as a “tasting” competition for water, a liquid that – at its best – exhibits virtually no taste.
  • That this tiny West Virginia town has, for 21 years, hosted what is now the largest and longest-running water-tasting competition in the world.
  • And that it truly is international in nature. In addition to a handful of waters from West Virginia and a heavy contingent from Ohio, others come from as far away as Colorado, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Argentina, Colombia, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Bosnia, Japan and South Korea.

Yesterday was full of interesting seminars (really!) on the history of water’s healing properties, water safety, conservation efforts and more. The actual judging happens today – in municipal, bottled, sparkling and purified divisions – but not before we esteemed judges are put through a training process to “learn” how to “taste” water.

I kid you not.

Check back later for a recap of what I learned, along with tasting notes from the judges’ table!