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I Tried Every Pumpkin Spice Drink Out There And Ranked Them

By Evie Fordham··  7 min read
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I Tried Every Pumpkin Spice Drink Out There And Ranked Them starbucks PSL
Starbucks

For coffee lovers everywhere, the end of summer and onset of fall are signaled not by falling leaves or cooling temperatures but by the arrival of the ultimate fall drink — the pumpkin spice latte.

Starbucks created the first pumpkin spice latte in 2003. (That means that if pumpkin spice latte were a person, it would be old enough to go to college this fall.) Since then, the sweet-with-a-hint-of-spice espresso drink has spawned many copycats. 

But does the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte beat the competition? I tried nearly a dozen pumpkin spice drinks to find out.

Hot Drinks

Did you know that the pumpkin spice latte was originally called the “fall harvest latte”? Starbucks wanted a new fall drink to recreate the holiday magic of the eggnog latte and peppermint mocha. Starbucks “Liquid Lab” researchers literally tasted bites of pumpkin pie and chased it with espresso to develop the now-ubiquitous drink. 

Company executives nearly killed the pumpkin spice latte, but I’m sure they’re glad they went through with it now. Starbucks has earned an estimated $2 billion from pumpkin spice lattes alone, according to The Business of Business.

Here’s how various chains’ pumpkin spice lattes break down in terms of taste, presentation, and value:

4. McDonald’s

  • Spice Flavor: 1/10 

  • Presentation: 2/10

  • Overall Flavor: 2/10

  • Price: $

True to form, McDonald’s pumpkin latte arrives scalding hot (just like all other McCafe coffee). Try not to burn your tongue while you savor the flavor of fall as interpreted by Mickey D’s. McDonald’s pumpkin latte is sweet and creamy, with an orange tint that doesn’t appear to be from actual pumpkin, at least according to the ingredient list

mcdonalds psl

Although it’s the most wallet-friendly option, don’t expect much pumpkin or spice flavor from McDonald’s pumpkin latte. I actually prefer the iced version of McDonald’s pumpkin latte, which has a rich caramel taste, although it’s pretty sweet. McDonald’s also serves an iced pumpkin macchiato.

3. Peet’s Coffee

  • Spice Flavor: 4/10 

  • Presentation: 6/10

  • Overall Flavor: 5/10

  • Price: $$

The main flavor I got from Peet’s pumpkin latte was, disappointingly, vanilla. The beverage has a nice presentation complete with latte art and a delicious layer of rich foam subbed for the whipped cream. But it was hard to tell the drink’s flavor apart from your typical vanilla latte. 

Nevertheless, I think Peet’s Coffee’s charming atmosphere makes up for the mild pumpkin latte. If you’re not a huge fan of the cinnamon-and-spice aspect of a pumpkin latte, it could be your best option.

2. Dunkin’ Donuts

  • Spice Flavor: 6/10

  • Presentation: 6/10

  • Overall Flavor: 6/10

  • Price: $-$$

When you take your first sip of Dunkin’s PSL, there’s no question that you’re drinking a pumpkin spice latte. The cinnamon sugar sprinkle and orange-tinted whipped cream on top aren’t overpoweringly sweet, but they definitely pack more of a flavor punch than the lattes above. 

The flavors of the topping and latte don’t meld as well as Starbucks’ PSL, hence the second-place ranking. But you may find Dunkin’s drink to be a better value, especially since Dunkin’ is offering medium Pumpkin Spice Signature Lattes for just $3 through Sept. 14. Also, where else can you get a pumpkin donut to go with your pumpkin drink? 

However, I deducted points for Dunkin’s failure to capitalize on the fact that “Dunkin” rhymes with “punkin,” one of the cutest English words in existence that also means pumpkin, as in “Grandma calls me her little punkin pie.” But I digress.

1. Starbucks

  • Spice Flavor: 7/10

  • Presentation: 7/10

  • Overall Flavor: 8/10

  • Price: $$$

The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte still stands tall (get it?) among the competition. There’s really no better way to describe it than a slice of pumpkin pie in a cup. The Starbucks PSL is smooth, complete with a hefty topping of whipped cream and topped with a mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and clove.

You may be surprised to learn that the original PSL recipe (which went unchanged for more than a decade) didn’t contain any pumpkin — just pumpkin pie spices and orange dye. Starbucks added pumpkin to the ingredient list (and removed artificial coloring) in 2015.

Starbucks’ Peter Dukes, who co-invented the pumpkin spice latte, has brushed off those who denigrate the drink as “basic.”

"People seem to have fun with the PSL," Dukes said in a podcast interview in 2018. "And, if that's basic so be it."

Perhaps aware of the PSL’s “basic” reputation, Starbucks offers numerous ways to switch up your order, from the pumpkin spice macchiato to the caramel apple pumpkin spice. Click here for the complete list!

Bonus: Compass Coffee

I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug Compass Coffee, a local chain based in Washington, D.C., where I live. If you live here or are visiting the area, make sure to stop by for what I consider to be the drink that puts the spice in pumpkin spice latte.

Cold Drinks

Nothing beats a warm drink on a chilly autumn day. Nevertheless, many brands’ pumpkin spice lattes drop in the summer, when we’re still fighting heat and humidity. Many coffee shops do offer both warm and iced versions of the pumpkin spice latte starting in late August. In fact, Dunkin’ rolled out its pumpkin drinks on Aug. 18, prompting a flurry of complaints.

Pumpkin cold brew drinks don’t necessarily scream “fall,” but they’re nonetheless growing in popularity. Here are the ones I recommend:

4. Peet’s Coffee

  • Spice Flavor: 1/10

  • Presentation: 2/10

  • Overall Flavor: 2/10

  • Price: $$

Peet’s Coffee introduced its new Pumpkin Oat Foam Cold Brew as part of its fall menu available on Aug. 25. As soon as I tasted it, I knew it would land at the bottom of the list. Peet’s describes the drink as “a silky pumpkin pie flavored oat milk foam over smooth Baridi Blend cold brew coffee.” However, the main flavor that came through for me was an oaty aftertaste.

peets coffee Cold Brew with Pumpkin Oat Foam

3. Dunkin’ Donuts

  • Spice Flavor: 4/10

  • Presentation: 4/10

  • Overall Flavor: 4/10

  • Price: $-$$

Dunkin’ Donuts’ pumpkin cream cold brew isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. While a lot of iced pumpkin spice drinks are too sweet, the Dunkin’ pumpkin cream cold brew misses the mark and is just bland. It’s pretty much a copy-and-paste of Starbucks’ pumpkin cream cold brew, down to the foam and spice topping.

Dunkin'+Fall+Menu iced drink pumpkin foam

2. La Colombe

  • Spice Flavor: 2/10

  • Presentation: 9/10

  • Overall Flavor: 8/10

  • Price: $

If you live in a major metropolitan area like Los Angeles, Chicago, or Philadelphia, there may be a La Colombe coffee shop near you. If you like nitro cold brew, be sure to try La Colombe’s pumpkin spice draft latte (described as containing “foamy nitrous-infused milk” and cold brew).

When I first tried La Colombe’s pumpkin spice latte, I could immediately taste the pumpkin. Sure enough, I saw that pumpkin puree is the third ingredient, behind only milk and coffee. The spice notes are much less detectable, but the latte’s unique, smooth flavor makes up for it. 

La Colombe’s pumpkin spice latte comes in a cute orange can, so you can order a pack online and take a can with you on the go.

1. Starbucks

  • Spice Flavor: 5/10

  • Presentation: 7/10

  • Overall Flavor: 8/10

  • Price: $$

Once again, Starbucks dominates the pumpkin game. Believe it or not, Starbucks introduced its popular pumpkin cream cold brew relatively recently in 2019. The pumpkin cream cold brew was Starbucks’ first new pumpkin drink since the PSL.

The pumpkin cream cold brew is a great mid-morning pick-me-up with a smooth taste and hint of spice in the foam (bonus points that the foam has a pumpkin orange tint!).

starbucks pumpkin cold brew cream

Closing Thoughts

Despite its reputation as “basic,” the pumpkin spice latte continues to dominate fall food trends year after year. The trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down, even as Starbucks and Peet’s push alternative flavors, like apple crisp and maple, for those tired of pumpkin. So raise a mug to the reign of the PSL!

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