Pumpkin Spice Lattes: The Untold Story

pumpkin spice whipped cream coffee cloves ginger maple syrup milk cinnamon


he epic trajectory of the Pumpkin Spice Latte is, in a strange way, an apt encapsulation of American culture as we know it. Weaving together threads of capitalism, canny marketing, internet lore, class anxiety, sexism and the “treat yo’ self” industrial complex, the story of how the drink came to be a simultaneously hated and adored fixture of fall is not something to be celebrated so much as it is something to be closely examined — as a mirror for ourselves and the world we’re living in. Ultimately, the fact that a hot beverage with dubious ingredients has been the source of so much joy and so much controversy is nothing short of fascinating. Read on for a timeline tracing the origins of pumpkin spice from colonial times to the caffeinated cultural sensation it is today.

1620: Early American settlers “may have made” the first version of “pumpkin spice” by filling a hallowed-out pumpkin shell with milk, honey and spices and baking it in hot ash (as one does).

1936: The Washington Post publishes a recipe for pumpkin spice cake titled, “Spice Cake Of Pumpkin Newest Dish: Delicacy Tempting to All Appetites and Easy to Prepare. Ideal Dessert for Family Dinner, Healthful for Children,” thus marking the first-ever mention of the term “pumpkin spice” on record, not to mention eternal inspiration for great headlines. 

1950s: Spice company McCormick starts combining spices used in pumpkin pie (i.e. cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and ginger) and selling them together in one bottle under the label “pumpkin pie spice.”

1995: The Santa Fe New Mexican publishes a story about a shop called wildCHASE selling pumpkin spice candles, prompting Liz Stevens of The Times Union to write, “Are we becoming a nation of cinnamon-apple and pumpkin-spice addicts?” Oh, Liz. If only you knew.

1996: Home Roast Coffee brews “pumpkin spice” coffee beans, thus inaugurating the now-infamous relationship between pumpkin spice and coffee.

1998: Pumpkin spice coffee spreads to other purveyors, including The Whole Bean in Las Vegas and Fasig’s in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (“The pumpkin spice coffee is delicious,” Betty Bauer told The Morning Call in a story about Fasig’s Cappuccino Cafes.)

Spring of 2003: Company higher-ups at Starbucks ask product manager Peter Dukes to come up with an autumnal counterpart to their popular peppermint mocha. He and his team put together a list of about 20 possible flavors, including a pumpkin pie latte. In a survey asking customers to select which hypothetical beverage sounded most appealing, the pumpkin pie latte is ranked toward the bottom. Perhaps he is inexplicably passionate about pumpkin spice or perhaps he is a visionary ahead of his time, but Duke can’t — and won’t — let it go, which is how a handful of Starbucks employees find themselves taste-testing different combinations of caffeinated pumpkin (high pumpkin, high spice, low pumpkin, low spice, to be specific) in a laboratory at Starbuck’s Seattle headquarters. When the team finally settled on a winning formula, they almost call it the “Fall Harvest Latte.” I’m not saying our lives would be different if they had, but I’m also not not saying it.

Fall of 2003: Starbucks tests a small rollout of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington D.C., to much success.

September 2004: Starbucks officially rolls out the Pumpkin Spice Latte nationwide!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

October 2004: Starbucks sales spike 11% compared to the previous year. In a press release, CEO Jim Donald said, “The very successful debut of Pumpkin Spice Latte, which has been enthusiastically received by our customers, is creating momentum as we head into the holiday season.”

November 2009: The first whiffs of Pumpkin Spice Latte-induced discontent begin to emerge as Business Insider cites the popular drink in an article about “The 12 Reasons We Hate Thanksgiving” (pumpkin pie flavor overload being one of them).

September 2011: An anonymous internet user posts an open thread on a Starbucks gossip blog asking if men should be embarrassed to order Pumpkin Spice Lattes. A commenter (and probable Starbucks employee?) responds, “About a third of our customers are male that order PSL, usually a vente [sic].”

August 2012: Starbucks runs a contest on its Facebook page asking followers to compete for the honor to bring Pumpkin Spice Lattes to their city a week earlier than its designated national rollout date. The contest is so popular that the page crashes within an hour of launching.

October 2012: The Wall Street Journal runs a story entitled, “Halloween Horror Story: The Case of the Missing Pumpkin Lattes,” detailing the reactions of customers who are denied Pumpkin Spice Lattes due to a Pumpkin Spice Latte sauce shortage at Starbucks. (“I just left, depressed,” Mr. Anidjar, a 26-year-old commercial real-estate analyst who lives in Manhattan, tells the Journal.)

March 2013: Starbucks files a trademark for the acronym “PSL.” (Cue Jaws theme song).

August 2014: Dedicated Pumpkin Spice Latte twitter account @TheRealPSL tweets for the first time.

August 2014: Food Babe blogger Vani Hari goes viral with a post entitled, “You’ll Never Guess What’s in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (Hint: You Won’t Be Happy).” In it, she lambasts Starbucks for the ingredient makeup of its most popular beverage: “After reading the ingredients in the Pumpkin Spice Latte, I can tell you that there’s absolutely no pumpkin.” The story is shared more than 13 million times on Facebook and Twitter in a matter of days.

September 2014: As the popularity of the Pumpkin Spice begins to verge on ubiquity a decade after its launch, further backlash ensues. Along with watching Sex and the City, wearing North Face fleeces and hanging a poster of Marilyn Monroe on your wall, drinking Pumpkin Spice Lattes becomes embedded in the evolving definition of the “basic” stereotype as it is appropriated from black culture and applied to a generation of young white women.

October 2014: Anne Helen Peterson cites Pumpkin Spice Lattes in a BuzzFeed feature eviscerating the culturally appropriative, misogynistic and socioeconomically prejudiced implications of the term “basic”: “To call someone ‘basic’ is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny,” she writes. “And that’s a behavior far more troubling — and regressive — than taking pleasure in all things pumpkin spice.”

October 2014: Kara Brown writes a response on Jezebel to the growing number of think pieces about the word “basic,” calling out Peterson’s in particular (“Anne, girl, you’re overthinking this.”) Brown asserts that the preponderance of listicles ascribing certain traits to so-called basic people distort the original definition of the term: “[Being basic] is, and always has been, about coolness. It’s about your steeze or lack thereof […] Rihanna could become the official spokesperson for Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and nobody would think of her as basic.”

November 2014: The Los Angeles Times runs a story titled, “Watch out, Starbucks, Umami Burger has a pumpkin spice latte burger” detailing — you guessed it! — the release of Umami Burger’s Pumpkin Spice Latte Burger: “Umami Burger has decided to get in on the pumpkin spice latte craze with its own version of the beloved Starbucks holiday drink. Only the Umami latte comes with a beef patty and a bun. And no latte.”

August 2015: GeoHumanities, the official journal of the American Association of Geographers, publishes an article titled, “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins” examining the complex exchange between class, gender and race in food marketing: “[Pumpkin Spice Lattes’] fluffiness, lack of substance, and triviality, regardless of attempts to dismiss them as ‘basic,’ make them ultimate luxuries and hence markers of distinction and white privilege.”

August 2015: Peter Dukes, now Starbucks’ Director of Espresso in the Americas, writes a blog post announcing the addition of real pumpkin to the Pumpkin Spice Latte formula: “[With] that great taste you know and love, the PSL returns this fall, and this time it will be made with real pumpkin and without caramel coloring.” In a blog post on Food Babe, Vani Hari clarifies that she “still won’t be consuming it.”

October 2015: Starbucks starts the Orange Sleeve Society, a secret society centered around PSL fandom. It’s the best kind of secret society because it’s not a secret and anyone can join. All you have to do is a) get invited by a friend on Twitter or b) invite a friend on Twitter and you can be the proud owner of a little orange beverage sweater, otherwise known as a knit coozy.

November 2015: Forbes estimates that this fall Starbucks is set to make $100 million from Pumpkin Spice Latte sales alone.

August 2016: Starbucks launches a chat bot on Facebook Messenger dubbed “The Real PSL,” thus allowing customers to interact live with their favorite anthropomorphized drink. According to Time, “The chat bot is sassy but only semi-functional” (which is incidentally just how I like my bots).

November 2016: Competitive eater Mike “Megatoad” Stonie pours seven Pumpkin Spice Lattes (plus whipped cream) into a one-gallon mug and proceeds to consume the entire thing in less than two minutes. Seemingly unfazed by ingesting approximately 1,050 mg of caffeine in one sitting, he says, “It was delicious. It was good.”

August 2017: Native releases a Pumpkin Spice Latte-scented deodorant “inspired by the PSL.”

September 2017: Betsey Johnson releases a crossbody bag that resembles a Pumpkin Spice Latte cup, replete with checkboxes on the back labeled “Sugar Spice And Everything Nice” and a lipstick mark on the lid. The product description on the brands website reads, “Take your love of the Pumpkin Spice Latte to the next level with this playful round crossbody.” It retails for $78.

October 2017: Jaya Saxena writes “Women Aren’t Ruining Food,” an essay exploring the cultural double standard wherein foods and beverages that women love are consistently demeaned as annoying. Saxena argues that “women’s foods” tend to be sweet, allegedly healthy, fussy (“unicorn lattes, pumpkin spice anything”) or pink. “When those foods blow up,” she writes, “we judge women for falling for the marketing or trying to jump on the bandwagon, and we assume that because they like something other women like, they don’t have minds of their own.”

August 2018: NPD Group, an American market research firm, finds that 60% of Pumpkin Spice Latte purchasers have a household income of $75,000 and above, 45 percent are 45 years and older and 47 percent are male.

August 2018: On August 28th, 2018, Pumpkin Spice Lattes hit Starbucks locations nationwide, marking the earliest release of PSLs to date and, incidentally, one of the hottest days of the summer in New York.

If knowing all of this makes you wonder whether you love Pumpkin Spice Lattes or hate Pumpkin Spice Lattes, don’t worry, that’s kind of the point.

Feature photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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