In simpler times, when people talked about looking forward to a fall cocktail, one could safely assume that they were eager to quit the thirst-quenching beverages of summer in favor of old-fashioneds and Manhattans and applejack whatnots—deeper, darker drinks suited to autumnal moods. Then the times and the drinks became more complicated. The people, simpler. The category of “fall cocktails” now conspicuously includes drinkypoos tasting of pumpkin.
Tonight, in Dallas, you can drink a Cinderella’s Glass Slipper made with pumpkin-infused applejack; in Atlanta, a Great Rumkin made with pumpkin spice–infused rum and pumpkin purée; in Cleveland, a “pumpkin-based martini” made with a proprietary mix that may involve the freshly shed tears of aesthetes. Right now, you are informed that mentions “of pumpkin on the alcoholic drinks menus at restaurants and bars are up 38.1 percent from last year.” Last weekend, I rolled into a New York bar called Pouring Ribbons and ordered a highbrow hit of the season, the Labu Kelapa, a tall gin drink involving a “7-spice pumpkin-coconut mix.” It arrived, overtopped with crushed ice flecked with grated nutmeg and toasted coconut flakes. I prepared myself to do a spit take, sipped, and with surprise delighted in the subtropical orangeness of a newfound flavor. My mind sought juicy phrases to describe a taste somehow evoking a melon sunset savored on a foreign shore. Refilling my water glass, the cocktail waitress saw my brow lined with some semblance of cogitation and said, “It’s definitely a thinking drink.” Yes—but what’s the big idea?
Americans were putting pumpkin in their drinks before they were Americans in the modern sense. In his history of rum, Wayne Curtis writes that Colonial tavern-keepers would add dried pumpkin, or molasses, or anything nonlethal at all to 18th-century rum to disguise its coarseness. Then we began striving to become a civilized people. Two centuries passed. Things were looking relatively good between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, after which there was nowhere to go but down.
Even after everything started going to hell, bartenders avoided working with pumpkin because the benefits didn’t seem to justify the cost of labor: “Pumpkins don’t have much flavor before cooking.” Then, in 2003, the hellward descent accelerated with Starbucks’ introduction of the pumpkin spice latte, which depends upon a sauce made with cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg—roughly the stuff that seasons pumpkin pie.
The relationship between “pumpkin spice” and actual pumpkin has less to do with Brillat-Savarin than with Proust and Pavlov and Jung, to be clear. The distinction matters not to the marketplace, to be sure. The nourishment that pumpkins provide is more emotional than metabolic: Totems of a fake arcadia, they are most vividly envisaged as magic ornaments of childhood festivals. Historically, people who can afford not to eat pumpkins do not eat pumpkins. Thus the fact that a significant number of 21st-century grown-ups should feel compelled, like craven junkies, to seek a pumpkin “fix” in liquid form is both a triumph of marketing and a tribute to the foodie cachet of consuming “seasonal ingredients” at all costs.
The success of the PSL prepared a deserving world for the breakthrough, or outbreak, of pumpkin cocktails. The booze press began transcribing formulae for the likes of the Ichabod Crane and the Pumpkin French 75. Liquor companies were emboldened to pretend that the combination of vodka and pumpkin-spice schnapps was not transparently vile. The actress Christina Hendricks was seen to shill a something-or-other involving tequila and “pumpkin spice liquor.” This just in from London: an endorsement for “the Pumpkin Bite—a devilishly good mix of pumpkin purée, rum and cranberry juice, served in a hollowed out pumpkin.”
The noxious sweetness of many liquorish pumpkin offerings proves them to be agents of regression. I had a sip of Crop Organic Spiced Pumpkin Vodka and wondered only how I might use something of its flavor profile to frost gingerbread cookies. I found a recipe for “a tipsy take on the pumpkin spice latte”; ingredients include two shots of vanilla or whipped cream vodka, 2-3 tablespoons pumpkin puree, ½ cup milk, honey, and crushed graham crackers, as if the target audience were dipsomaniacal 5-year-olds. I’d planned on using a bottle of pumpkin spice Kahlua that bobbed into the office to design my own boozy clone of the iconic pumpkin spice latte. The plan was born of ignorance: I hadn’t yet tasted the Starbucks espresso drink. Then I tried one, and I couldn’t taste the coffee smothered beneath the synthetic sickliness, so I decided that the Kahlua would probably be better off mixed with Fernet.
Do I intend this essay as a sweeping condemnation of pumpkin cocktails? Well, yes, but every good rule deserves a few fine exceptions. As the Labu Kelapa suggests, the key to crafting one is to treat pumpkin as a supporting player (as opposed to a star) and as an earthly fruit (rather than a plastic pie filling). Thoughtful bars often demonstrate their knowledge of the principle by relying on a simple dollop of subtle pumpkin butter. In New York, Death & Co. employed a teaspoon’s worth in the Vampire Blues listed on old menus, and a spot called the Skylark adds a touch to an apple brandy drink on its current one, though it’s worth noting that Steve Reddicliffe, writer of the New York Times’ Friday saloon column, couldn’t bring himself to ask for one by name: “It’s called the Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, but I got away with requesting ‘the pumpkin cocktail.’ ”
This points toward a further problem plaguing this genre of beverage: nomenclature. I’ve seen a good-looking drink—a cold flip calling for pumpkin ale—dubbed the Great Pumpkin. I’ve also seen awful-looking drinks—liquid equivalents of a trick-or-treater’s bulging bag—dubbed the Great Pumpkin. Good grief. The sentimental weakness for decorative corniness, the autumnal fondness for reheated chestnuts—these are forces to be resisted. This is a highly symbolic gourd we’re talking about, the unofficial national cucurbit, and drinks invented to exploit it deserve, at the very least, a good name.