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Give me an eau... but don't make it on tap

We Irish drink 120 million litres of bottled water a year but is there any difference between expensive brand names and the piped drinking water in our homes? Myles McWeeney puts them to the test

Ireland is a country renowned for its heavy rainfall yet it seems that our thirst for expensive bottled water is unquenchable. Despite the fact that safe drinking water is pumped into every household in the country for free, many of us are prepared to pay serious money to buy the bottled version.

According to the latest figures, sales of bottled water in Ireland have risen to more than 120 million litres per year. In Britain annual bottled water sales are huge too, exceeding £1 billion (?1.45 billion), a 70-fold increase on 20 years ago. The reason for this growth, according to a recent paper written by two psychiatrists, is that people are driven to buy bottled water by a fear of modern life.

Advertisers - and most labels - promise a "pure" product from an "unspoiled" source. Many pledge that it will restore energy and improve health. One brand, Blue Water, claims to have had "negative memories" removed and replace with "beneficial energy patterns". It costs more than ?20 a litre and is available in Brown Thomas. And we're supposed to drink two litres of water a day to keep healthy!

But according to Professor Keith Petrie of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Professor Simon Wessely of the Institute of Psychiatry at Guy's Kings and St Thomas' School of Medicine in London, the boom in bottled water is driven by public mistrust.

In an article in the British Medical Journal the two academics say that the marketing of bottled water exploits our worries about health in the modern world. "Bottled water is the natural antidote to chemicals and technologies full of risk and hazard - genetically engineered food, radiation, harmful medication and sinister viruses."

In 1981 when Geoff Read launched the Ballygowan brand of bottled water in Ireland, many people predicted the venture would be a failure. But he was the right man in the right place at the right time and now Ballygowan, after a series of ownership changes, is the market leader and enjoys success on the export market. Today there are dozens and dozens of bottled water brands on sale here.

"Water is now everywhere. It has become a modern fashion and health accessory as ubiquitous as the mobile phone. Students have bottles in their bags or in front of them during lectures, people are jogging with water and office workers have bottles within easy reach. The rise of water as a health product is underpinned by people's worries about modern life," the professors say.

The latest market tactic is, if you'll excuse the expression, to muddy the purity of the product with very special additives that transform bottles of plain old CO2 into "aquaceuticals" which are bought and consumed for their healing powers. Nestle's Contrex bottled water contains traces of calcium and magnesium that are claimed to cut weight, eliminate toxins and reduce fatigue. Lakeland Willow Spring contains natural trace Salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin, and Fiji water contains silica, a beauty supplement said to be important for skin and hair. Volvic's producers claim their water provides "a unique invigorating contact with nature itself" while Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water's makers swear it's a living water that can absord harmful radiation from drinkers. Madonna swears by it, so that's OK.

But is there really all that much difference between the different brands of bottled waters?

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THE TASTE TEST We recruited David Whelehan, the chief wine buyer for the O'Briens Wine Off-licence group, who is said to have one of the finest palates in Ireland, and a young 'civilian' who works for the group, Conor Horan, to taste nine bottled waters purchased from ordinary supermarkets, plus straight tap water and an example of filtered tap water.

The tasting was conducted under strict wine-tasting rules. All the bottles were individually bagged in an opaque wrap and, prior to the tasters entering the room, each water had been poured into a numbered glass. We sat at different tables and did not confer until all 11 waters had been sampled and our comments written down.

What was remarkable was that every one of us identified both the unfiltered and filtered Dublin tap water straight off. David and I didn't even have to taste it so strong was the chemical whiff. Even more remarkable was that one of us actually liked it! Conor Horan, the youngest member of the panel and in his early 20s, found it "refreshing" The two oldies, sorry, the two mature panellists, hated it, David Whelehan saying it was "as close to swimming pool water as you can get". To be fair, Conor did add the rider that he felt it did "leave a feeling in the back of the throat". The Brita-filtered tap water was readily identifiable as well, all three of us finding that it still possessed chemical notes.

Bottle one contained Volvic (?1.30, 2L), which neither Conor nor I found filling us with "with the natural spark of volcanoes" as suggested on the label. David, on the other hand, found it "mouthfilling with an attractive chalky character".

Next up was Essentia (?1.45, 75cl), a water that has been put through an ionic separation process which apparently helps detoxify your body faster. All three of us found this one fresh and vibrant, and it was my favourite of the nine for its bright, clean flavour.

I liked the third sample, but the others hated it, David detecting an off-putting hint of melon flavour in it. No wonder, Bereket (50c, 50cl) had an exotic provenance, having been imported from Turkey which seems an odd conceit.

Both David and Conor found the next, Ballygowan (?1.38, 1.5L), neutral with no outstanding character, while I liked it better.

Tipperary (?1.25, 1.5L), however, the fifth sample, only got David's vote as being a refreshing drink.

I described the seventh mineral water, Deep River Rock (1.35, 1.5L), as smooth, neutral and pleasant, and David concurred, though Conor thought it unremarkable. He went big for the next one, the Salicin laced Lakeland Willow Water Spring Water (?2.29, 1.5L), and so did David. I, however, found it had an oily flavour and disliked it. Tesco's Slievenamon (?3.79 for 1.5L six-pack), glass number nine, was a hit with all three of us especially David who gave it his best of the bunch vote. The final bottled water was Evian (?1.69, 2L), decribed by me as "up-beat", by Conor as "refreshing" and David liking its balance and mineral character.

It's quite clear from the tasting that there are very discernible differences between the different brands, and that what a water tastes like is quite subjective. People should really try a number of them to decide which suit their palates best - but perhaps for those with a more refined palate staying off the tap water might be a good idea.

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