The pumpkin spice latte's cultural relevance and staying power — this year, it turns 20 — can be explained by a simple fact: It’s the most popular seasonal beverage at Starbucks.
Flavor aside, our only gripe with the pumpkin-flavored drink is that it costs around $6 for 16 ounces. Order that once a week from August until the end of January (when Starbucks usually stops selling it), and you’ve spent over $100 on PSLs alone. The more frugal approach — something we always advocate at Cheapism — would be to make your pumpkin spice latte at home. It’s easier than you think.
What Is the Pumpkin Spice Latte?
Pumpkin spice predates Starbucks by more than 200 years, with the first-known American cookbook featuring a nutmeg, mace, and ginger-infused “pompkin” pie recipe in 1796. But the blend we know today didn’t arrive on the scene until the 1930s ,when McCormick & Company and Thompson & Taylor released pumpkin pie spice mixes.
Around seventy years later, the pumpkin spice latte of contemporary fame was born at Starbucks’ headquarters. According to the company, Peter Dukes, the man behind the chain’s peppermint mocha, came up with the idea after brainstorming new flavors, surveying customers, and conducting taste tests at the “Liquid Lab.” While chocolate and caramel beverages were more popular flavors among tasters, pumpkin scored high on "uniqueness."
Dukes, then head of the espresso team, experimented with this "unique" combo. First, he and his team ate forkfuls of pumpkin pie alongside espresso, and later, the team refined the recipe: a mixture of pumpkin spice sauce, foamed milk, and coffee.
“Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” Dukes says in a Starbucks press release. “I remember calling store managers on the phone to see how the new beverage was doing, and we could hear the excitement in their voices.”
What’s in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte?
A basic pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks has five ingredients: foamed milk, pumpkin spice sauce, espresso, whipped cream, and a pumpkin spice topping. In other words, it’s just a normal latte enhanced with pumpkin puree, spices, and natural flavors. Of course, you can make your pumpkin-flavored drink as complicated as you want, subbing in oat milk or adding a pump of hazelnut syrup. But the original PSL remains straightforward.
Pumpkin Spice Latte Ingredients
Pumpkin spice sauce: sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree, contains 2% or less of fruit and vegetable juice for color, natural flavors, annatto, salt, and potassium sorbate
Whipped cream: cream (cream, mono and diglycerides, and carrageenan) and vanilla syrup (sugar, water, natural flavors, potassium sorbate, and citric acid)
Pumpkin spice topping: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, and sulfiting agents
The Recipes: How To Make a Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte
OK, so you want to make a pumpkin spice latte, but you don’t have access to an espresso machine or Starbucks’ proprietary pumpkin sauce. No problem. We selected two top-rated recipes that fans keep coming back to. One is simple: a little pumpkin spice, pumpkin puree, and you’ve got a copycat recipe. The other recipe is from James Hoffmann, a barista world champion and YouTube’s resident coffee nerd. As you might expect, his process is a lot more involved but also more likely to satisfy coffee snobs (you know who you are).
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Option One: The Easy Way (Feel Good Foodie)
This recipe is simple. You take all the ingredients below (save for the whipped cream) and throw them in a blender. Top your beverage with whipped cream, and voila: you’ve got a pumpkin spice latte. But we have a few notes that make this recipe even better.
Make the coffee in a moka pot: While it’s technically not espresso, coffee from a moka pot gets closer to the real thing than just brewing "strong coffee."
Froth your milk: A pumpkin spice latte recipe without foamed milk seems a bit sad, especially since you don’t need a machine to do it. Use a French press, whisk, jar, or one of those cheap hand-held frothers.
Pumpkin pie spice
Strong coffee or espresso
Whipped cream (optional)
For the full recipe, visit Feel Good Foodie.
Option Two: The Hard Way (James Hoffmann)
James Hoffmann is obsessed with coffee — like, to the point of using a $2,500 coffee analyzer to bust a few caffeine myths. His homemade pumpkin spice latte video is similarly involved, and for most, this recipe is going to be too time-consuming and expensive. But James Hoffmann isn’t the only crazed coffee nerd out there, and so we’re sharing his process for the select few who want to create a pumpkin spice mixture with single-origin nutmeg and cassia bark.
Proprietary pumpkin spice syrup made with single-origin spices, sugar, and real pumpkin
Homemade coffee whipped cream
For the full recipe, watch "The Ultimate Pumpkin Spice Latte" on YouTube.
How To Come Up With Your Own Recipe
Every pumpkin spice latte is going to have the same key ingredients, namely:
Pumpkin spice flavoring
Since the drink is simple, there’s plenty of room for experimentation (check out this Reddit thread for inspiration). You could try making an iced version with instant coffee, throw in a little maple syrup for extra sweetness, or explore store-bought pumpkin spice milks. Whatever you do, you can rest assured that your homemade mixture is going to be healthier and cheaper than the Starbucks version.
The Bottom Line
Let's give credit where credit is due: Peter Dukes helped create a $500 million industry around an autumnal spice mix. That's impressive. But we’re really not into expensive, mass-produced drinks, especially when you can make them at home. So, sure, go ahead and have one, maybe two, pumpkin spice lattes at your local Starbucks. But save the money (and the calories) and make the rest at home.
Frequently Asked Questions
When does Starbucks bring back pumpkin spice in 2023?
In 2023, Starbucks brought back pumpkin spice lattes on Aug. 24. The coffee shop chain will continue to sell the specialty drink until supplies run out (typically January).
What is pumpkin spice?
It’s an American spice mixture that’s often used to flavor pumpkin pie. Amelia Simmons used a similar spice blend in her “American Cookery” cookbook, first published in 1796.
What is in pumpkin pie spice?
McCormick, one of the first companies to release a pumpkin pie spice blend, includes cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice in its recipe, though cloves and mace are occasionally used.