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What’s the Difference Between the Bubbles?

Sorting out seltzer water from sparkling water from club soda.

You may know Dave Arnold as the author of Liquid Intelligence, a wildly thorough, ambitious, and scientific cocktail book, or the proprietor of Booker and Dax, the cocktail spot behind Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I know him as these things and many more, including that he is a bubbly-water fanatic. I have never actually seen him consume still water, and back in his days of having a lab at the French Culinary Institute, I remember him pouring me glasses of water bubbled with a mix of CO2, which has an acidic flavor, and NO2, which tastes sweeter. It was exceptional stuff. When the inter-office query of what exactly is the difference between the various and sundry forms of bubbly water came up, there was only one man to call.

What’s the difference between seltzer water, sparkling water, and club soda?

One thing I always have to say at the beginning, because there are still people out there whose brains aren’t screwed in straight, is that tonic water is completely unrelated to these drinks. Tonic water is sweetened soda with quinine in it. Let’s just get that out of the way, so we don’t talk about it again.

Right. It’s a different animal completely, but people do get that wrong, and it is terrible when they do.

Irritating, too. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there ordering vodka tonics because they somehow think that tonic water doesn’t contain sugar and it is some sort of fucking diet drink. One part of me is happy to let them be that kind of an idiot, but you know another part of me wants to expose all forms of idiocy, so it’s hard.

Okay, so, club soda versus seltzer. Strictly speaking, club soda usually has some form of salt added to it. Not like table salt, typically it’s a bicarbonate, almost like a baking soda. There’s a range of different salts they can add, and theoretically it pushes it closer to a mineral water/sparkling water kind of a situation than to a seltzer-water situation.

What is the difference between seltzer and sparkling water?

I haven’t looked at the law, but to me seltzer water is filtered water that has been force-carbonated at a high-carbonation level. Sparkling water can be made from water with or without minerals, though it most often is a minerally water.

Usually when a company says “sparkling water,” regardless of what’s in the bottle, they’re targeting the mineral-water people. It’s marketing terminology. Poland Spring water is a very low-mineral water, very soft. The high-end, super-mineral minerally waters are Apollinaris or Gerolsteiner—hard-core German heavy mineral water. Vichy is very, very mineralized water. But when they add bubbles to that, it’s sparkling water.

 

How often is sparkling water naturally sparkling? Or is it always—

The vast majority of sparkling spring water comes from springs that are naturally still and is force carbonated. Even among the springs that are naturally carbonated—like Perrier—the vast majority have their CO2 removed and then reinjected, though Perrier claims to use the same CO2 that was originally in the water (as if that matters at all).

Why?

At least that’s what I’ve always been told. Perrier is naturally sparkling. It comes out of the ground carbonated, then it’s decarbonated, then recarbonated to match the carbonation levels of the spring. But I would be willing to bet that 99.9 percent of everything labeled as sparkling water was decarbed and recarbed. It’s nothing to worry about—I’ve decarbed and recarbed champagne, and it’s impossible to tell the difference.

Now, if you want to confuse things a little bit more, the term seltzer water is derived from a particular spring in Germany, in Selters, where one of the first famous commercial waters came from. The original seltzer water that was shipped around from that area was probably more mineralized than club soda is. In the United States, seltzer water came to mean water with bubbles and nothing else, even though seltzer is named after an actual mineral water that had salts and minerals in it.

Here in New York City, everyone knows what “seltzer” means: sparking water the way God wants it, which is without flavor. It’s rip-roaring with bubbles. I spoke to a soda-company executive once and he said, Yeah, outside of New York people want flavor—they don’t understand paying extra just for bubbles. That’s why you find overwhelming varieties of flavored seltzer with rancid fake-fruit flavorings.

Usually the first sip or two of these terrible things tastes okay, but as they get warmer near the bottom of the bottle, it’s undrinkable. It’s just garbage. Stick with unflavored seltzer.