A luxury bottled water brand which sources its water from the most remote areas of Finland and Bhutan, Veen is making a clear splash in the bottled water segment as an haute hydrator. We delve into a discussion on water, its taste and its importance with Ganesh Iyer, India’s first water sommelier
By: Soumya Jain Agarwal
Posted on: May 1, 2019
Water is a bare necessity. Even then, it is not available to millions of people in the world. At such a time and era, a discussion on luxury bottled water might seem unnecessary, even cruel. And having ‘water sommeliers’ in the world might seem elitist, senseless perhaps. In the luxury water business, it might seem that a free item is repackaged and resold as aspirational. But we sat down to talk to Mr. Ganesh Iyer, India’s first water sommelier, and National Sales Director of Veen, a Finnish luxury water brand, and gathered that there is more to the story of luxury bottled waters. He has no misconceptions about the challenge he has in front of him. A connoisseur of nature’s vital resource – Mr Iyer is prepared to create an impact and place taste and hygiene above everything else.
“On an elementary level – free water is a basic right to every citizen,” says Mr. Iyer. But he explains where this basic right is falling short. We are in part of the world where hygiene and sanitation levels are at deplorable and questionable levels, despite the efforts done by successive government towards improving the same. Secondly, availability of quality portable water remains a big challenge, not just in rural areas, but in urban as well. “At this juncture, we aren’t even getting into the surface level discussion on water-borne diseases. And even if water is being made available, the distribution is not uniform,” he says.
These fundamental issues lead to the importance of supplying bottled water, especially in India. Mr. Iyer counts some of the valid reasons as: (a) Bottled waters are relatively safer to consume as compared to tap water where one is not sure whether the respective quality checks have been administered consistently or not; (b) Bottled waters are life savers when it comes to any natural disasters or otherwise for obvious quality reasons; and (c) Bottled waters have a consistent shelf life of anywhere between 6-12 months.
From bottled water to luxury bottled water is another discussion however. Packaging is one aspect which designates a water brand as luxury or not, depending on the target market they are serving. “For example, bottled water in plastic containers to a vast majority of the Indian populace which are from low income group is definitely a luxury, but the same reasoning cannot be applied to the urban city bred populace. For the crème de la crème, bottled water in plastic bottle is a strict no-no because of the ubiquitous influence and impact of poor PET quality, so they would prefer a glass offer,” Mr. Iyer explains.
The Finnish story
We have established the inevitability of bottled water – luxury or otherwise. Which subsequently brings us to Veen. Majority owned by an Indian now, Aman Gupta, Veen was named after Veen Emonen, Mother of Water as per the Finnish epic ‘Kalevala’. Currently only available in hotels and restaurants such as Hyatt, Accor, InterContinental Hotel Group and Jiggs Kalra’s Masala Library, the brand plans to retail its Ayurveda range and craft mixers directly to consumers soon.
At the moment, Veen offers natural spring waters – Velvet and Effervescent – which are sourced from the Konisaajo natural spring area in the Arctic wilderness of Lapland, Finland. Its natural mineral waters – Still and Classic – are sourced from Khana Bharti River in the lower foothills of the Himalayas in the district of Samtse, Bhutan. “At this time [during the ideation of the brand] the UN did the world water assessment and Finland was voted to have the best quality of water in the world. This sparked the idea of creating a premium water brand from Finland, with appropriate packaging and design, to cater to the best dining tables of the world,” Mr. Iyer tells us.
Apart from the basic offerings, Veen also sells cocktail mixers, which includes Nordic Soda Water, Tonic Water, Ginger Ale and Bitter Lemon. It is, however, the new range of Ayurveda waters which gets us excited. Developed in consultation with Dehradun-based Ayurveda practitioner Urvashi Naithani, Veen’s natural spring water is infused with Ayurvedic fruit and botanicals, in four blends: Amla and Tulsi; Saffron; Ginger and Honey; and Blackcurrant, Apple and Mint. Infused water is currently seen as the ultimate way to restore fluids and nutrients in the body, specially in hot weather or after workouts. These pastel-colored liquids will be launched in 2020 in Finland, Bhutan and India to begin with. Then there is the Ayurveda Super Shot offered in 100 ml bottles, again including four concoctions to detox, stimulate your brain, increase immunity or power you up.
Counting India, Russia and UAE in its list of biggest markets, Veen’s focus for the next two years is to continue to develop the 16 markets they currently distribute in by launching their entire portfolio into these markets. They do plan to retail some of their products directly to consumers in India, but that is still to be worked on.
The taste of water
I am sure you are thinking why water needs its own sommelier? Water tastes like water. It’s not wine or scotch. But that’s where gullible individuals like us tend to fail. Water is an incredible natural alchemy of energised molecules, it has a taste. You probably didn’t care for it before – but I am sure now you will.
Water also has a feel, a flow, an aftertaste. “There is something known as Gustatory perception, your basic tastes, which are Sweet, Bitter, Salty and Sour. And two unknown ones are Umame and Fat – which are rarely experienced. These gustatory perceptions define the elements of water tasting,” says Mr. Iyer as he begins a short lesson on how to taste water.
As per Mr. Iyer, when trying to define water, you should look at the below Threshold Values:
- Detection Threshold – This has the lowest stimulation towards a particular taste
- Recognition Threshold – This has a minimum stimulus intensity
- Difference Threshold – This is intensification of the stimulus.
- Saturation Threshold – This level has a maximum sensation and one cannot taste water beyond this level.
“With this you define the basic character of water, its flow, the mouthfeel and finally the aftertaste on your throat,” says Mr. Iyer.
Trying to put this in practice, water sommeliers would qualify Veen’s Bhutan-sourced standard natural mineral water (with a Total Dissolved Solvents (TDS) range of 275-320 approximately) with its orientation being basic alkaline considering the PH level at approximately 7.5. It is high on calcium, so taste notes would have a mild chalky aftertaste.
Ask Mr. Iyer where is the purest, most clearest water available on Earth, and pronto comes the response: “There is nothing called purest or clearest water on Earth. These are brilliantly marketed myths by beverage giants like Danone and Nestle. Water is water and is defined by its minerality or as commonly known as TDS and PH level.”
A sommelier’s life
It’s definitely not easy. Water is something people take for granted. And for those who don’t have it, they need it too much to get into its intricacies. “Forget about the challenge as a water sommelier, the basic challenge is to educate B2B and B2C on the importance and significance of water in your day-to-day life and its commercial relevance in a hotel or a restaurant. Once this is defined and accepted then comes the challenge and the introduction of an absolute nascent profession of water sommelier in the context of the Indian Subcontinent. Yes, it’s a daunting task in itself,” Mr. Iyer laments.
Even then, the profession is on a rise. If you haven’t heard, Martin Riese, one of the first few water sommeliers in the world, makes a living creating ‘water menus’ for high-end restaurants in America. This German water enthusiast was, in fact, admitted into US via the O-1 visa, which is reserved for “individuals with extraordinary ability.”
“Yes, I see us to be the best thing to happen to the epicurean and culinary world because…a wrong selection of mineral water/sparkling water to a food purist can ruin the experience itself,” says Mr. Iyer. And yes, there are food and water pairings. Although, being a new kind of technique and subject, it is still open to exploration. To begin with though, Mr. Iyer recommends pairing salads with the Veen Effervescent, and seafood (such as sear fish) with Veen Natural Mineral Water.
Like I said in the beginning, a discussion on luxury bottled water may seem snooty, but it’s time we change our outlook on this precious commodity, because it is indeed precious.