Velvet Underground: America’s Love Affair With Saratoga Spring Water

In Saratoga, centuries of spring water.

At the inauguration ceremonies in January there were many toasts to President Obama’s second term, and the glasses raised high held the day’s official beverage, selected by Senator Chuck Schumer: Saratoga Spring Water.

But Obama is only the latest president to have enjoyed the waters that have flowed up from the famous natural spring for centuries.

George Washington himself sipped it at the source in upstate New York.

Like many great American businesses, Saratoga Spring Water has lived through boom and bust times, private and corporate ownership struggles, including a last-minute rescue from the indifferent clutches of a multinational corporation and its resurrection by Adam Madkour Sr., a business-savvy Lebanese immigrant with a background in bottled water who comes from a country known for its bountiful springs.

Saratoga Springs—known to the native people who lived in the region as “Serachtague,” meaning a place of swift water—was considered sacred for its unique and healing waters whose natural carbonation they believed represented the breath of their spirit god Manitou. (The official town seal depicts a Mohawk family who in 1771 brought the first English colonist to the “great medicine spring.”)

In the early 19th century, many towns along the Hudson River and in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains built sumptuous hotels as summertime retreats for wealthy city dwellers looking to escape the hot and polluted cities. European-style spas were all the rage, and Saratoga Springs became a lavish resort destination know as the “Queen of Spas” for generations of tony Americans and Europeans looking to “take the cure.” The healing waters were prescribed for everything from rheumatism and liver disease to relieving the ills of overconsumption.

Back when the entire area was wilderness, Gideon Putnam, a visionary entrepreneur and Saratoga’s founding father, saw the commercial possibilities and built the town’s first boarding house that eventually grew into the world’s largest hotel: the Grand Union. James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Lillian Russell and Nathaniel Hawthorne are just a few of the hallowed names recorded in the registers of the area’s fine hotels.

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In 1872, when a new spring with a sweet and crisp taste was discovered, a group of local businessmen not content to just offer Saratoga’s waters for soaking began bottling it under the name “Saratoga Vichy,” in honor of the fabled naturally carbonated French mineral springs. (The French Republic filed suit in 1903 against the use of their name, but lost.)

Specific geologic conditions give each spring its own levels of dissolved minerals such as bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, which impart a unique and distinctive flavor and, some say, health benefits. Waters with more minerals, like the Italian Pellegrino or the more intense German Gerolsteiner, taste markedly different than those with less minerality, reflecting even more than wine how sediments express spring water’s unique terroir.

To drive home how much location matters, Adam Madkour Jr., president and chief operating officer, says the water in Saratoga State Park just across the road “is totally different from the water on our side.” In fact, some say that each of Saratoga’s 17 naturally carbonated springs found bubbling throughout town has a different taste profile.

The original Saratoga Vichy was bottled from a spring with a much higher mineral content than the current source, which thanks to a rare geologic quirk was naturally carbonated. The charming structure that houses the original spring is still on the property along with a pavilion where people would order a glass of effervescent water and take in the view.

Today, Saratoga Spring’s water comes from a neighboring spring on the property with fewer minerals, reflecting our changing tastes. It is also no longer naturally carbonated, but the water is still bottled at the same plant as it was in 1872, now piped through stainless steel into two 30,000-gallon silos and through a carbonator where CO2 is added. Modern regulations require UV treatment and filtration, and the pace has picked up: Where staff once filled three bottles a minute, the present-day facility can now fill 500 in that time.

As in the olden days, those glass bottles are a beautiful blue. “The original was more aquamarine, but the cobalt blue bottles have been around a long time,” said Adam Jr. “That’s because spring water was originally bottled as a tincture. It’s a throwback to bottled water’s heyday in the late 1800s, when water was the Coke and Pepsi of the time.”

Delivered by horse-drawn carriage, the water’s perceived medicinal properties even extended to mixed drinks: Locals swore that Scotch mixed with the spring water never led to a hangover.

But by the turn of the century, the spring’s popularity led to unregulated bottling and exploitation, following the boom with an inevitable bust that nearly drained many of the fabled springs dry. And with the rise of modern medicine, the infirm stopped “taking to the waters” to heal their ailments. In the 1930s when municipal water sources became widespread, most bottled water companies went out of business, but Saratoga Spring Water hung on.

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In the mid-1980s when bottled water regained popularity, the company was bought by Anheuser-Busch, which wanted to get into the water market, and later by Evian. But, much to the chagrin of local residents, Evian shuttered the plant in 1991 when it believed the U.S. sparkling-water market had fizzled. That’s when an investment group—including local businessmen motivated by love of their hometown’s history—swooped in to save the company.

Adam Madkour Sr. was brought in to run the company, which he bought in 2001. Adam Jr. says his dad made an offer because he saw the brand was well positioned to capture a marketplace niche, but there was another reason, too: “Saratoga had a special place in his heart.”

That niche is high-end restaurants, upscale merchants and, in keeping with the town’s legacy, hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Hyatt’s boutique Andaz Hotels. But while the water competes with giant multinationals like Evian and Pellegrino, and is available in 38 states and at resorts in places like Aruba and Bermuda (and a client even recently began selling the blue bottles in China), primary distribution is here in New York.

Bobby Flay, who has a summer house near Saratoga, offers the water in all of his restaurants. So do many of Union Square Hospitality Group’s restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, Untitled at the Whitney and North End Grill. Explained Dan Soloway, USHG’s operations manager, “We wanted to introduce a more environmental approach in the bottled water category. We also want to support a local, regional water producer. Saratoga was a natural fit.”

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Rick Hickman, Green Table’s beverage director, agrees. To reduce packaging, the eco-minded company uses Vivreau’s in-house filtration and carbonation systems, but when it comes to bottled water, “Saratoga is our go-to choice. It’s local, has a great blue bottle and I find the taste clean and dry.”

Adam Jr. says Americans have a different palate than Europeans: “We prefer a higher carbonation level with smaller bubbles that we find cleanses the palate. It has an astringent quality, which stimulates the taste buds to better bring out the subtle flavors of foods that help you better enjoy a rich meal.”

The Madkours understand that bottled water is a mixed bag when it comes to sustainability. That’s why they offset all their electricity with wind power, use high-efficiency lighting and machinery and recycle everything—including their glass bottles, which are turned into mulch and sand.

But it’s not just sustainability. The family has also brought stability to Saratoga’s favorite brand. As Nick Pone, jack-of-all-trades creative director who also keeps the vintage equipment running, says, “It’s a great place to work because they have been around forever.”

As long as Saratoga’s spring keeps flowing, I’d bet those blue bottles are going to see a lot more presidents come and go.

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