The Origins of Pumpkin Spice
As summer unwinds, and we approach Autumn (or, “fall” for my American readers) the summer heat fades and we are left with darker nights, cooler climates and the run-up to Christmas, which feels like it starts earlier as each year passes. But before that, we have Halloween, and before that, we have pumpkin spice latte season. You can see that search traffic for the term “pumpkin spice” is at record highs already this year, but what is more interesting is the incredible trajectory of this spice mix’s popularity, which seemed to kick off in the early 2000s.

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Compiled from Glimpse and Google Trends data

This coincides with the unveiling of the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003, introduced to the world by Starbucks. This beverage is now so influential that it stands as a reference point for the alternating seasons. As enthused as consumers become about eating chocolate eggs at easter, they now long for the addition of the Pumpkin Spiced Latte to Starbucks’ seasonal menu as fall rolls around. $SBUX

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But Starbucks didn’t invent this flavour. Long before Howard Schultz became encapsulated by the espresso bars of Milan as a young man and sought to bring them to the United States, pumpkin spice was a blend of spices (often containing cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves) that had been used in American baking for centuries. You can go as far back as 1798 when Amelia Simmons shared two recipes using the spice blend in her book, American Cookery. Hundreds of years later, in the 1930s, companies like Thompson & Taylor released premade spice mixtures labelled as “pumpkin pie spice”, removing the need to locate and acquire the individual components for consumers.

Longer-term readers may remember my article that documented the History of the Frappucino back in September 2021. Whilst iced coffee already existed during the 1990s, the Frappuccino was a Starbucks creation that helped bring ice-blended coffee to the mainstream after its official launch in 1994. Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ founder, would later refer to the drink as “the best mistake I didn’t make” on account of his initial reluctance to bring it to market. The year it launched, Frappuccinos accounted for 7% of Starbucks’ year-end revenues. Fast forward to today, and cold beverages are ~75% of the company’s entire beverage sales volume in a given year. Schultz would later acknowledge, in 1997, the power of keeping an open mind.

  • “Many entrepreneurs fall into a trap: They are so captivated by their own vision that when an employee comes up with an idea, especially one that doesn’t seem to fit the original vision, they are tempted to quash it.”

A decade after the success of the Frappuccino, Starbucks’ espresso division, led by Peter Dukes, had been experimenting with seasonal beverages such as Eggnog Latte & Peppermint Mocha and was looking for something new to fit into their Fall menu. On the 7th floor of Starbucks HQ, in a secure R&D space called “liquid lab”, the Pumpkin Spice Latte was born in the Spring of 2003. The team would experiment by sampling mouthfuls of pumpkin pie, followed by sips of varying espresso blends, and attempting to identify the flavours which complimented each other the best. There was a sense that this pairing would work, but Dukes recollected that “nobody knew back then what it would grow to be”. After further testing, the team settled on a recipe that utilised pumpkin spice sauce, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg; topped with espresso, steamed milk, a dollop of whipped cream, and a sprinkle of pumpkin pie topping. By the fall of that year, they soft launched the pumpkin beverage in 100 stores across Vancouver and Washington DC, and Dukes stated that “within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner”. The following fall, Starbucks would launch the product globally, and the rest is history. Whilst the company doesn’t break down their pumpkin spice sales, they frequently allude to the impact that the beverage subcategory has on their fall sales during Q4 earnings calls.

One unexpected outcome is that over the years, the Pumpkin Spiced Latte has become synonymous with “basic” culture in a cruel twist of irony for Peter Dukes, the 20+ year coffee veteran who is now known for the creation of a basic icon.

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Definition of Basic, Urban Dictionary

Naturally, to create a product whose namesake is interchangeable with the idea of one having no taste is the antithesis of the coffee connoisseur. That said, Dukes later came to terms with it, telling Insider that "it was a fun experience, I worked with a great team on it and you know, you never know when you take risks, you never know what’s going to happen with it. People seem to have fun with the PSL and if that's basic so be it."
Christian's avatar
What a read Conor. I didn’t know a lot of this about pumpkin spice
Conor Mac's avatar
@christian7621 thanks Christian :)
Joshua Simka's avatar
A lot of people don't realize that "pumpkin spice" doesn't necessarily involve the actual taste of pumpkin or any real pumpkin--though some interpretations of pumpkin spice beverages and treats do involve pumpkin. When it comes to the iconic Starbucks beverage I think it's more about the spice blend and their association with pumpkin pie. If I recall correctly the drink doesn't involve any actual pumpkin.
Conor Mac's avatar
@tomato It didn't for a long time, they later added it though.