To introduce yourself as a water sommelier is to constantly have to explain your job. The relatively nascent profession is just beginning to take root around the world and, as Turkey’s first, Alican Akdemir often has to deal with people’s incredulity. He says the first thing people usually ask him is “Does water even have a taste?” His immediate response is always, “Do you drink tap water at your house?”
While water might be something we take for granted, it does indeed have a flavor that affects the way we taste other food and drink. Different levels and combinations of minerals, measured by Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), mean the flavors of the water itself vary depending on its origin. “Water can be sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and even metallic,” Akdemir says. “Personally I would prefer water that’s high in TDS because then I can discover different flavors from drinking it.”
These minerals can also enhance your dining experience, in sometimes surprising ways. In doing a small tasting with Akdemir, we sipped a bottle of sparkling water from Catalanonia and discovered its distinct, salty flavor. “Yes, it’s high in sodium,” smiles Akdemir. “I can recommend this water alongside steaks. You get salt from the water naturally and it helps you digest the meat quickly.”
You might know Akdemir’s name from Yeme İçme İşleri (Food and Drink Works) a group of four people who do pairings at various locations around town. At these events, Akdemir and his fellows have been highlighting flavors with creative combinations like pecans and stout beer, or by replacing rice in Japanese nigiri with sourdough bread. By actively participating in creating these pairings and working closely with a beer sommelier, Akdemir became more involved in how the nuances of water make big differences. A water sommelier would help the team take its next step in doing things differently.
So, the journey of Turkey’s first water sommelier began. After waiting one and a half years for the English-language version of the course, Akdemir traveled to Munich for his water training at Doemens Academy. His efforts made him one out of roughly one hundred certified water sommeliers in the world. Around 80-90 of are German. As Germany is a big producer and consumer of beer, and 90 percent of this brew is made up of water, the H2O taste is extremely important. But interest is expanding beyond German borders. “There were people from Korea, Spain and Italy [with me at the academy]. These people are working at Michelin-starred restaurants as wine sommeliers already, or at a brewery working on the quality of beer, or as baristas at coffee shops," says Akdemir. For these professions, water make all the difference.
Soon, you may even begin to find water menus at restaurants, along with the wine list. The water menu is not something new, nor is it to be undervalued – both for gastronomic and economic purposes. After German water sommelier Martin Riese prepared a water menu for Ray’s & Stark Bar in Los Angeles, there was a 500 percent increase in water sales at the restaurant in 2013.
For a Turkish restaurant or a meyhane, stocking a range of waters could be particularly interesting, as it plays a central role in the rakı drinking ritual: the water added in the popular spirit, the ice, and the water accompanying the drink. “We expect the ice and water we add in to be the same,” Akdemir says. But when it comes to the accompanying glass, things get personal. “With the water you drink with rakı, you can either neutralize the rakı flavor, or enhance the varying aromas from rakı gradually. It’s a matter of taste.” Some like their rakı sweet, others enjoy its bitterness, he continues. “There are different waters with diverse TDS-levels, that can help bring out the flavors people most love.” However, these different waters will only become available if people start asking for them. “It all depends on demand. If demand increases, the types of water on offer will also increase.”
In the future, Akdemir plans to have more water workshops based on rakı, coffee, beer, and more. By using these tastings and workshops, he plans to expand his outreach and message. But there is a social responsibility side to his mission as well. “Just because this country is rich when it comes to water doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give water the importance it needs,” says Akdemir. “The supplies are not endless, and we should appreciate what we have.”