The storied Saratoga Spring Water Company
BY SABINE HRECHDEKIAN
“Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.”
l ike many celebrated and enduring American businesses, the story of Saratoga Spring Water Company—founded in 1872 when our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, held office—tells a captivating tale. It involves the small-town boom and bust in the 19th century, private and corporate ownership struggles, including a last-minute rescue from the indifferent clutches of a multinational corporation and the company’s final resurrection by Adam Madkour Sr., a Lebaneseborn businessman with a background in bottled water who just happens to come from a country known for its bountiful springs.
TAPPING THE ORIGINS
Saratoga Springs—known to the Indians who lived in the region as Serachtaque or Sarahoga, meaning a place of swift water—was 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.”)
It took an enterprising settler named Gideon Putnam to capitalize on the commercial possibilities of the waters by building the town’s first tavern and boarding house in 1802 near one of the springs, which by the 1870s had expanded to become one of the world’s largest hotels—the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs.
It was one of many sumptuous summertime retreats built along the Hudson River and in the Catskills and Adirondack mountains during that era for wealthy city dwellers like the Vanderbilts, Lillian Russell and Nathaniel Hawthorne—just a few of the hallowed names found recorded in the area’s registers. Fueled by the expansion of railroads and the romantic depiction of nature in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, hotels like the Grand Union and Catskill Mountain House, whose ruined and crumbling walls can still be seen on top of Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, offered a source of renewal and escape from the crowded and polluted cities.
European-style spas were also all the rage, and by the middle of the 19th century, 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.” Those were the days when medical doctors prescribed a soak for everything from rheumatism and liver disease to cancer and overconsumption. Such beliefs in the miraculous powers of Saratoga water died out after the turn of the century, as true curative results were proved to be largely unfounded. In spite of no longer having credence in the medical community, believers can still “take to the waters” at Roosevelt Baths & Spa, part of a complex built in the 1930s in the 2,200-acre Saratoga State Park that includes the Gideon Putnam Resort, named in honor of Saratoga’s founding father. A fitting tribute given that the Grand Union Hotel, like many historical landmarks, was demolished in the 1950s to be ignominiously replaced by, of all things, a Grand Union supermarket and the far less grand Grand Union Motel.
Not content to just offer spring water for soaking, in 1872 when a new spring with a sweet and crisp taste was discovered, a group of local businessmen began bottling it under the name “Saratoga Vichy,” in honor of the naturally carbonated French mineral springs. (The French eventually filed suit in 1903 against the use of the Vichy name, but lost.)
BOOM TO BUST
Thanks to specific geologic conditions, each of the world’s potable springs has different levels of dissolved minerals like bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, which impart a unique and distinctive flavor profile and, some believe, health benefits.
Waters with more minerals like the Italian Pellegrino or the more intense German Gerolsteiner taste markedly different than those with less minerality like Saratoga, reflecting even more than wine how sediments express spring water’s unique terroir.
To drive home how much location matters in this instance, Adam Madkour Jr., the current president and chief operating officer of the storied 141-year-old company explains, “There is a fault line that runs along Route 50 just past our property, so all the spring water in Saratoga State Park just across the road is highly mineralized with a high sulfur content, while the water on our side comes from a different aquifer with low bicarbonate levels and very little sulfur.”
The original Saratoga Vichy water was bottled from a spring with a lot more minerals than the current source, which thanks to a rare geologic quirk, was naturally carbonated. Although the exact cause of this carbonation is still under debate, Adam Jr. has his theory. “This particular pocket of water was sealed under layers of slate in a limestone aquifer under considerable pressure,” he says. “The carbonic acid and sodium bicarbonate in the water allowed the Co2 to remain dissolved, giving it an effervescence when captured in pressurized bottles and kegs.”
Today, Saratoga Spring Water Company’s water is still bottled at the same plant as it was in 1872 but comes from a different neighboring spring on the property due to logistic issues and contains fewer minerals so that it is no longer naturally carbonated. The spring water is piped in through stainless steel into two 30,000-gallon silos and either directly bottled for “still” water or put through a carbonator where Co2 is added for “sparkling” water. Although the springs are safe, as a backup measure, they now use UV treatment and filtration before bottling, and the pace has picked up. Where staff once manually filled three bottles a minute, the present-day state-of-theart facility can now fill 500 bottles in the same time.
As Adam took me through a door that led out of their offices directly into the bottling plant, he said: “It’s so neat to go out on the property today and see where pictures were taken because the buildings haven’t changed that much. It’s an incredible feeling to work in a place with so much history.” A charming structure that houses the original spring is still on the property along with an adjoining pavilion where visitors would come to order a glass of water and take in the view.
That history extends to the iconic bottles Saratoga Spring Water Company’s water comes in. “The original bottle was more aquamarine, but the cobalt blue bottles have been around a long time,” says 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 their time. It’s a classic and timeless look that has withstood the test of centuries.”
Delivered by horse-drawn carriage until the 1940s, Adam Jr. says, “The water’s medicinal properties were thought to assist in the absorption of minerals and vitamins and in the treatment of indigestion, ulcers and other stomach ailments. It was even used to cure a hangover!”
But like all booms, by the turn of the century, Saratoga’s popularity led to unregulated bottling and exploitation, bringing on the inevitable “bust” that nearly drained many of the fabled springs dry.
Thanks to advances in medicine as well as the debunking of certain myths around the curative powers of the water, people also stopped “taking to the waters” to heal their ailments. The death knell for bottled spring water came in the 1930s when municipal water sources came online providing a reliable and free flow of water. Yet, even though most of the other bottling companies went out of business, Saratoga Spring Water hung on.
In the mid-’80s, when bottled water regained its popularity, the company was bought by Anheuser-Busch, the American brewery giant famous for the everyman brew of Budweiser beer, who wanted to get into the water market, and later by Evian, who, much to the chagrin of local residents, shuttered the plant in 1991 when they believed the U.S. sparkling-water market had fizzled.
That’s when an investment group that included local businessmen motivated by civic pride who understood the value of preserving this iconic American brand swooped in to rescue the company. They brought in Adam Madkour Sr. to run it, which he did for seven years until he finally acquired it in 2001. When asked why his dad made an offer, Adam Jr. explains: “Saratoga had a special place in his heart. It’s a legendary location with a proud history. He also felt the company was well positioned in the marketplace to capture a niche.”
That niche is the higher-end white table restaurants, upscale merchants and hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt’s boutique Andaz Hotels. Although their product is available in 38 states and at resorts like Aruba and Bermuda, their primary distribution area is regional with NYC being their main focus.
THEY DRINK TO THAT
The water is a favorite of local celebrities, like Bobby Flay who has a summer house in the area and offers Saratoga water in all of his restaurants. It’s also a top pick for Max of his namesake Max London’s, a popular restaurant and bar in Saratoga Springs that offers seasonal American food. “We love Saratoga,” London says. “It’s the best bottled water out there. The Italian brands are too light and some have too much sodium, but Saratoga has just the right amount of carbonation.” For those who find the water a bit too carbonated, he finds it refreshing and adds, “Sparkling water is supposed to sparkle!”
Taste and carbonation are a key factor because Americans have a different palate than Europeans. As Adam Jr. explains: “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.”
But it’s not just about bubbles; restaurants that source from local farms extend that commitment to water, too. “It’s a local company and we know where the water comes from, which is very important for us,” London says.
That also goes for Jeff Gimmel, who offers Saratoga’s still and sparkling water exclusively at his restaurant Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson. “Saratoga [Spring Water] is the obvious choice when you are a business focused on supporting local and regional products.
It’s authentic spring water, unlike so many other companies that repackage tap water, and you can taste the natural minerality in it because of that.” Plus, he continues, “it always feels good to support a small, family-owned business.” The support goes both ways since the company sponsors many local events including Ramp Fest, an annual celebration of the pungent harbinger of spring that Gimmel organizes each May in Hudson.
Although Saratoga Spring Water Company’s main competitors are mass-produced global juggernauts like Evian and Pellegrino, Adam Jr. seems proud of their David versus Goliath stance. “We are extremely small compared to our global competitors.” The company’s smaller, hands-on style of operation initially surprised Gimmel when he called once and discovered they had a marketing department made up of only two: Adam Jr. and Nick Pone, their jack-of-all-trades creative director, who not only handles their graphics and website but keeps the vintage machinery and equipment running.
The Madkours take great pride in being a close-knit “little engine that could” competing with giant multinationals. “Being Americanmade and having a proudly historic brand manufactured in this country is what distinguishes us,” says Adam Jr. A point that clearly resonates with their consumers as well.
Being a family company is also not a marketing ploy but an approach that informs their values. Not only is Adam Jr. now occupying the position his father once held, his dad is CEO, his brother Shane is the plant’s floor manager and his uncle and stepmother work there, too. They have around 22 longtime employees loyal to the company and a solid network of over 100 distributors who they view as part of Saratoga Spring Water Company’s extended family. As for their business philosophy, it couldn’t be more different from the slashand- burn approach of corporate America. “We don’t tend to have a cutthroat business attitude here. I don’t know if that is to our detriment or shows our positive side,” Adam Jr. says.
That refreshing perspective extends to understanding that bottled water is a mixed bag when it comes to sustainability. “There is always going to be an impact in bottling water,” notes Adam Jr., “that’s why we are dedicated to mitigating that as much as possible by making sound environmental choices,” which include offsetting electricity with wind power, using high-efficiency lighting and machinery and recycling everything—including their glass bottles.
When asked if the company has been affected by the rise of doit- yourself carbonation systems, Adam Jr. notes that “bottled water is a profit center for restaurants, so we haven’t seen a black and white sales impact.” As for those countertop soda makers, he takes the philosophical approach: “We think it’s great if people want to carbonate at home, but the source is still tap water, and depending on where you are, the quality of that water and the pipe that delivers it might not be the best.
But more power to you, it’s better than drinking soda at least!” From George Washington, who drank the waters of the original “great medicine spring,” to President Obama who served Saratoga as the exclusive bottled water at his inauguration last winter, 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.