Liquor Nerd: Fall means it’s pumpkin spice cocktail season
As you’ve done countless times over the years, blame Starbucks. But first think of all that the Seattle-spawned coffee giant has given you since it roared into Vancouver in the late ’80s. If you’re like the rest of the us in the Cult of the Green Apron, the gifts start with a crippling caffeine addiction where—acid reflux be damned—there’s no such thing as just one cup.
Waddling through life looking like Orson Welles in his final act? That’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the barista who quite correctly assumes that no, you wouldn’t just “like” whipped cream on top of your 550-calories Caramel Brulee latte but would instead absolutely fucking love it.
And let’s not forget the reason you’re currently living day-to-day on a diet of Kraft Dinner, Nissin Top Ramen, and Great Value cheese from No Frills. They can take away your job—thanks, COVID-19!—but there’s no way they’re taking away your daily $6 hazelnut latte. That’s right, Starbucks somehow convinced you that there’s nothing abnormal about paying the same price for a coffee as you’d pay for a stupidly delicious banh mi at Viet Sub on Robson.
But the greatest Starbucks gift of all is one that comes every fall. That’s right—it’s officially Pumpkin Spice Latte time. Somewhere John Oliver is first in line, keenly aware that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
As every student of ancient history knows, the roots of the Pumpkin Spice Latte can be traced back to roughly 2003. After years of fiddling with a coffee drink recipe to capture the spirit of fall, the Starbucks taste team eventually accepted that at a certain point you have go with what you’ve got.
Pumpkin Spice Latte quickly became the drink that folks who never go to Starbucks started going to Starbucks for. And as it became entrenched in pop culture as a seasonal ritual, the world quickly took notice, including in business boardrooms.
Over the past couple of decades North Americans have become convinced that pumpkin spice goes great in everything, from seasonal beers to yogurt pretzels.
It’s no great shocker that the cocktail nation has got on board. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find a bumper crop of recipes to help usher in the fall: Bourbon Pumpkin Smash, Pumpkin Spice White Russian, Pumpkin Spice Martini, and Pumpkin Spice Old-Fashioned, to name just a few.
As with most everything cocktail-wise, you have a couple of options when it comes to embracing the most popular of squashes. Truly obsessive cocktail nerds will want to make their own DIY syrup, that process only mildly labour-intensive.
With a new lockdown seemingly on the horizon, you’re going to have some time on your hands in the coming weeks. So let’s start by asking ourselves what a Williamsburg artisan with full-sleeve tattoos and a gourd-sized man-bun would do.
The answer of course is “Go anything but the easy route in the pursuit of excellence.” First off you’re going to need a sugar pumpkin or three—which is to say a jack-o’-lantern pumpkin won’t do. If you can’t find sugar pumpkins at Choices or Whole Foods, load into the Evo and head out to Westham Island Herb Farm just past Delta.
Cut sugar pumpkins into halves, remove seeds, cover with foil in a baking dish, and roast in the oven at 425 Fahrenheit for an hour until tender. From there it’s easy.
Scoop out the flesh—you need a pound or so, which is a good reminder that a cheap digital kitchen scale can be your best friend. Use the flesh to make a simple pumpkin syrup by combining it with one and a half cups water and one and a half cups sugar and then bringing to a boil.
At this point you’re going to need actual pumpkin spice for a Starbucks-style flavour boost. Premixed pumpkin spice is readily available everywhere at an inflated price, but why not make your own instead? Simply combine 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon with 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves.
Add a teaspoon and a half to your simple syrup, reduce heat for 20 minutes, and strain through two layers of cheesecloth.
Easy, right? Now all you have to do is substitute pumpkin syrup for simple syrup when making an Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, or Hot Toddy. Or, you know, you could just cheat and let some multinational corporation like Pernod Ricard—which owns Kahlúa—do the work. Like every other company making consumables, Kahlúa jumps on the all-orange bandwagon each fall, producing a limited-edition Pumpkin Spice offering. Blame Starbucks. And then make the following drink, which riffs on a creation by American bartender Jon Santer.
1 oz. Gentleman Jack bourbon
1 oz. Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban scotch whiskey (use Gentleman Jack if between paycheques)
1/2 oz. Pumpkin Spice Kahlúa
2 dashes orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Take a one-inch strip of orange peel and twist over the drink.