Part One: Dawn Of Pumpkin Spice
Welcome to The Pumpkin Spice Must Flow, an irregular feature where I pointlessly share my opinions on pumpkin spice products. Despite the recent travesty of justice on the Avocado’s pie vote-off, I have always firmly believed that pumpkin pie is the best pie, hands down. An ex was even kind enough to formulate for me a bespoke balance of spices that was perfect for my tastes, but sadly never wrote it down, so I lost it forever more when we broke up – what was I thinking?! Perhaps out of a need to recapture those bygone pumpkin pies of yesteryear’s relationship, I now pursue the pumpkin pie flavor in other ways and places, from putting it into my coffee to checking out the pumpkin pie spice products that crop up every fall like toadstools after a heavy rain. Yes, I see those green leaves exploding onto the trees outside, I know it’s most definitely not the typical pumpkin pie spice season, but through diligent collecting, dragon-atop-a-pile-of-gold hoarding, and a bit of luck, I still have some products from last season. This feature will erupt as I unearth more, and when those same leaves turn those lovely shades of pumpkin orange and pie crust brown, heralding the returning curse of pumpkin spice like the Silver Surfer heralds Galactus (except it’ll be we who do the consuming).
Pumpkin Pie Spice: The Legend
Like all squashes, pumpkins don’t really have too much flavor on their own, so all the distinct, unique goodness of a pumpkin pie comes from the spices added, with the cream and eggs’ fat to provide a nice canvas for them to spread out on. So a good starting point here might be to take a look at what’s traditionally pumpkin pie spice itself.
Pumpkin pie spice, or just “pumpkin spice,” usually contain cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice, which just proves its improbable magic for me: usually the heavy-hitter by weight in pumpkin pie spice mixes, I love cinnamon; ginger too is wonderful stuff, and I can take or leave nutmeg. But cloves? Flowery trash. And yet, in balance with the others, it somehow works, something like a carefully proportioned masala spice mix in Indian dishes. That outlier allspice however is sort of like the letter Y on the my list of vowels; my current can of pumpkin pie spice doesn’t include it, and I don’t think I’ve ever tasted it by itself anywhere. Maybe I’ll check into that if I ever get hipster enough about pumpkin spice to start mixing my own.
Historically, spice mix precursors to pumpkin pie spice and their variants seem to date to around the 1600 and 1700 hundreds, which makes sense as the spice trade was a lot of what got global trade going for the rising western powers of that era in the first place. Pumpkin pie spice itself only dates back as far as the 1890s, which coincidentally is also close to the birth date of our modern jack o’ lanterns, but we’ll get into that later.
This first entry of The Pumpkin Spice Must Flow might as well be subtitled Alcohol Edition: The Pumpkin Spice Must Also Pour, because it’s mostly about bottled drinks. Alcohol producers have also heeded the siren call of the pumpkin spice, and because of the preservative nature of alcohol and some quirks in Colorado’s laws governing the sale of alcohol, these pumpkin spice drinks can often be found on the shelves at any time of year, if the independent vendor over-ordered previous season. I’m no sommelier though, so keep in mind that my opinions on them are just those of a pumpkin pie spice aficionado. Also, I’m not half the lush as this first entry may seem indicate, later entries will be notably less alcoholic.
Baileys Pumpkin Spice Irish Liqueur:
Many of the alcoholic pumpkin spice options, if not all, seem to be mainly geared towards mixing drinks with, and this Bailey’s seasonal variant is no exception; a few recipes are even listed on the back label and their website, one of which, per Baileys tradition, include coffee. The company website describes the flavor as “luxurious pumpkin,” which I’m guessing is not an adjective usually paired with pumpkin, but whatever, and goes on to mention “sweet cinnamon and baking spices, with hints of vanilla and coffee,” which is pretty accurate and more defensible, vocabularily speaking. The cream backs up and presents those flavors well and also nicely smooths out the alcohol’s sharpness, which is in fortified wine territory at 17% alcohol by volume.
The Baileys line of drinks has centered on making these sorts of flavored liquors since about the mid-2000s that are based off their basic cream+Irish whiskey recipe, which dates back to 1974. It’s apparently been a popular move for the brand as their website boasts they account for “over 50% of all spirits exported from Ireland,“ and that “over 2,300 glasses are consumed every minute of every day.“
A much more interesting factoid on their website that they offer to “impress your friends” with: “Irish immigrants brought the practice of turnip carving to the United States, where it was adapted to the native pumpkins.” Which turns out to be true! Looking that up lead me down a Wiki hole about carving pumpkins, so ramble with me here. Gourds, such as the pumpkin, are thought to been domesticated about 100,000 years ago, making them one of humanity’s first domesticated crops. The Maori are known to have carved them into lanterns centuries ago, but our western habit of carving scary faces into those lanterns apparently kicked off in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in the 1800s. Wikipedia sites mentions in print of both “Jack O’ Lanterns” and “Jack McLanterns” (someone get McDonald’s on the phone) around 1837, on both sides of the Atlantic, only about fifty years before pumpkin pie spice itself became a thing. Now, people in those areas historically referred to the Halloween season as Samhain, a time when the dead joined supernatural beings in walking the earth (which does sound like Halloween, except those creatures didn’t go house to house begging for candy, I’d guess). Those supernatural beings were basically the fairies you sort of know a little about, vaguely – living underground in mounds, in toadstool circles, etc., and it turns out were also called – get ready for it – the Sith. Huh! It figures this fascinating folklore would be responsible for jack-o-lanterns, Darth Vader and pumpkin spice Baileys. Thanks, elves! Maybe someday I’ll awaken with some of that fairy gold, but until then, I’ll be happy enough with an occasional sip of this stuff.
Mozart Chocolate Cream Pumpkin Spice Liqueur:
Mozart Distillery’s web page helpfully included a little weather icon to let me know it was 11 degrees Celsius and raining in their home town of Salzburg, Austria when I was reading their website, but unhelpfully didn’t include anything about the pumpkin spice variant of their chocolate cream liqueur. Maybe as it’s currently out of season, they deny all knowledge of having made this. I did read on their general info page however that “All Mozart chocolate liqueurs … are manufactured from natural raw ingredients, which everyone knows and virtually everyone likes.“ So that’s good, or at least “virtually” good, right? Another couple of websites described Mozart Chocolate Cream Pumpkin Spice as “cinnamon, clove, vanilla and a ghostly whisper of chili” or a “mixture of caramel, chocolate, cinnamon, clove, vanilla and natural pumpkin juice.” Admittedly, “pumpkin juice” isn’t something that one normally looks for in a liqueur, but it works pretty well in context. Although also 17%, the alcohol has a stronger presence compared to the Baileys, but the chocolate combines really well with the other, more usual seasonal flavors.
Like other Mozart liquors, this drink comes in a round bottle, rather than upright one, that’s been wrapped in foil, plus has a jack o’ lantern’s face on the paper label, which adds to the fun (it may not surprise you to find out I enjoy Halloween kitsch). Being wrapped in foil however hides how the drink itself looks, something like a melted orange crayon that’s been watered down; to be fair, the Baileys isn’t much different except for that possibly unnatural orange color. It’s a pervasive, uniform opaque orange that I can’t imagine you get with pumpkin juice; on the other hand, pumpkin puree is about the same color, so maybe they’re really juicing those pumpkins hard to make this. More worryingly, the bare glass of the bottom of the bottle is left bare, and shows zero signs of ingredients settling inside the bottle. Wikipedia lists the thickener glycerin as being a popular emulsifier in chocolate liqueurs (which date back as far as 1666, as mentioned in a French source), which is derived from plant and animal sources, so that’s “manufactured from natural raw ingredients”, aka algae, and people use glycerin in a any number of products, so one could argue that “virtually everyone” must sort of like it, because they often eat it, unlike say “pumpkin juice.” I reached out to both Mozart and Baileys distilleries on Facebook to ask some questions like this about what’s in their drinks, but got no response from either (Wikipedia says Baileys uses “refined vegetable oil”). The pumpkin spice yet harbors its many secrets.
Capt Morgan Jack-O-Blast:
The Capt Morgan website boasts this spiced rum “delivers seasonal flavors of pumpkin spice mixed with your favorite spiced rum,” which I found leads with a fiery cinnamon flavor – never a bad thing in my book; it’s also gluten free, which I’m sure assuages a common buccaneer’s concern. The website suggests this rum for mixing with of course and for shots, which it would probably be really good for that as the spice flavor is pretty strong and pleasant.
Or I could just suck at mixing rum drinks, which is entirely possible. I tried it with the following and got, pardon the phrase, mixed results on my own:
- A not-very-good bottled fruit smoothie, heavy on apple and berries: Jack-O-Blast didn’t help this clumsy smoothie at all, it just sat in the background and let the stuff embarrass itself without comment, only to provide a nice spiced finish after the awkward fruit concretion subsided.
- A blueberry and cranberry juice mix: The spiced rum actively worked against the blueberry cranberry flavors somehow, this was a bizarre failure.
- A bite-less ginger beer with an odd honey aftertaste that I now regret buying: Jack-O-Blast was fine enough in this, but the strong honey taste grew more cloying as I drank. Anyone want to take the other three bottles of this stuff off my hands?
- Some canned lite lemonade drink that my girlfriend mixed Jack-O-Blast into: Again, I found it bringing up the rear after all the native flavors had spoken, rather than strongly interacting with them somehow.
- Lime coconut natural soda: The spiced rum interacted with this one weirdly, but well to create a pretty complex procession of tastes, and somehow managed to do it’s thing before the coconut flavor ended the show.
I think these failures were more the fault of the mediums that I the added the rum to, rather than a problem with the rum itself, and that if one knew what the hell they were doing as a mixologist, this would be stellar for mixing with. These all may look like failures, but damn it, I like the taste of this rum. Rum has always been liquid lethargy for me, even more so than most liquors, so I was never much of a fan of it until I tried this.
Like the Mozart liqueur above, the Capt Morgan seasonal variant also comes in a globe-shaped bottle (possibly because both of them stand out really well on a crowded liquor shelf), but wrapped in pumpkin-printed plastic. And who doesn’t like having a pumpkin-shaped globe bottle sitting on their shelf? I bet these have adorned a lot of college dorm rooms.
Made of non-GMO whole grains, Pumpkin Puffins is more of a Whole Foods “good for you-ish” kind of cereal, rather than a “found in WalMart” type, but it’s started showing up in more stores during the season. The company website says the “crunchy corn, rice, and oat pillows made with real pumpkin and all the fall flavors of pumpkin pie make this sweet, but not too sweet, treat irresistible.”
Except for ta pumpkin spice cereal enthusiast. The first three ingredients are corn, whole grain brown rice, and cane sugar, and that’s pretty much what it tastes like: sweet grain cereal. The first bite or two is redolent of pumpkin spice, sort of reminding you what pumpkin spice tastes like, but after that it forgets its seasonal affectation and returns to its roots in the three main ingredients – which still isn’t awful in any way, just not pumpkin spicy. My girlfriend pointed out that she has the same issue with her current favorite cereal Chocolate Chex, so maybe the milk is the problem. Also, subjectively, I fault these nickel-sized “pillows” for their Cap’n Crunch-like terribly tenacious crunch; they don’t soften much and I tend to prefer a certain amount of sog in my cereal. Maybe I should follow my girlfriend’s Chocolate Chex advice and lean into that crunch by skipping the milk completely and eating these pillows as finger food to retain the pumpkin spice flavor.
So all three of these three alcohol entries win a coveted The Pumpkin Pie Spice Must Flow Award, which is something I’ve just now made up, while the cereal option doesn’t; better luck next time, foods!