One of the first questions people ask us at Svalbarði is what iceberg water tastes like. In addition to curiosity, there are some misconceptions, so we thought it worth a full answer.
Iceberg water has a light, airy taste like catching snowflakes on the tongue. It's texture in the mouth is smooth and velvety. This is because of its near total lack of taste- or texture-adding minerals. It is not salty as the ice comes from ancient snow that compacted into glaciers. It does not have the sterile laboratory taste of distilled water, but rather a natural freshness because it absorbed atmospheric gases such as oxygen when it first fell as snow before modern pollution.
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A light-as-air taste for a reason
Tap and bottled waters contain different types and amounts of minerals, each of which imparts a unique taste. Calcium tends to be chalky or milky, sodium and bicarbonates are salty, magnesium is bitter, etc. But if a water has almost no minerals, the taste difference becomes clear when compared side by side with a mineral-rich water.
This is the case with fresh precipitation from the sky, whether rain, snow, or even mist. It has had no contact with the ground or any geologic strata where it could pick up minerals (or terrestrial pollutants). This means it has few added tastes. Iceberg water is basically preserved ancient snow from long before the industrial era introduced modern pollutants.
Svalbarði founder Jamal Qureshi inspecting an
iceberg piece from the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard.
After falling from the sky hundreds or thousands of years ago, the snow quickly compacted into ice in a glacier as further snow layers fell on top. Eventually, these glaciers move to the sea and calve off sections of ice that become floating icebergs. These can take anywhere from a few hours to a few years to melt into the sea, depending on their size, currents, time of year, water temperature, and other natural factors. Although we do not recommend inspecting the calving process as closely as our local friend Jason Roberts accidentally did here.
So long as icebergs come from the inner part of the glacier that does not scrape along the ground, they do not pick up minerals and maintain the taste of fresh precipitation from the air. That taste is often described as super light and clear. I have had a few people tell me that even at room temperature it "tastes cold". We often say it has a tastelessness that becomes a taste in and of itself. Many say it is like catching snowflakes on the tongue or eating snow as a child.
Iceberg water also has a very fleeting taste sensation. While minerals get caught in the mouth and linger long after, iceberg water flavour lasts for just a while then leaves almost nothing behind for an aftertaste before disappearing completely. This makes it a great palate cleanser between meal courses. Water sommelier Martin Riese described this in a Svalbarði water tasting he did. "It's subtle, smooth, stays longer on the palate. And then it's like, over." (See 4:20 - 4:40 in this video).
Smooth and velvety mouthfeel
Martin also mentioned the smoothness of iceberg water. This is a common comment and - apologies for the repetition - it is because of the lack of minerals. Minerals add texture as well as taste to water.
- Calcium: As mentioned earlier, gives a creamy feel in the mouth.
- Silica: Gives a "slippery" feel. People sometimes use the same smooth description as iceberg water, but the presence of the mineral adds some weight. So that it is not a 'nothing' smoothness of something passing by the tongue almost unnoticed, but a weighty smoothness tangibly sliding over the tongue.
- Bicarbonates: I personally think they give a "slimey" feel, though some may disagree with the adjective. Like silica, there is a definite physical weight added by the bicarbonates, but they tend to linger and stick as opposed to sliding away.
With none of these or other mineral impacts found in iceberg water, one is left with a smoothness that seems to slide through the mouth easily and pleasantly.
No, iceberg water is not salty
Many assume that because icebergs have been floating in the ocean they contain salt. This is not the case because:
- Icebergs originate in glaciers on land, which in turn were formed by falling snow - i.e., freshwater. As layers of snow build on top of each other and compact into ice, the weight causes them to become extremely dense such that saltwater cannot penetrate more than a few millimetres if there are no cracks.
- This means that once they have calved off the glacier and fallen into the ocean, saltwater cannot go deep into the ice. One friend who has spent decades working with icebergs said he once shot an iceberg piece with a rifle and the bullet only penetrated half a centimetre in.
These icebergs pieces are good quality for drinking. Solid dense mass, few cleavages, fine bubbling indicating they have not melted and refrozen.
Our experience at Svalbarði and with others who have gathered icebergs to drink is that a few minutes of room-temperature "sweating" (i.e., slight melting), and an external rinse with purified water to be extra certain, is more than enough to remove any lingering ocean salt on the surface. Our lab testing confirms this.
There is an exception though. If cleavages open up in the ice or portions of the iceberg melt and let water into gaps before refreezing, ocean saltwater could get in. This is why one must be very careful to select icebergs that are a solid mass with sufficient and consistent air bubbles to show the ice formed from original snowfall. Tests, in the field, on the bottling line, and in laboratories allow us to ensure we have successfully picked the right ice.
While it is made of freshwater, a jagged iceberg such as this would be unsuitable for iceberg water as its many crevices and cleavages present too many opportunities for saltwater to penetrate inside.
Sea ice is different from icebergs. Because it forms from actual ocean water, it does have some salt in it. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center describes it this way:
New ice is usually very salty because it contains concentrated droplets called brine that are trapped in pockets between the ice crystals...As ice ages, the brine eventually drains through the ice, and by the time it becomes multiyear ice, nearly all of the brine is gone.
This "pancake" sea ice in Longyearbyen harbor in Svalbard is salty.
Unfortunately, as the poles shrink as a result of climate change, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2018 Arctic Report Card found that multiyear ice has declined by 95% since 1985, to just 1% of the arctic ice cap. So most melted arctic sea ice today would likely be quite salty.
Victor Serov, manager of the Russian springtime Barneo tourist camp at the North Pole (89° 35' N on that day), drinks a bottle of fresh Svalbarði iceberg water while standing on the briny frozen ocean of the arctic ice cap.
No, it doesn't taste like distilled water from a lab
It would be easy to assume that because both iceberg water and distilled water have almost no minerals that they would taste the same. They are, however, quite different. Many people have tasted distilled water and are familiar with its extremely sterile "laboratory" taste. Iceberg water, in contrast, has a fresh natural taste as one experiences with clean rain or snow.
There is a simple reason for this: dissolved gases. While iceberg water does not pick up many minerals, as a form of preserved precipitation it did absorb gases such as oxygen from the air when it first fell as snow thousands of years ago. Distilled water, on the other hand, is produced in a controlled environment which gives little exposure to air.
The hydrological cycle as it relates to glacier and iceberg formation. Snow absorbs atmospheric gases as it falls from the sky to accumulate into a glacier. Iceberg water is sourced from the glacier ice that calves as a solid into the sea, not the meltwater runoff from which glacier waters come. Image source: NASA
A wide range of dissolved gases can enter water, both naturally occurring and manmade. Richard Hill of UK rainwater system consultancy Whitewater points out that precipitation's absorption of gases generally begins with natural levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide as it begins to fall through the atmosphere. Where the air is polluted, greater amounts of sulphur, nitrogen oxides, soot, and other impurities can be picked up. The purity of the air itself becomes a key determinant of the quality of any water sourced from precipitation.
This is why iceberg water has such a fresh and clean quality. The precipitation that formed it fell long before industrial era pollution. Svalbard and Greenland (the two primary locations from which iceberg waters are sourced) had few to no human inhabitants throughout the millennia and the glacier ice also had little to no exposure to animal life. The glaciers themselves acted as a source of purity maintenance as their vast surfaces were well removed from vegetation that could increase the risk of dissolved organics or biological contaminants from entering the ice. The size, remoteness, and limited amounts of life on and around the arctic glaciers turned them into a naturally pure water holding tank.
There is a reason distilled water tastes like a laboratory. Because it is from a laboratory. A boiling and condensation process removes virtually everything in the water, leaving it with a "dead" taste.
Essentially, iceberg water tastes fresh and natural because it is infused with fresh air from the pre-industrial world, while distilled water tastes flat because it is produced in a sterile environment that allows very little contact with air.
Does every iceberg taste different?
As long as the icebergs are carefully selected to ensure they have not been exposed to anything that could add minerals or pollutants, they all have the same taste profile. Fresh, natural, ancient snow preserved in ice is the same no matter where it comes from. All iceberg water producers select the ice to ensure this consistency.
Of course, those selection processes don't give 100% uniformity. The icebergs are chosen from what nature makes available, not manufactured in a laboratory. But the natural variation is so slight when chosen correctly that the differences are imperceptible.
Inspecting iceberg in the field for Svalbarði to ensure it meets proper iceberg water taste characteristics and quality standards
When we were first getting started at Svalbarði, we were asked a form of this question by the Norwegian food authority (Mattilsynet). They wanted to see if the quality and mineral content of icebergs was consistent in different locations. In the summer of 2014 we gathered 14 core samples from icebergs in the Svalbard fjords in front of 5 different glaciers. The laboratory results showed exactly what was expected based on the experience of other iceberg water scientists and producers - almost no minerals, and very little variation between icebergs.
This chart gives an example of the calcium content measured from the five different glacier regions we sampled (i.e., icebergs from the waters in front of the glacier fronts) in comparison to three well known bottled water brands: Voss, Fiji, and Evian.
As you can see, almost no calcium in the icebergs, very little variation, and all the other waters have much higher levels. Even low-mineral Voss water has 10 times more calcium than iceberg water, while Evian has 190 times more. The differences between the higher mineral waters would be perceptible by most - especially between Voss and Evian - but the differences between the various icebergs would be all but impossible to taste.
How iceberg water compares to other waters
We have already mentioned many differences with other water tastes and textures, but this video gives a good further demonstration. The journalists at Buzzfeed tried three waters. The first very high in sodium, the second very high in magnesium, and the third our iceberg water. The differences were deliberately extreme, but do a very good job of highlighting iceberg water's unique position at the lowest end of the mineral spectrum. Many people in the English speaking world tend to prefer the extreme lightness of iceberg water. Preferences elsewhere in the world vary, with people in southern and eastern Europe for example often preferring high mineral sparkling waters.
When doing comparative water tastings, the most important principles are (1) compare waters of different mineral levels, and (2) begin with the high mineral level waters first then work down to low levels.
This may sound slightly odd at first. With other beverages such as wine or beer, the typical order is to begin with a lighter flavour and work up to heavier, bolder selections. But with water, because the baseline is pure H2O (meaning water with no minerals and no carbonation), people have a basic expectation of what is "just water".
Depending on where people live, the daily water they drink from the tap or bottles can have varying mineral levels. But in most places it is in the low to medium minerality range. Anything within that fairly wide range tasted at the start will tend to not stand out strongly.
By beginning with a very high mineral water, the senses are heightened. People immediately recognize the taste is very different and are quickly attuned to the differences in what they are about to drink. By the time they get down to a medium to low minerality range where before they may not have noticed much, they now can detect clear differences.
For iceberg water such as Svalbarði, the impact is generally what the Buzzfeed video shows. Meaning that after tasting a very bold water (and medium minerality waters not shown in the video such as Evian or Iskilde for example), iceberg water tastes uniquely refreshing and light. The reaction to Svalbarði in this video from a water tasting with staff members of Gruvelageret Restaurant in Longyearbyen is a typical response.
What the water sommeliers say about iceberg water
Several water sommeliers have commented on the taste of iceberg water. Martin Riese's video in the first main section above gives his detailed review of Svalbarði. His bottom line description of iceberg water being "I think it's a great water. I really love the taste. It's very smooth."
Michael Hemling is a German tea and water sommelier who currently resides in Malawi working for the World Food Programme. He is a graduate of the Fine Water Academy and had his first opportunity to try our iceberg water at the 2019 Fine Water Summit in Stockholm. He referred to it as having an "almost light as a feather taste".
Japanese water sommelier Ruriko Suzuki also had her first chance to taste Svalbarði iceberg water in Stockholm. In this video she has her first taste and gives commentary alongside Fine Water Academy co-director Michael Mascha. She calls iceberg water "Very light. Very neutral. Sweet."
Tasting Svalbarði iceberg water helps save the icebergs
When we started our iceberg water brand, the goal was to use a symptom of global warming to help fight the problem. Normally around 5 billion cubic metres per year of icebergs calve off of Svalbard's glaciers, which winter snow then replenishes. However, warmer air and sea temperatures have knocked this cycle out of alignment and the glaciers are losing more mass than they can replenish. This causes excess icebergs to calve off and the glaciers to lose total mass each year.
We realized that those excess icebergs can be used to fight back against global warming. By using a portion of the sales revenue generated, we can fund greenhouse gas reducing projects that make every bottle of Svalbarði carbon negative sufficient to save 100kg of arctic ice from melting. Enjoy a bottle of the unique taste of our iceberg water to help us preserve our arctic home.