A Coffee Newbie Tastes Their First Pumpkin Spice Latte, Goes on to Have 2 More

One of the last people in New York to taste a PSL shares his unscientific thoughts.

I've never really been a fall enthusiast. My love for the giant Home Depot skeleton aside, I've always been someone who clings to the last dregs of summer. I'm still two weeks away from my final beach vacation of the season, and I don't think I've worn long pants since Memorial Day. I do love Halloween, but more in a barely-clothed-gay way than a chilly-and-spooky way. 

I've also never traditionally been a coffee or espresso drinker. In fact, I had tried coffee twice in the first 28 years of my life. It wasn't until my coffee-loving Paraguayan boyfriend forced me to sit down with a homemade latte late last year that I finally turned the corner and embraced all things espresso. As talk turned to the ever-anticipated return of Pumpkin Spice Latte season, it occurred to me that this would be the first one I could participate in—at the ripe age of 29. Was I actually the last person in New York who had never tried one? My coworkers certainly seemed to think so.

As I set out to traipse across Hell's Kitchen the morning of September 1 in shorts and a tank top, fall wasn't exactly the first thing on my mind. Labor Day was still a few days out, and the daily high in midtown Manhattan hovered just south of 80 degrees. Still, I figured if I blasted the AC in my apartment and wrapped myself up in a blanket, I could get a rough approximation of the spooky season mindset I needed to try a drink that's gone through more meme cycles than I can count.

For reasons that are related to both the average PSL fan's experience and proximity to my apartment, I decided to get classic Pumpkin Spice Lattes from Starbucks and Dunkin' as well as tri-state chain Gregorys Coffee. Here are my extremely non-expert findings.

Photo by Chris Mench for Thrillist

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

The first sip of my first PSL had to go to Starbucks, the brand that has done more than any other to elevate the drink to meme status. Upon first taste, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. This is what y'all have been trying to cut summer short for? Couldn't be me.

That being said, the latte was undoubtedly enjoyable. Nice and aromatic, it gave me a hint of autumnal mood despite the summer heat. It has a subtle taste of cinnamon and pumpkin that lingers after the sip, although not nearly as strong of a flavor as I expected. It's more like a microdose of fall than a full-blown, sweater-in-a-pile-of-leaves moment. Still, the warm, nutty taste helped me begin to understand the fandom of the PSL.

Dunkin' Pumpkin Spice Latte

If Starbucks went for subtle, Dunkin' tried to smash a jack-o-lantern over my unsuspecting cranium. Both sweeter and more bitter upfront, the Dunkin' PSL has a flavor that lingers far longer on the palate. In this case, that wasn't super pleasant. At points, I felt like I had accidentally inhaled the smoke from a fall-scented dollar store candle. I definitely got much more robust notes of fall flavors like pumpkin, cinnamon, and apple compared to its Starbucks counterpart, but it was all a bit much. My apologies to Ben Affleck, but this one really didn't do it for me.

Gregorys Coffee Pumpkin Spice Latte

After drinking two full lattes within about 15 minutes, both my boyfriend and our cat were starting to grow concerned about my increasingly erratic jitters. Still, what was my illustrious journalism degree useful for if I couldn't see my PSL quest through to the finish line?

Gregorys struck a nice balance, with a solid autumnal flavor palate that was less cinnamon-forward than its national chain competitors. It is definitely the most pumpkin-tasting of the bunch, but nonetheless was more subdued and felt more like a regular latte than the others. If I thought Starbucks was a fall microdose, Gregorys felt like a nanodose. Perhaps because of that reason, it felt the most drinkable to me, both in the moment and on an imagined day-to-day basis as the NYC weather starts to cool off. Maybe I didn't need a spooky season assault on my tastebuds after all. Perhaps I just needed a tickle. 

Final Takeaways

It took me far too long to discover my love of lattes, but I can't say the same feeling extends to their pumpkin spice varieties. A little more nip in the air may have put me in a different mindset, but overall I just think there are other flavors I prefer. My first PSL fall may feature an occasional foray into one of these basiqué seasonal beverages, but the experience hardly made me a Christian Girl Autumn convert.

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Chris Mench is an editor focusing on NYC News at Thrillist. You can follow him on Twitter for more of his work.