After sipping and ranking fast food's best hot coffees, the natural next step was to pull an R.R. Martin and make it a proper Song of Fire and Ice (!) by tackling cold coffees from the very same drive-thrus. But would I follow the Game of Thrones lead and kill my hero (Chick-fil-A)? Or would the same king continue to rule the fast-food coffee realm?
How we judged every chain's coffee
For this test, I visited Chick-fil-A, Burger King, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and Taco Bell. In order to give them a fighting chance, places like Starbucks were excluded. Coffees were ordered without sugar and milk in order to get the purest expression of the drink, although we'd suggest you add something to help the medicine go down.
And although I'm far from a certified coffee judge, I tried to use the same descriptors as the pros by consulting the Specialty Coffee Association's Flavor Wheel. It's like the Wheel of Fortune, but coffee dorks like it instead of your grandparents. Let's find out your best bet for cold caffeination.
5. Taco Bell
The coffee: "Premium Rainforest Alliance certified™ coffee made with 100% Arabica beans."
The price: $1.79
First off, it's important to point out that Taco Bell's iced coffee is also available with Cinnabon-flavored crème (its spelling!). TB loves it some Cinnabon. I opted for its regular iced coffee, but you should probably go with the frosting-filled version. Here's the downside of the regular iced stuff: it's acidic and has a suspiciously viscous texture that my tongue rebelled against.
4. Burger King
The coffee: "Our New Smooth Roast Iced Coffee starts with 100% Latin American Arabica coffee combined with silky cream and simple syrup for a deliciously cool, full-bodied iced coffee experience."
The price: $1.39
BK was one of the two chains that served its cold coffee pre-loaded with milk and sugar. As such, there were virtually no coffee flavors, and it tasted pretty delicious. When I returned to the counter to ask for a sugarless cup, the counter woman looked incredulous, but gave me a new drink without hesitation and warned that it'd be really strong.
She was not kidding. If I drank this whole thing, I feel like I'd finally be able to finish my screenplay that I haven't started. The taste was a mixture of plastic and styrofoam, with a hint of vanilla that didn't seem at all natural. It sadly missed the deliciousness of the previous incarnation.
3. Dunkin' Donuts
The coffee: “Brewed 100% Arabica Coffee, freshly brewed and full of flavor, our Iced Coffee is the perfect pick-me-up any time of day or night, giving you the boost you need to keep on running. Try adding one of our nine delicious flavors to make it your own."
The price: $1.99
Dunkin's hot coffee shines as a perfectly acceptable, slow-burning cup of joe, but its iced coffee isn't nearly as palatable. It's the most bitter of the bunch -- there's no hint of sweetness (a problem presumably solved by milk/sugar and/or Boston cremes), and there's something distinctly scorched about it. If you're into darker Starbucks flavors, this might work for you, but for me it tasted a lot like heartburn. This does get bonus points for pairing well with sprinkles. Have they thought about putting sprinkles in the iced coffee? Because they should.
The coffee: “Refreshingly cool and made with 100% Arabica beans, cream and your choice of flavored syrups -- caramel, hazelnut, French vanilla and sugar-free French vanilla.”
The price: $1.69
This is a spot-on cold rendition of Mickey D's java. Out of all these drinks, it tastes the most like actual coffee. This really dances around your mouth. There's sweetness on the tip of the tongue and sourness in the back of your throat, but unfortunately, the aftertaste leaves a film that blankets your whole mouth and temporarily shuts down your saliva glands. But since there's a McDonald's on every corner in America, this hits the sweet spot of taste and convenience. Maybe order a water with it.
The coffee: "Chick-fil-A Iced Coffee is handcrafted daily, made with a custom blend of cold-brewed coffee and fresh 2% milk, sweetened with pure cane sugar and served over ice. Our coffee beans are sustainably sourced by THRIVE Farmers, a farmer-direct coffee company that enriches the lives and communities of those who grow it. Available all day in Original or Vanilla."
The price: $2.35
Just like Burger King, Chick-fil-A automatically supercharges its coffee with milk and sugar. Boy was it indulgent -- like drinking birthday cake in a glass. The non-sugared version was a serious letdown by comparison, but still the most drinkable of the lot. The nuttiness and chocolatey flavors that came out in the birthday edition were put back in their cage, but a bit of almond still shone through. And the lemony notes that characterized its hot coffee were there too. It doesn't stand out from the pack the same way that its hot coffee does, but you could still do far worse than this in many a coffee shop.