Pumpkin spice is back with a vengeance. Tweaking drinks to take on the properties of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice—plus, sometimes, a dash of everyone's favorite orange squash—has become a tradition that millions look forward to every year. Starbucks has sold over 200 million of their pumpkin spice latte over the past decade. But the coffee behemoth's competition just got a little stiffer, with America's biggest fast-food chain, McDonald's, getting in on the action with a pumpkin spice latte of its own. If that's not grounds for a head-to-head comparison, I don't know what is.
We tasted each company's latte directly after ordering for maximum freshness. While both versions are made with espresso, water, whole milk, and some kind of pumpkin spice-flavored syrup, the differences between the two are vast enough to warrant plunking down your cold hard cash for one over the other.
Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte
Let's start with the veteran in the lineup. The coffee at Starbucks comes with a noticeably bitter bite that some crave and some find off-putting. That bitterness does rear its head here, although you first have to get through the top layer of whipped cream and ground spices that garnish the beverage by default. Those first few sips (and sniffs) strongly recall a slice of warm pumpkin pie, a flavor profile that changes sharply once the cream dissipates.
At that point, the espresso becomes much more prominent, backed by the considerable sweetness of the pumpkin spice syrup. But then something else happens: the syrup starts to take over, lending an unnatural, almost medicinal aftertaste to every sip. Luckily the notes of cinnamon and allspice don't fade, so if the pumpkin spice flavor is what you're after first and foremost, you'll get it all the way to the bottom of the cup.
McDonald's McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte
Even though this is McDonald's first foray into the lucrative pumpkin spice market, Mickey D's is no stranger to flavored coffee beverages; a quick perusal of its McCafé menu reveals such options as an iced caramel mocha and a chocolate chip frappé. Adding a pumpkin spice latte to its lineup was a no-brainer.
If only a little more R&D had gone into its creation. A pumpkin spice latte should taste, if nothing else, like pumpkin spice, and McDonald's version does not. What it does taste like is sugar, vanilla, and chemicals, with only a loose sense of cinnamon and cloves on the back of the palate. The sweetness from the proprietary syrup overwhelms every other aspect of the beverage, especially the coffee notes, which are present in the drink's aroma and nowhere else. If you focus you can pick up a hint of espresso bitterness behind all the sugar, but it takes some effort. You won't mistake this drink for another on the McCafé menu, but I think you'd be hard pressed to identify it as pumpkin spice without a prompt of some sort.
Which Drink is Your Pick??
Barring factors beyond our control (the influence of the individual barista cannot be discounted), we feel pretty safe in saying that we find the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte to be superior in just about every way to the one McDonald's is serving. If it's more pumpkin spice and coffee flavors that you seek, Starbucks is the clear winner, we think.
Have you tried both? Which do you like better?
About the author: Adam Lindsley is a Pacific Northwest-based writer, musician, and the author of the pizza blog, This Is Pizza. You can follow him at @ThisIsPizza on Twitter. He is currently searching for the recipe for Boneyard Beer's RPM IPA, so if you have a lead, get in touch!