Care to See the Water Menu?

Water is essential for life: It covers more than 70 percent of Earth's surface and the human body is more than 50 percent water. We use gallons of the stuff every day to wash, water, flush and drink.

But now, after millions of years, the way we look at water is changing. This simple substance is being transformed from a necessity into a luxury.

People are now prepared to spend $40 for what they can get through their tap at home for a fraction of a cent. What's going on?

Claridge's, a luxury hotel in London, actually has a water menu. Patrons can choose from 30 selections imported from all over the world.

For the most refined palette there is Fine artesian water from Japan at $30 a bottle and $40 a bottle, or Mahaolo from Hawaii, described on the menu as "rare deep sea water" that is "very old." And Just Born Spring Drops from India is apparently "light and not aggressive," at $42 per bottle.

'We Wouldn't Do This Unless There Was a Demand for It'

The madness at Claridge's started a year ago when a request for Berg, a high-end water harvested from the icebergs of Newfoundland set the hotel on a six-month research project to find 30 waters for the menu.

Despite the effort and high prices, Claridge's public relations manager, Gill Christophers, said it was well worth putting posh H20 on the menu.

"Breadth of choice is what Claridge's is all about, so it's not ridiculous at all," Christophers said. "We're a business, so we wouldn't do this unless there was a demand for it. The guest is asking not just for a glass of water."

Christophers said that the guests' taste for water has gotten so specific that they not only ask for berg water or glacial water but water with no sodium content or water fortified with calcium and magnesium.

"People are so very, very careful about what they eat these days that it's moved into water," said Christophers.

Water Taste-Test

If water is merely two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, isn't it all the same? I tasted a few high-priced H20s to assess. Some tasted like swimming pool water, others like rain, and some tasted like nothing at all. I suppose with water that's a good thing. After a blind taste test, I settled on my favorite: Elsenham, a pure spring water advertised as rich in minerals.

"Nightline" traveled about an hour outside London to see where this water comes from. The source is not as glamorous as one would imagine. There were no volcanoes or exotic locations, just two women wearing hairnets working the bottling line at a production site near the Stansted Airport.

And while the actual manufacturing site might not be much to look at, the production and marketing make it an exclusive, expensive and posh water. Elsenham water is drawn 1,000 feet to the surface from a confined chalk aquifer that slowly filters the water over a 10-year time period. After it is bottled, a batch is kept for 72 hours for laboratory testing before it is released for final packaging, according to the Elsenham Web site.

"There's also a cost, you know, in terms of bringing all that up, bringing the water up," Elsenham founder and chairman, Michael Johnson said. "And there's also a cost to the way we position. There's a cost to the way we package it."

In fact, price is used as a marketing weapon to maintain exclusivity. According to Johnson, they don't want Elsenham water to be too readily available. "We do turn down quite a lot of people who try to buy this product," said Johnson.

While all this glamour attached to water might seem a bit absurd, Johnson believes that selling high-priced water is a logical decision in today's market.

"Any market you look at, whether it's food, clothing, perfume, whatever it might be -- wine -- you've got a pyramid," Johnson said. "And you've got the bottom end of the market, a middle and a top. And this market didn't have anything at the top."

Less Expensive, Better Taste?

But what about the bottom of the market? Thames water, London's tap water treated from the Thames River, scored third out of 24 in a recent water taste test, ranking higher than most of the fancy water at Claridge's.

Thames water London quality control manager Keith Smith doesn't believe in all the posh water hype.

"If people wish to purchase bottled water, then that is their choice," said Smith. "It's just a thousand times more expensive and an equivalent taste from my perspective."

The thing is, people do want to purchase bottled water. Sales have increased a thousand-fold since the mid-1980s. Is it a taste sensation or just a status symbol for our times?