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The Unexpected History of Pumpkin Spice

Fall arrived especially early in 2021, when the Pumpkin Spice Latte returned to Starbucks stores on August 22 — the earliest the beverage had ever made its seasonal return. Its premature arrival follows a trend it originally set: Each year, well before the leaves turn and sweaters come out of storage, store shelves are filled with hundreds of pumpkin spice products, from cereal and beer to shampoo, dog treats, and even SPAM. So prevalent is the flavoring that it has become a universally understood symbol of being “basic” — defined by Green’s Dictionary of Slang as “unexciting, unexceptional, uneventful.” The addictive caffeinated drink has washed away the world-changing history of its namesake spice blend, an investigation of which only makes it taste that much richer.

Pumpkin Spice Has Ancient Roots

Aerial view of Banda Neira in Indonesia, with a pentagonal fort built by dutch during the spices war, Maluku, Indonesia.
Image: Stephane Bidouze/ Shutterstock

Long before the “PSL,” pumpkin spice referred to a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves — spices that date back thousands of years. In 2007 and 2009, archaeologists on Pulau Ay, one of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, found nutmeg residue on pottery shards estimated to be more than 3,500 years old. In fact, in the 1300s, the Banda Islands became known as the “Spice Islands,” since they remained the only place where nutmeg and some of the other “pumpkin spices” were known to be grown.

The Spices Were Considered Extremely Valuable

Whole inshell nut, cracked and nutmeg powder in a wooden bowl and spoon.
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Because the spices were difficult to source, they were highly prized and extremely valuable, which led to a global spice trade in the 14th century. As the trade developed, nutmeg became more valuable than gold, and traders kept their sources under lock and key, each trying to find a way to reach the East as quickly as possible.

In passing centuries, the European fever for spice only grew, with the Dutch taking control of the Spice Islands by the early 1700s. They traded their colony of New Amsterdam with the British — who renamed it “New York” — in exchange for control of one of the Spice Islands, Pulau Run.

Loose spices and jars to represent a pumpkin spice blends.
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Unsurprisingly, access to these new flavorings inspired a wealth of culinary creativity. In medieval Europe, physicians prescribed warming spices such as ginger, clove, and cinnamon to enhance the “hot” and “humid” qualities of roasted meat. A type of cinnamon-ginger-clove steak sauce, called cameline, was a popular condiment in 14th-century Europe. The “tournais-style” of the sauce included nutmeg, which created a seasoning blend reminiscent of today's pumpkin spice.

The spice-loving Dutch created a mix called speculaaskruiden, also similar to pumpkin spice, but with the addition of cardamom and sometimes white pepper. With the proliferating global spice trade and expansion of culinary uses, the precious blends once only for the wealthy became increasingly available to the masses.

By the 17th century, prices fell and the aristocracy no longer saw hoards of nutmeg or cinnamon as a status symbol. As the spices became more common, they were used less for flavoring savory dishes and more for sweet baked goods and drinks, including another seasonal favorite, mulled wine. In turn, aromatic spices and sweetness became associated with the taste of the general populace.  

Pumpkin Spice Eventually Evolved Into “Pumpkin Pie Spice”

 A slice of home made pumpkin pie with whipped cream on a rustic table top.
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In the fascinating history of the pumpkin spice blend, one element is conspicuously missing: the pumpkin, not to mention the pie. Reportedly, the first documented introduction of the spices in pie in the United States is in American Cookery, published in 1796, which called for flavoring what was then called a “pompkin” pie with molasses, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. A specific reference to “pumpkin spice” made an appearance in a recipe for “Spice Cake Of Pumpkin Newest Dish: Delicacy Tempting to All Appetites and Easy to Prepare. Ideal Dessert for Family Dinner, Healthful for Children,” published in the Washington Post in 1936.

McCormick, a leading spice company, introduced Americans to “pumpkin pie spice” in 1934, leading consumers to pair it with another popular invention: Libby’s canned pumpkin, which hit shelves five years earlier. As McCormick’s pumpkin pie spice blend became increasingly popular for busy home cooks, it began to be used in recipes, including savory dishes that included absolutely none of the eponymous ingredient.

By the 1990s, pumpkin spice expanded beyond the kitchen altogether, as the term was applied to home products like textiles, paint, and scented candles.  

Pumpkin Spice Coffee Made Its First Appearance in the Mid-’90s

A mug of pumpkin spice latte surrounds by pumpkins, leaves, and two spoons.
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It was not until 1996 that pumpkin spice flavor was used in reference to coffee, with local newspapers from Tampa, Florida, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, noting local cafes serving pumpkin spice coffee, with the addition of cream and sugar to create the pumpkin pie spice latte.

Picking up on the trend, Starbucks’ Peter Dukes, the director of espresso, led a team at the company’s Seattle headquarters to create their version of the seasonal drink. Originally, the idea of a pumpkin pie latte ranked lowest in a customer survey of potential flavors. Undeterred, the Starbucks team exhaustively tested recipes in the Seattle headquarters' laboratories, in part by pouring espresso on top of pumpkin pie to determine the best ratio of spice to coffee. They finally perfected the formula, which was almost known as the “fall harvest latte,” before its 2003 debut in a mere 100 Starbucks stores in Vancouver and Washington, D.C. In September 2004, the pumpkin spice latte rolled out nationwide, and in its first year, the drink was credited with raising sales by 11%. Since then, Starbucks has sold more than 424 million PSLs in the United States alone, making it one of the most loved — and by some, the most hated — flavor profiles of all time.