Today, Starbucks brought back the pumpkin spice latte for its 15th-annual outing, and in workplaces across America, someone will get triumphantly stride into the office with their first PSL of the season. That person’s coworkers will roll their eyes at the product that inexplicably signals the arrival of “fall” earlier and earlier each year; groan at their selfie-snapping, cup in hand; silently or vocally judge that person’s public signaling that “I love fall and its attendant trademarked consumer goods!” Those coworkers may label said PSL lover “basic.”
But those eye-rollers are wrong: There is no inherent failing in that cinnamon-tinged cup of steamed milk and coffee product. The only failure is one of perspective.
See, the pumpkin spice latte is not a to-be-consumed-every-morning coffee. It’s just a liquid dessert, nothing more, nothing less; a hot milkshake, if you prefer. (Or, for the it’s-still-hot-out drinkers, the Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino, served iced, is... just a regular milkshake.) It might co-habitate on a menu centered around coffee, but it’s not coffee, and anybody who perceives it as such, and judges others’ consumption based on that, is willfully missing the point. It’s right there in the title: “Pumpkin spice” — the drink is meant to evoke the spices used in pumpkin pie (cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves — a valiant trio of tried and tested flavors). It wants to be a dessert. And sure, the PSL doesn’t have much pumpkin (there’s a small amount in the syrup, per Starbucks’s own ingredient list), but that’s probably for the best, since it’s a dessert-adjacent drink and not a smoothie.
None of this is to say that the PSL is a high-quality culinary object. It’s closer in form to myriad other processed sweets, but few people will direct the same ire at a Snickers bar or a fast-food sundae, because those items know their place. It could compete with many of America’s other fast-food desserts — most of which are similarly high on sweetness and characterized by blunt-force flavor profiles, from the creamy engineering orange of the Orange Julius to the pile of dairy and Oreos that is the McFlurry.
Starbucks’s other short-term or seasonal menu items are often travesties. Case in point: the Unicorn Frappuccino, a shameless attempt at virality, designed to be looked at and not consumed; it’s the logical end point of all Andy Warhol’s fantasies about consumerism. Strangely enough, it’s the basic-ness of the PSL that makes its success — with a brown color and use of an already-established flavor profile, it keeps things simple, which is probably why it took off over other Starbucks specialties. Here, “basic” is a statement of fact.
As a mass-produced industrial treat, the PSL is a serviceable dessert, and perhaps even superior to digging a spoon into a bucket of Cool Whip. None of this excuses the cloying enthusiasm for the PSL on the part of some consumers, with an overwrought love for a corporation that can’t love them back. And for those with a rightful aversion to Starbucks, the chain doesn’t have a monopoly on the PSL, so there are ample neighborhood coffee shops that might even do a better take.
But while you’re there, tell them: The pumpkin spice latte is not a latte. It’s a warm milkshake. And that’s okay.
• No, It’s Not Your Imagination, Pumpkin Spice Latte Season Is Starting Earlier Than Ever [E]
• Unicorn Frappuccinos Inspire Starbucks Barista Meltdowns Across America [E]
• Ranking America’s Fast-Food Desserts [E]