It’s hard to imagine a world without Pumpkin Spice Lattes: the iconic Starbucks latte turns 20 this year, and has become synonymous with fall. It counts Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Gordon Ramsay as fans (to name a few), and was the catalyst for an entire genre of pumpkin spice products to be created, from candles to Goldfish crackers. But did you know the cozy latte almost didn’t get made?
We sat down with Peter Dukes, AKA the creator of the Pumpkin Spice Latte who led the Starbucks beverage development team at the time, and got all the details on how the beloved drink was developed (spoiler alert: it almost wasn’t).
Who came up with the idea of the Pumpkin Spice Latte?
Back in the spring of 2003, after the major success of the Peppermint Mocha (Starbucks’ first blockbuster seasonal beverage), the Starbucks beverage development team was tasked with coming up with the next big thing, but this time for the fall season. “We gathered six people on our team and got together in the Liquid Lab to brainstorm ideas that might resonate with customers in the fall,” says Peter. “We came up with a list of 100 different flavoured beverages, and quickly wittled it down to 10. At the very bottom of the list was a beverage called the pumpkin latte.”
Was pumpkin spice popular at the time?
Not only was pumpkin spice not a popular flavour at the time, it didn’t exist yet. At least, not in the capacity we know now. “20 years ago, nothing pumpkin existed in the marketplace,” explains Peter. “The only thing you could find in the grocery aisle was pumpkin puree used to make a pumpkin pie. That was it.” When Starbucks surveyed customers to see if they would purchase a pumpkin latte, the resounding answer was no.
Related: The Perfect Pumpkin Spice Cocktail
How was the Pumpkin Spice Latte developed?
Despite the initial negative response from customers, the Starbucks beverage development team couldn’t let go of the idea of the pumpkin latte. “We had approval to move forward in developing four of the beverages on our list,” says Peter. “There was a lot of debate on whether the pumpkin latte would be included, since customers said they weren’t likely to buy it. But with some back and forth, we got the approval to go ahead.”
The food scientists in the Starbucks Liquid Lab came up with all kinds of concoctions to emulate the flavours they were looking to capture in their lattes. In the early stages of developing the Pumpkin Spice Latte, they brought pumpkin pies into the lab to experiment: “We literally took espresso, poured it on the pumpkin pie and tasted it, just to get a sense of what the flavours were like. Some people took a piece, dipped it in espresso and then ate it,” says Peter. “When we did that we thought ‘this actually tastes pretty good’. Through this part of the development, we realized it’s a heavier body in your mouth, so that’s when we knew we wanted to make a sauce instead of a syrup.” That sauce is the foundation of the Pumpkin Spice Lattes we know and love today. After developing the pumpkin latte in the Liquid Lab, Starbucks once again surveyed customers to see if they’d purchase it, this time with a sample of the beverage. The answer was a resounding yes.
Was the Pumpkin Spice Latte an immediate success?
To test out their new product, Starbucks launched the Pumpkin Spice Latte in just two locations: Vancouver, BC and Washington, DC. Immediately, they realized the Pumpkin Spice Latte was a hit: “We picked up the phone, called the store managers and could hear the excitement in their voices,” Peter recalls. “Looking at the sales data and hearing it in their voices, we knew we had something special. We started scrambling to see if we had enough Pumpkin Spice sauce to get us through the promotional window we had planned on offering it.”
Why is Pumpkin Spice Latte so popular?
Although the Pumpkin Spice Latte was an immediate success for Starbucks, the company considered swapping it out over the next few years for something else to “keep things fresh,” according to Peter. That is, until Facebook and Twitter arrived in 2006, and customers sent the popularity of the drink out of the stratosphere. Endless memes, viral videos, and celebrity endorsements later, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has firmly cemented itself as an important cultural signifier that has grown larger than the creators could have ever imagined. The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice latte has inspired countless copycats from other coffee chains, along with a whole industry dedicated to pumpkin spice-flavoured and scented everything — “It’s the most sincere form of flattery you can possibly get” says Peter with a laugh. “20 years later, it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Why is the Pumpkin Spice Latte referred to as PSL?
Many Pumpkin Spice Latte fans will know that it’s lovingly referred to as the PSL. Not only is it easier to say, but it’s also the three-letter beverage code written on cups by baristas, so it’s a subtle nod to Starbucks’ coffee culture. While Starbucks doesn’t have “Pumpkin Spice Latte” trademarked, they do own the trademark for “PSL”.
Was the Pumpkin Spice Latte almost called something else?
Believe it or not, the Pumpkin Spice Latte was almost called the Fall Harvest Latte. “Before we launched, there was a debate on whether it should be named after the season,” says Peter. Starbucks also toyed with the idea of calling it the Pumpkin Latte, before landing on the Pumpkin Spice Latte: “It describes a sense of what you’re going to taste when you pick up the cup… the spice combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and espresso really tells the most important story.” It’s hard to know if the Fall Harvest Latte would have been as successful as the Pumpkin Spice Latte, but one thing’s for certain: FHL just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way PSL does!
What is Pumpkin Spice Latte made of?
The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice latte is made with a base of espresso, steamed milk and Starbucks’ signature Pumpkin Spice sauce that’s made with real pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It’s then topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of pumpkin pie spices.
How many Pumpkin Spice Lattes have been sold over the past 20 years?
As Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage, hundreds of millions of Pumpkin Spice Lattes have been served over the past 20 years. Yep, you read that right!
Is Starbucks Pumpkin Spice back?
Starbucks hasn’t officially announced when their fall menu (including all things Pumpkin Spice) will be making its debut, but historically the menu is typically launched in late August, so there’s a good chance it’ll be at a store near you very soon. Pumpkin Spice Lattes retail for around $6, depending on your size and region.