Spend any amount of time trying to craft a perfect pumpkin-spice syrup and you’ll eventually come to one conclusion: there’s a good reason Howard Schultz is sitting on the recipe for Starbucks’ most perfect creation. Ever nailed something that’s almost impossible to get right? If so, you know there’s no upside to sharing your secret with the rest of the world. Which is why—assuming the green apron isn’t part of your daily wardrobe—there’s zero chance of getting your hands on a bottle, jug, or vat of official Starbucks Pumpkin Spice syrup.
There are, of course, ways of getting close to recreating the magic, including Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Creamer, Starbucks Pumpkin Spice ground coffee, and the pumpkin-spice version of Starbucks’ just-add-water Via Instant Latte. But, no doubt by design, none of those mimic the Starbucks drink which proved an instant smash when launched in the fall of 2003.
So, until the coffee giant starts selling bottles of its carefully guarded pumpkin-spice syrup, you’ll keep paying the local Starbucks barista six dollars a pop for each daily fall fix. And even though all previous attempts have been futile, you’ll continue on your quest to crack the Starbucks code at home, scouring everything from the Food Network website to artisanal-hipster blogs for that perfect pumpkin-spice recipe. All the while accepting the reality that the odds of re-creating Starbucks’ combination of pumpkin, condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and Christ knows what else are less-than-zero.
Here’s the reason you do it: because pumpkin-spice anything is goddamn delicious. Which explains why we’ve now got everything from Pumpkin Spice Cheerios to pumpkin-spice toothpaste, honey, gum, pasta sauce, lube, and tampons.
Liquor nerds aren’t immune to the pull. When the leaves start to fall, and the Halloween season begins to ramp up, the quest begins for the perfect pumpkin cocktail.
Before we get going, let’s start with a fact that escapes many: pumpkins actually don’t have a lot of taste. Keep that in mind when you’re reading reviews of pumpkin-flavoured craft beer, limited-edition Kahlúa, or Pinnacle Pumpkin Spice Vodka. When Yelp critics complain they aren’t getting a lot of authentic pumpkin notes, there’s a good reason.
Pumpkins are part of the squash family, and if you’ve ever cooked squash you know it’s the seasonings—salt, pepper, curry, honey, or Mayan chocolate—that elevate things from bland to beautiful. Given the subtlety of pumpkin flesh, the spices are what make a bold pumpkin-spice syrup.
As you might be aware, those basketball-sized things you turn into jack-o-lanterns aren’t really meant for eating. They’ve been bred to be watery and hollow, not tasty. So if you’re going the pumpkin-syrup-from-scratch route, start by buying sugar pumpkins, which are smaller, tastier, and less fibrous than their larger cousins. You can also cheat a little and substitute in a Kabocha squash, which is a kissing-cousin of the pumpkin.
Step one is softening the flesh. After removing the seeds and cutting your squash of choice into eight slices, place in a baking dish, cover with foil, and then roast at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. Once things are fork-tender, remove the skins and mash in a sauce pan with one-and-a-half cups each water and brown sugar, boil, then reduce to simmer for an hour.
Add one tablespoon of pumpkin spice (which you can do DIY-style by combining one teaspoon cinnamon, and a quarter teaspoon each of nutmeg, ginger, and ground cloves), stir, reduce the whole mixture by a third, and then strain into a bowl through a couple layers of cheesecloth.
If all that roasting seems like too much work, mix three-quarters of a 14-ounce can of store-bought pumpkin puree (which is actually squash) with one cup each of sugar and water, and then follow steps above without the reduction part.
That out of the way, think about what mixes well with pumpkin. Even though some will argue that Pumpkin Spice Margs are not only a thing but delicious, save the drinks built with fresh lemons and limes for summer.
Instead, embrace the fall with a Pumpkin Spice Martini, which you can make by mixing your DIY syrup, heavy cream, vodka, and a darker, nuanced rum like Diplomático from Venezuela. Add a kick with a half-shot of espresso, and an extra layer of flavour with a splash of Amaretto or Frangelico.
Pumpkin also plays well with bourbon. Riff on an Old Fashioned by combining Maker’s Mark (or Jack Daniel’s if you’re hanging on ’til payday), orange curaçao, pumpkin syrup, and bitters).
Getting the idea? From White Russians to Bourbon Smashes, sub in pumpkin pie syrup for simple syrup, and you’re ready for sweater season. Not to mention that goddamn time of year where you have to pony up six bucks a day at Starbucks because Howard Schultz won’t put his pumpkin spice syrup in a bottle that you can enjoy at home.
Speaking of home, here’s a pumpkin-spice cocktail you can make with a bit of advance prep, with the recipe courtesy of Diplomático Canadian brand ambassador Gavin Miller.
Pumpkin Spice Sipper
1.5 oz Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva
4 oz pumpkin cordial*
Cold chai tea
Add 1.5 oz Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva and 4 oz pumpkin cordial to a tall glass with crushed ice. Top with cold chai tea to taste and serve with a straw.
*To make pumpkin cordial combine five ounces of oat milk with five ounces pumpkin purée and two ounces pumpkin-spice syrup. Put in a blender to flash mix ingredients.