Researching the history of the pumpkin spice latte, Georgia McHaffie uncovers its quirky origins and gives it a try for the first time.
Starting from its popularity as a Starbucks flavour, the words ‘pumpkin spice’ have become synonymous with all things woolly jumpers, falling leaves, and colder days. Earlier and earlier each year we see the flavour make its way onto our shelves. From coffee to candles, and even deodorant, it is an autumnal phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Yet the question remains. Is this coffee flavour overhyped, a delicious mouthful of TK Maxx’s autumn candle collection? Or is it everything it’s cracked up to be?
It may seem to some that this autumn staple seemed to come from nowhere, but the drink nicknamed “PSL” actually has a pretty interesting history. Starbucks first released the PSL in the autumn of 2003. It started out as a limited collection, but according to CNBC, hundreds of millions have sold since.
The flavour itself is a combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, and clove. One of the first times the spices were combined was actually here in Scotland, by a Scottish author known elusively as “Mrs. Frazer”. The blend was branded “mixed spices” and appeared in The Practice of Cookery in 1791 as a way to season mutton and fried flounder. Very different from our beloved cream-topped, sugar-filled beverage. The first time this combination became “pumpkin pie spice” wouldn’t be until 1934, when McCormick, the world’s largest spice seller, began to sell it. The creation of the pumpkin spice latte is credited to Peter Dukes, who it is said, with his team, poured shots of espresso over pumpkin pies to determine whether it was a winning flavour.
Now I have to admit I was pretty behind on the hype, and only tried my first Pumpkin Spice Latte last week on my morning rush before the trek to uni (the life of a home student). Honestly, I felt pretty intimidated ordering it. I was waiting for the chants of “That is cringe” and “You’re so basic.” I had to stop myself ordering a “coffee, black like my soul,” instead.
I am so glad I didn’t. The combination of bitter coffee and spicy sweetness was exactly what I needed for the cold walk up the library hill. It was like sitting wrapped in a blanket on a cold day, smelling something baking in the next room. I will admit, after three quarters of the way through, it begins to taste a bit like blended biscuit, in a more sickly than pleasantly sweet way. All in all, would get again.
So why my fear of something as simple as coffee? I think it is summed up well by Jaya Saxena in her piece Women Aren’t Ruining Food. She writes: “When men enjoy something, they elevate it. But when women enjoy something, they ruin it.” Claiming that when foods liked by women become popular “we judge women for falling for the marketing or…jump[ing] on the bandwagon” rather than having opinions of their own. Popular things become “basic” rather than liked for good reason.
So, is it overhyped? Maybe. Or do we only ask that question because the PSL is popular with women? Either way, it is a pretty good coffee that brings a little bit of joy as the days get shorter and colder. Pumpkin spice is an integral part of the autumn culture, which I feel brings us all together a little bit more at this time of year.