My baker friend Tom turned me on to the Cooking Issues podcast of Dave Arnold, who is an artisanal cocktail maker in Brooklyn among many other skills. Arnold recently visited our fair city to sample and make cocktails from the ubiquitous and generally unloved Saratoga mineral springs. His visit prompted me to share how I torment my own out-of-town guests by inviting them to sip a dozen of these memorable waters over a couple of hours. Let’s go.We’ll start at the Visitor’s Bureau (Broadway at Congress), where you’ll pick up a guide to the mineral springs. (You can also download it here.) Right across the street is Congress Park, where a number of outlets are clustered. (A spring consists of a pipe that descends into the underground aquifer, and a usually rusty and forbidding fountain where the water comes out.) Here you will find Congress Spring (named, as is the park, for an early settler who was a member of Congress) and Columbian Spring, which is a little joke by the city fathers that simply delivers our not very good tap water.
Before you leave the area, walk north across Spring Street to Hathorn Spring. This is generally considered to be the foulest of the waters, and it’s what Dave Arnold used to make his Saratoga Margarita. It’s so salty and metallic it has to be good for you. (The brochure says it’s “cathartic, diuretic, ‘grateful to the stomach’.” A few cocktails mixed with this stuff will definitely set you up.)
Now, make your way via car or bike to Spa Park for the Geyser Trail loop. The Geyser Island Spouter sits on a mound of tailings in the middle of a creek, and Arnold waded across to get a picture of himself drinking from it. You can stay onshore and sample from several taps, then walk the short (around ¼ mile) trail that takes you behind the SPAC concert pavilion (go during an event and you might catch a famous musician taking a smoke break) and up a slight rise to the Orenda Spring (source of some Martian-looking exudations you’ll pass on your journey) then back the way you came.
Just a short detour from the Geyser Spring parking lot, on the access road, takes you to the unmarked Polaris Spring. This one is said to be radioactive but I’ve quaffed here many times and never developed a glow. Now, back in your car, drive to State Seal Spring on Avenue of the Pines, opposite the Auto Museum which is the site of the original bottling plant. State Seal is the same product sold in the familiar blue bottles (which are now produced across Highway 50, in an anonymous facility that does not offer tours) and folks bring 5 gallon jugs to get it for free.
While sipping your State Seal (or the salty Geyser Spring water, available from a corroded tap in the same pavilion), you can contemplate the timeless nature of human greed and folly. The pavilion is named for Joe Bruno, a disgraced then partially rehabilitated Capital District politician, and a photo of him on an educational sign has been defaced in various ways. In the 1890s, a Scrooge McDuck-style villain hatched a plot to shut down this and all other local springs by siphoning out the CO2 to bottle and sell. Luckily, he was thwarted by Spencer Trask, a larger-than-life local hero easily the equal of Gyro Gearloose.
Two more springs worth noting are in and near High Rock Park just east of downtown. High Rock Spring is where George Washington allegedly nursed a hangover one foggy morning in 1787, mixing the mineral water with rum. Down the street at Excelsior and High Rock you’ll find the Old Red Spring. This water is said to have powerful properties for treating eczema (perhaps because it’s opposite a Superfund site, the former natural gas processing plant).
There are a few more Saratoga mineral springs left to explore, if you like, but I’ll leave you here because the Old Saratoga Brewing Company is right down the road on Excelsior. Here during tasting room hours you can sample other local beverages (including root beer for the underage) with a different but equally salutary effect. Air do shlàinte!