It’s Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte season, with fall drinks and food arriving in stores Aug. 24. But it wasn’t always this way. Here’s the story of how a beverage became a phenomenon.
It’s hard to imagine the arrival of autumn without the cozy comfort of a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. But 20 years ago, pumpkin spice and fall hadn’t found each other yet. Peppermint Mocha was Starbucks first blockbuster seasonal beverage the winter before and the company hoped to create another hit for the autumn season. Peter Dukes, who led the Starbucks beverage development team at the time, remembers working with the team to create the company’s first fall beverage.
“We started with a huge brainstorm list and filled the wall with ideas,” Dukes said. “We probably had at least a hundred ideas up on the wall. And once we got those ideas, we started to whittle away at them and came down to a list of about 20 different flavours including chocolate and caramel – the most popular flavours to pair with coffee – and there was orange and cinnamon ... and there was pumpkin there as well.”
When they asked potential customers what flavors they were likely to purchase in a written survey, it was the chocolate and caramel beverages that reliably performed best. But there was something special about pumpkin. It scored high on “uniqueness.” Dukes and the team decided to explore it a bit further and keep it on their short list.
On an early spring day in 2003, the team gathered in the “Liquid Lab,” a secure research and development space on the 7th floor of Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Members of the team brought in kitschy fall decorations and pumpkin pies and began to explore ideas. They would sample a forkful of pumpkin pie followed by a sip of hot espresso – teasing out which flavours from the pie best complemented the coffee.
For the next three months, the team refined the recipe, handcrafted with espresso, pumpkin spice sauce, and steamed milk – topped off with whipped cream and a dash of pumpkin pie topping. In a taste test alongside the chocolate and caramel beverages, pumpkin was the clear winner. Next, they just needed a name.
“There was a desire to choose a really unique name, such as the fall harvest latte,” said Dukes. “We ultimately ended up landing on Pumpkin Spice Latte because the spices play a really important role in bringing out the flavors of pumpkin, while also highlighting the espresso in the cup.”
In the fall of 2003, Starbucks first brought the beverage as a test to about 100 stores in Washington, D.C. and Vancouver, B.C.
“Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” Dukes said. “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.”
The next fall, Pumpkin Spice Latte (nicknamed PSL) rolled out across the company’s U.S. and Canada stores, although the company still considered switching it up over the next few years for something new. That is, until Facebook and Twitter arrived in 2006, and customers began sharing their love for PSL on social media with their family and friends.
“We launched PSL very well, but then there were discussions about discontinuing it,” Dukes said. “There was this idea back then of, ‘Hey, we want keep things new, keep things fresh.’ And fortunately, we kept bringing it back. With the arrival of social media, it just took off on a whole new level.”
Millions of PSLs and thousands of “P-S-Lfies” later, the beverage had officially entered the cultural zeitgeist. By the 2010s, everything from pumpkin spice-scented candles to pumpkin-spice ham were in the marketplace. The media took notice of the growing pumpkin spice phenomenon, from morning talk show hosts to late-night comedians. Even a temporary shortage of ingredients in 2012 caused news outlets to breathlessly declare a “Pumpkin Emergency.” Meanwhile, the beverage developed a bit of a personality, with its own Twitter (now known as X) handle and Instagram profile starting in 2014, and a social following that would grow into the thousands.
These days, in the era of TikTok and Instagram Reels, customers share their excitement about fall and their first PSL sips of the season with video reviews and tributes. It’s not just Pumpkin Spice Latte, it’s also Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew and the new Iced Pumpkin Cream Chai Tea Latte, plus a variety of at-home and ready-to-drink coffees in grocery stores. It’s not even just fall. It’s reached markets all around the world – even in the southern hemisphere, where it’s springtime.
Now 20 years later, Dukes still works for Starbucks, although he now develops new concepts for Starbucks stores instead of espresso drinks. But his face still smiles from a mural painted for PSL’s 10th anniversary in Burlington, Washington. And when people learn he’s the creator of PSL, they may ask for a selfie.
“Nobody knew at the beginning what it would grow to be,” Dukes said. "20 years later, it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Pumpkin Spice Latte was first introduced as a test in just 100 stores in Washington, D.C. and Vancouver, B.C.
PSL gets its nickname from the three-letter beverage code originally written on cups by baristas.
Since 2015, PSL’s pumpkin sauce has included real pumpkin puree, made from little kabocha pumpkins.
In 20 years, hundreds of millions of Pumpkin Spice Lattes have been served.