Starbucks' Iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte Turns 20

How a squash-colored longshot became a cultural phenomenon.

August 18, 2023

Starbucks pumpkin spice latte 20 anniversary

Photo by: Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Photo courtesy of Starbucks

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Every fall, pumpkin spice looms large. Stores sell everything from pumpkin-spice cookies and candies to snack crackers and meat marinades. For many, the flavor is synonymous with the onset of sweater weather and the back-to-school season. And yet, as recently as two decades ago, pumpkin spice latte, the drink credited with creating this phenomenon, was just a squash-colored gleam in the Starbucks beverage development team’s eye.

Nicknamed PSL for the three-letter code baristas write on cups, the drink might not look a day over 19 but it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. So, how did we get here? How did a seasonal drink from a coffee chain impact the cultural landscape?

Twenty years ago, “coffee culture was still very much growing in the United States. People didn’t really know the difference between a latte, cappuccino, espresso, Americano,” recalls Peter Dukes, the director of global growth and concepts at Starbucks. Nicknamed “the father of PSL,” Dukes led the Starbucks beverage development team when the pumpkin spice latte was created.

In 2003, Dukes and his team were eager to try to replicate the success of Peppermint Mocha, a seasonal offering that had launched the previous winter, with a fall drink. So, Dukes organized a brainstorm session in the company’s research and development “Liquid Lab” in Seattle.

“We came up with a huge list of probably 100 different ideas,” filling a whole wall with concepts, “and quickly whittled that down to 10,” Dukes says. The team brought descriptions and drawings of those 10 beverage ideas to customers and asked them two questions: “How likely are you to buy this beverage?” and “How unique is this beverage?”

“Not too surprisingly, the beverage concepts that had chocolate or caramel in them scored pretty high in terms of ‘likely to purchase,’ but medium in terms of ‘uniqueness,’” Dukes says. “And way down at the bottom was the idea of this pumpkin latte.” Even as customers said they were unlikely to purchase a pumpkin-flavored beverage, they describe the concept “unique,” and that earned this proto-PSL a place — after some debate — on a shorter list of ideas for development. That original list included chocolate, caramel and maple pecan — some of which have subsequently been brought to market.

Chillingly, the pumpkin spice latte almost didn’t make the list.

“Keep in mind that 20 years ago, when you went into a grocery aisle the only thing you saw that was pumpkin was pumpkin puree to make pumpkin pies and maybe some pumpkin pie topping. That was it. It was very different,” Dukes explains. “Now there’s an entire industry — you can fill up an entire grocery aisle with pumpkin spice products. Back then, it did not exist.”

Once Dukes and his team of food scientists and developers got approval to create a pumpkin beverage, they began to experiment with flavor combinations. They brought in pumpkin pies and espresso, plus kitschy fall decor to set the mood, and took bites and sips to see how they might bring coffee and pumpkin together in a drink. “[It] gave us a chance to experience what happens when you combine espresso and pumpkin pie, what are the flavors that come into your mouth,” Dukes says. “What we found was, wow, this unique combination of flavors.”

For three months, the team tinkered with the ratio of pumpkin to spice and the weight of the body of the drink. They settled on a recipe featuring espresso, pumpkin spice sauce and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream and a dash of pumpkin spice topping. The team considered calling the drink the fall harvest latte, but then decided on pumpkin spice latte to highlight the drink’s most important features.

At that point, Starbucks once again asked customers to taste and evaluate their new PSL prototype, responding to those same questions about likeliness to purchase and uniqueness. Once they tasted the drink, skepticism vanished, Dukes says. “Their scores for likelihood to buy went through the roof – just went up exponentially.” That’s when the team realized that it had something special – a possible hit, so long as they could convince people to try the drink.

In autumn 2003, Starbucks launched the pumpkin spice latte in about a hundred stores in Washington, D.C., and Vancouver, Canada. Dukes recalls calling the stores to ask how the debut was going. “I’ll never forget it. You could hear the excitement in their voices,” he says.

Sales took off so rapidly in the first year that the chain was concerned about its ability to meet demand. The following fall, the pumpkin spice latte was released across the U.S. and Canada. While Starbucks considered switching things up and swapping it out for another seasonal beverage option during those first few years, social media, with its onslaught of P-S-Lfies, turned the popular drink into a full-fledged seasonal icon. It is now Starbucks’ best-selling seasonal beverage item. The PSL evolved to keep up with evolving tastes and cultural mores, too. In 2015, Starbucks updated the formula of its pumpkin sauce to include real pumpkin puree.

“You go back 20 years ago, there was nothing like this out on the marketplace, and it just took off from there to where it is today,” Dukes says. “A new industry was created along the way, and here we stand.”

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