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The phrase “testing the waters” takes on a whole new meaning in the historic spa town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where the annual International Water Tasting Competition draws cities and companies from around the world hoping to take home the title of best H2O.

Entrants representing countries from Bosnia to South Korea submit a total of more than 100 waters among four categories, including best municipal (tap) water, best bottled non-carbonated water, best bottled carbonated water and best purified (distilled or mechanically filtered) water. Each sample is served in stemmed glassware as 11 judges inspect the water for clarity and smell before tasting it.

Judges then give each sample a rating based on appearance, odour, flavour, mouthfeel and aftertaste, similar to the elements involved in wine tasting. Clear water with no odour and a clean and crisp taste earns higher marks.

In 2012, Greenwood, a small city in British Columbia, won best municipal water. The award for best non-carbonated water went to Jackson Springs Natural Premium Spring Water in Canada’s Manitoba province; best carbonated water went to the Esperanza brand from Bosnia’s Tesanjski Dijamant company; and best purified water went to the Claire Baie brand by Wisconsin's WIT Beverage.

Now in its 23rd year, the competition has attracted so many entries that judging is split over two days. This year, preliminary judging takes place on 21 February, with the top 10 in each category moving on to the final judging on 23 February. The final tasting and winners’ reception are free and open to the public, though tickets must be obtained through local hotels or the town’s visitor centre. At the conclusion of the official tasting, visitors have the chance to try samples for themselves, and can even vote for the best packaging design, which is awarded based on public input along with the judges’ vote.

The water tasting finale comes in the form of the “Water Rush”, where visitors participate in a free-for-all to snag the leftover bottles of water sent from around the world for judging. Seasoned rushers bring reusable bags to ensure they grab enough to quench their thirst for exotic water until next year.

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