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Water is water is water, right? It all seems so simple until you step into the sparkling water section of the drink aisle and staring back at you are a whole bunch of options including seltzer, sparkling, tonic, club soda, and mineral water. Suddenly a quick grab turns into a complicated decision. Which one of these many options is the best for drinking solo? Which is best for a Tom Collins, and what separates a good tonic water from swill? We’ve created a handy guide for all of your bubbly water needs.
First, a quick origin story. Manmade sparkling water goes back to the 1700s, and became available commercially at the end of the century thanks to J.J. Schweppe (yes, that Schweppe). Today, sparkling water is made by adding pressurized carbon dioxide to cold water. Depending on the type of water being produced, sodium or potassium bicarbonate is also added for taste. People have long been drawn to bubbly water, largely due to the tingling sensation it causes on the tongue and the way it can intensify flavor. Because sparkling is made using carbon dioxide, it joins with water to form carbonic acid, giving the drink a light acidic bite. Deciding which water to use at any given time will depend upon the purpose and the taste desired.
One thing to remember no matter what water you choose: you should only buy big bottles if you’re having a party, or plan on drinking heavily (hey, it’s just water). Much of the carbonation is released upon first opening, and you’re losing bubbles continuously from then on.
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Mineral water, like San Pellegrino and Perrier, is water pulled directly from a spring, so it contains naturally occurring minerals and compounds. This gives the water a slight mineral taste. Some of these waters are naturally sparkling, some have carbonation added, and others are naturally still. Mineral water is best enjoyed on its own, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon or lime. Because of their mineral taste and high price point, they are not best suited for cocktails.
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When you think of seltzer, you might think of the glass soda siphons that were commonly seen in old movies and used as a silly gag. Seltzer was originally created as a cheap alternative to mineral water, and is sometimes labeled as “sparkling water.” It’s simply plain water with carbonation added during the manufacturing process. Seltzer is the cheapest option, since the bottled variety is typically affordable, and you can easily make it at home using a Soda Stream or similar device. It also works well as a mixer, adding effervescence and nothing else. Use seltzer in high or low-ball drinks where you want the flavor of other ingredients to stand on their own, but need a few bubbles.
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Club soda is also made with plain water, but in addition to carbonation, there are added “minerals” for flavor—sodium bicarbonate, potassium sulfate, and/or others. It’s similar to seltzer, but with a slight mineral notes. It’s frequently used in simpler drinks like a whiskey soda, but can honestly be used interchangeably with seltzer and vice versa. Keep in mind that club soda can often contain some sodium, in case you’re watching your intake.
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Tonic often gets lumped together with other waters, but it’s much closer to a soda pop than water. Tonic is sweetened and infused with quinine, which gives it a slightly bitter taste. This was originally done for medicinal purposes, but is now done for taste alone. The quality and taste can vary greatly depending on the brand, and you can even buy tonic syrups and add them to club soda or seltzer to make your own. Try out different brands for your next drink since, unlike the other waters mentioned here, different brands of tonic can vary greatly, and which one you like best will depend upon your taste. Tonic is famously used in gin and tonics, since the quinine plays well with herbaceous gin.