We are nearing two decades of frothy, cinnamony PSL drink dominance in America. If you haven't yet received a text that simply reads, "pumpkin spice latte dunkin RN" or "PSL starbucks ASAP dude," you may be in the minority: The potable harbinger of fall has just hit coffee shops-yes, in August-for its 19th year.
Many folks don't even know that Dunkin' Donuts has jumped on the PSL bandwagon (or should we say... hayride?) Turns out they wanted a big sip of the proceeds from the hundreds of millions of pumpkin spice concoctions sold at Starbucks since 2003. (Fun fact: The brand almost abandoned the concept at the testing stage!)
So who does better by pumpkin spice: the formless green mermaid or the orange-and-pink donut dominator? We put it to a taste test.
Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte : Hot
Let's cue up the OG. Per its creator: "The handcrafted beverage combines Starbucks® Signature Espresso and steamed milk with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove to complement the real pumpkin in the sauce." When one writer went into a shop to sample the iced version the day PSL hit the market on August 30th, 2022, it was 85 degrees outside. But baristas were on autopilot and gave her the hot version.
But that's cool-so to speak- because this is absolutely the premier incarnation of this drink, if you compare hot and iced, Dunkin' and Starbucks.
Actual pumpkin pie flavors dominated. We reached for a second sip as opposed to the trash can. New Englanders know there to be a distinction between "pumpkin pie/ cider house" and "potpourri shop." The former is all cinnamon and cloves, real apples, and light notes of nutmeg. It's never bitter, always sweet, and populates the cider houses that sell hot cider, cider donuts, cocoa and pick-your-own-apples up and down the Northeast corridor.
This drink had that, and-although it momentarily creeped us out- the orange ring on the inside of the cup after we guzzled its contents suggested that the "real pumpkin" claims are true.
Dunkin' Pumpkin Spice Latte: Hot
Dunkin's Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte reportedly contains a blend of pumpkin flavor swirl and vanilla flavor, topped with whipped cream, caramel drizzle and cinnamon sugar. OK. The hot version wasn't as offensive as the iced, but I still detected a bitter, metallic, chemical undercurrent. The burned spice note reminded me of nutmeg cooked too-long.
Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte: Iced
Occupying the other end of the seasonal spectrum is the iced Starbucks PSL (and the iced Dunkin'): If a Christmas Tree Shop had a taste, it would be one of these two drinks-the worst part of the Mom-is-buying-potpourri-today experience.
We started thinking about how warm food tends to taste better than cold, to most people. Is an iced version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte just something that should never have happened?
The Starbucks iced drink was no charmer. It was so bitter it approached undrinkable, making us wonder if the same ingredients were used as in their hot version. The two didn't even seem related.
Dunkin' Iced Pumpkin Spice Latte: Iced
The Dunkin' iced Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte was the worst of the four we sampled, with cloves and acrid notes dominating. It had a chemical aspect, and tasted poorly mixed. (Indeed, a good swirl of the contents worked wonders-but it still hit the trash after three sips.)
Dunkin' vs Starbucks: Our Takeaway
Dunkin' may be on the right track, but they need to somehow remove that acrid, bitter undercurrent in their rendition of PSL. Same with you in that iced version, Starbucks! But as for the original, hot Starbucks version-if it ain't broke, why fix it? We award the queen her crown.