I drink the Pumpkin Spice Latte to commune with autumn. Not first for its taste, warmth or color, though also for those things. I order pumpkin spice to fuse my body with the leaves, the crisp air, the gentle reminders of death, and all the other trappings of fall. Twenty years ago this month, Starbucks brought this flavor to the world. In so doing, autumn was perfected.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte—the PSL, to its devotees—was not, of course, the first mass-marketed seasonal coffee beverage. By 2003, Starbucks had already introduced a pair of Christmas drinks: the eggnog latte (born in 1986) and the peppermint mocha (2002). But these precedents were different in kind. Eggnog is a beverage of its own; peppermint is a normal flavoring. The PSL was something else entirely: a concoction of known elements recombined into a new seasonal essence that somehow came to seem as though it had always been around.

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A related set of flavors had been around for many, many decades, in the form of “pumpkin-pie spice”—a kitchen-shortcut mix that may include cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, and allspice. (McCormick started selling its version in 1934.) The mix’s purpose was simple: It was to be added to the mashed flesh of autumnal gourd, which would then be baked into a pie.

But Starbucks research-and-development personnel working in a 21st-century “Liquid Lab” embellished this idea by means of a subtraction: They got rid of the pie. The spice mix was disembodied and dissolved into a drink, then spiked with color to give the drink its orange, pie-adjacent hue. The presence of a crust, and of a gelatinized interior, had always been unnecessary, Starbucks casually decided. Pumpkin pie was just a medium to deliver the spice mix that constitutes autumn’s true, gastronomical signature. It makes sense, really. Do you really want to eat the pumpkin? You do not, yet you cannot simply ingest the spice on its own.

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This important insight was worked into the branding from the start. Starbucks could have named the drink “pumpkin-pie latte,” but that would have undermined the profundity of its invention. The drink was not flavored with the mere taste of a dessert, but with the fundaments of fall itself. This idea has become so conventional, so obvious by now, that it is almost impossible to think otherwise. Of course pumpkin spice means fall. What else would? But even 21 years ago, this was not the case. The tradition had to be invented, and the invention is no older than Olivia Rodrigo. (For the record: The phrase pumpkin spice was added to the dictionary in 2022.)

The humor website The Hard Times recently joked about a fictional Starbucks drink, the Wet Leaves Latte, but in a way, that’s exactly what the Pumpkin Spice Latte is and always was. Conditions were aligned for its success. Fall is cool, and coffee is warm. Pumpkin pie is eaten once or twice a year, and its flavorings are distinctive enough to denote autumn’s communal pleasures. And fall is orange, and pumpkins are orange, and orange drinks are rare enough that their color sets off a sense memory, even if you only glance at it inside an opaque cup before ingestion. Starbucks fixed fall’s flavor, and in doing so, it showed what consumers really wanted. When you love something, you long to be close to it, and nothing makes a thing closer than consumption. Autumn signals melancholy endings, and the PSL administers it internally, like fall’s Eucharist.

It may seem perverse to call this process wholesome, especially given that the drink itself contains a fair amount of fat and 50 grams of sugar. But spiritually, the argument can be made. Compared with more recent food-industry contrivances, like Wendy’s Baconator Pringles or AI-flavored Coca-Cola, a coffee drink infused with the sensibility of fall feels downright conventional, even conservative. What does it mean that the ritual of pumpkin spice is so new, yet seems so venerable? For one, perhaps, that you and I were once young, or at least younger, but are now old, or at least older. But for another, that pumpkin spice was not merely successful, but also correct. Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger, tinged orange and suspended in a medium for their delivery: This is autumn.

published October 15, 2023