If it looks and tastes like fall, it's probably a pumpkin spice latte. The magical liquid contained within a PSL fills us up, warms our hearts, and rejuvenates our senses. It also gives us a whole lot to talk about. There's been plenty of conversation this year surrounding THE defining beverage of autumn; fans of the drink have already discovered PSL hacks to make their Starbucks orders more delicious, they've whipped up their own tasty recipes at home, and they've come to accept the fact that even though a PSL is not necessarily the healthiest drink, it's still the tastiest. It's probably also not a good habit for our checkbooks, but for some things we're willing to throw caution to the wind.
We've also learned that pumpkin spice lattes aren't created equal, that depending on where you go to get your latte of choice, one PSL's spice preference may be another's syrupy sweet goodness. Can anything top Starbucks' original fall recipe? Can lesser known coffee shops even compete with caffeine mammoths like Dunkin' Donuts? Is making a PSL all by yourself really worth the extra effort?
Something so sweet shouldn't seem so stressful — which is why I decided to conduct a little taste test. I went out and sampled five PSLs (including one I made myself) to answer the question that's been on all of our minds since fall began: who makes the best pumpkin spice latte?
All of the PSLs I tried were comparable in size, and each came from a different source. Like all delicious things, I felt like the more calories it had, the better it tasted — but you can be the judge of that. I evaluated each drink based on cost, color, and taste, and then ranked them on a scale from 1-10. Here's what I found:
1. The Infamous Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte
It's the one that started it all: Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte. Which evil geniuses residing in the Starbucks kitchen cooked this tasty drink up, anyway? Because it's time we thanked them — gratuitously. The drink is like a milky nutmeg cocktail, ready to be hastily consumed the second September rolls around.
Of course, the massive coffee chain has the recipe down to a science. The PSL that started it all also has a nice orange color that at least makes it seem like you're drinking real pumpkin (regardless of whether or not this is actually the case). One downside I found is that if you wait too long for your latte to cool down, the taste becomes really syrupy and bland. But when it comes to this seasonal favorite, chances are you won't want to wait anyway.
Total cost: about $4.00 with tax
2. Dunkin' Donuts Pumpkin Latte
I was honestly not expecting the Dunkin' Donuts version of the PSL to taste half as good as it did. Mark my words, this is a good alternative, slightly sweeter PSL.
However, I suspect that there is no actual pumpkin in the drink. My coffee looked like a regular, light brown latte. Not a total deal breaker though, right? This one is still a good option if you need a pumpkin spice latte in a pinch.
Total cost: $2.25 with tax
3. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Pumpkin Latte
I wasn't sold on my PSL from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Eighth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan. It didn't taste like anything, and like the Dunkin' Donuts PSL, this drink was a light brown color, which made me question its validity (although as the old saying goes, you can't always judge a book by its cover).
Unfortunately, the spice just wasn't there, and my drink didn't seem to have that special touch so crucial to making a pumpkin spice latte spectacular. I suspect that the barista told me it was pumpkin spice when really it was just a latte. The nerve.
Total Cost: $3.75
4. Grounded Pumpkin Latte
For the sake of my experiment, I decided to veer away from coffee chains and see what the smaller, local neighborhood haunts could offer me. Grounded is a cute coffee shop in the West Village that has a large seating area and funny mugs for your drinks. My PSL came in a mug that featured an illustration of a hipster-looking butt above the words, "Tushwick, Brooklyn," so already it seemed like we were off to a good start.
The taste? Totally pumpkin-y. And sweet. But, there wasn't a whole lot of spice. Which is why I'm guessing Grounded kept the word "spice" out from the name. Very sneaky.
Total Cost: $4.25
Calories: At this point, who cares anymore.
5. Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte
I must confess: I loved my homemade PSL best, perhaps because I could control the ingredients and make it as sweet or pumpkin spicy as I wanted. The process of making a PSL is extremely rewarding, doesn't take all that long, and once you have the supplies to make one, you essentially have enough to make a week's worth.
I followed this recipe by the Kitchn, which seemed simple enough. First, I warmed up some mashed pumpkin in a saucepan with sugar, whole milk, vanilla extract, and spices.
Once I warmed everything up, I poured a few espresso shots in a mug, and added the pumpkin sauce mixture on top. Last, I whipped up some heavy cream (pictured above) and used it to top off my latte.
Total cost: Less than $1.50, more if you buy espresso shots
Calories: I don't want to know. It was absolutely delicious.
Of course, I will always drop into my local Starbucks when I'm feeling too lazy to make my own PSL, because it seems like the Starbucks PSL really can't be beat. But if it's a quiet fall night and I feel like something toasty, I might just be sipping some of my own home brew. Totally worth it.
Images: Haniya Rae (7)