Gourds be gone—other seasonal produce, like figs, can shine in fall beverages.
adobe stock

Gourds be gone—other seasonal produce, like figs, can shine in fall beverages.

Pumpkin Spice Cocktails? Not So Fast, Mixologists Say

Mixologists are expanding their fall menus beyond the ubiquitous spice.

Within the F&B world, nothing signals the advent of fall quite like the famous—or in some circles, infamous—pumpkin spice blend. Though most prevalent on coffee menus, the flavor has also been incorporated into a number of cocktail staples, from martinis and old-fashioneds to white Russians and mudslides. But for bartenders and guests weary of pumpkin-spiced everything, autumn offers a bounty of ingredients and ideas.

Fall into fruits

Just as chefs look to seasonal produce when building their menus, so too does James Beard Award–winning mixologist Charles Joly let locally sourced ingredients guide him in creating new cocktails. A native Chicagoan, Joly sometimes envies Californians their year-round supply of fresh produce, but he concedes there are advantages to living in a region with four distinct seasons.

When the mercury dips, he turns to readily available fruits, like apples and pears. And while cider might be nearly as overplayed as pumpkin spice, Joly says the category encompasses more than the overly sweet standard.

“Our cider purveyors at the farmers markets are doing single-varietal ciders,” he says. “They’re going to have nuances. One might be more floral; one might have more acidity; one might be more traditional, and those can all be flavor cues from which you could build a cocktail.”

Joly adds that he’s particularly fond of European and Basque-style ciders. Known for their depth of character and a certain earthy funkiness, these ciders are produced sans yeast and instead use natural fermentation. This process yields a product that is drastically different from what Joly calls the “glorified apple juice” flavor profiles of mainstream ciders.

Eric Bordelet, a cider-maker out of France, is one of Joly’s go-to producers. In the past, he would order 750-milliliter mini kegs to keep behind the bar. This method not only ensured the cider didn’t go flat, it also made it easy to sell by the glass or mix into cocktails.

At Midnight Rambler Bar, inside Dallas’s Joule Hotel, general manager and bartender Gabe Sanchez is a fan of fruits like honeycrisp apples and Asian pears. But hot temperatures mean orchard fruits are often underrepresented.

“The most underrated autumn cocktail—at least in the Southwest and West—is wassail, a hot apple cider with baking spices. It’s a bit labor-intensive, so it often takes a backseat to hot toddies,” Sanchez says. That’s not to say he doesn’t go the extra mile with the latter drink. In fact, his favorite fall drink at Midnight Rambler is a duck fat–washed hot toddy.

For restaurants lacking the manpower or budget to source fresh fruits or international ciders, Marshall Minaya, beverage director at Valerie restaurant in New York, has a pro tip.

“Some ingredients that are not in your typical canon of fall are the likes of persimmons, figs, raisins, and ginger. If you want to skip a step, utilizing some [Pedro Ximénez] sherry in a cocktail in the fall season is a great start,” he says. This particular sherry is derived from an overripe white grape grown in Southern Spain. “The sherry is going to provide the warm fig-raisin flavor with a rich, heavy mouthfeel. Also, Gonzalez Byass makes a sherry vermouth that is distilled with heavy, warming spice notes,” he adds.

Other fortified wines and distilled spirits can also imbue beverages with orchard fruit flavors. Both Minaya and Joly name brandy, especially calvados (an apple brandy from Normandy), as an ideal building block in fall drinks.

“There’s a whole movement of really high-quality brandies being made in the U.S. as well, which would be great to reach for,” Joly says.

The dark side of the tropics

For as much as autumn F&B focuses on flavor, it’s not the only path toward capturing the season in a glass. Black Lagoon, a multi-city, Halloween-themed pop-up marries the chilly, darker days of fall with the bright flavors of the tropics.

The pop-up was first conceived by mixologists Erin Hayes and Kelsey Ramage in 2019 and kicked off as an event series last year. This time around it’s visiting nine cities across the U.S. and Canada. Hayes, who’s an alum of Chicago’s once-beloved, now-shuttered tiki bar, Lost Lake, says island flavors appear on the menu, but they don’t overpower it.

“I spent many years running tropical bars, so it’s part of my DNA,” she says. “A lagoon kind of lends itself to the idea of tropical, but we didn’t want to go over the top. It’s not a tropical pop-up; it’s a pop-up that has some tropical-leaning drinks. It’s a spooky lagoon.”

While Hayes and Ramage have a new lineup of drinks this time around, a few of last year’s best-sellers are back, including Hexes for Your Exes—Teeling Whiskey, melon, pineapple, and fizz—and Lilith’s Cup, which features Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, aperol, dry vermouth, passionfruit syrup, and glitter.

At Black Lagoon, what brings the seasonal vibe is more about the presentation than the flavors. Not only are the host bars decked out in coffins and other macabre decor, the drinks are also served in themed glassware (think: skull-shaped tiki tumblers) with vibrant colors like pumpkin oranges, blood reds, and charcoal blacks.

“Nutmeg and cinnamon are always going to make an appearance on fall menus because they’re a little bit warming, but we approach this from a color standpoint. So our drinks are very bright and playful. We’ve got one that’s bright orange and then one that comes out like a slime green,” Ramage says.

Still, seasonal flavors do appear on the Black Lagoon menu; they just differ from the usual baking spices.

“There are definitely some fall flavors and harvest things that don’t necessarily get the love that pumpkin spice gets,” Hayes says. “We’ve got an amazing cocktail that utilizes a beautiful corn liqueur, which is such a different flavor but has a very fall vibe. It also utilizes green apples, and apple picking is definitely a fall activity. So pairing those two together really gives an essence of the season without dipping into pumpkin pie spice.”

Obviously, most beverage directors won’t go as full tilt on a theme as Black Lagoon, but like Joly, its cofounders suggest bartenders explore close-to-home ingredients.

“With fall flavors, it just brings in a new season of [ingredients] that are available locally, like apples, fall fruits, and root vegetables that come into season. I think looking there first for inspiration is where you start,” Ramage says.

Pumpkin spice is still nice

The harvest months bring a wealth of ingredients and fresh ideas for mixologists, but even with new cocktails finding their way onto menus, the classics will endure. And after all, there’s a reason pumpkin spice, mocked as it may be, receives so much fanfare.

“Bartenders in particular cringe a little bit when people come out with the array of pumpkin spice everything,” Daly says. “There’s a reason pumpkin spice coffee drinks go nuts every year. They have haters because they’re that popular. There are plenty of people who are excited about it, and those spices do go really well together.”

These spices also appeal to other senses, which can go a long way in capturing the season’s cozy—or in the case of Black Lagoon, spooky—ambiance. The pop-up relies heavily on visual cues to cultivate the right atmosphere, while others, including Minaya, gravitate toward scent.

To evoke autumn, he recommends tapping into cinnamon, clove, allspice, anise, allspice, rosemary, and even orange.

“Fall is all about aroma. In the air, you can smell the leaves changing and the pinecones falling,” he says. “A more sophisticated way to appease your customers’ demand for pumpkin spice and cider is to invoke their other senses. … You could make a mulled water or utilize a pear brandy and place them into an atomizer.”

Ultimately, it’s not pumpkin spice that’s the problem so much as its pervasiveness. Joly thinks that where F&B professionals—and even consumers—lose their patience is when a single flavor is overdone. Like Minaya, he says there are many overlooked spices in the pantry.

“Dig a layer deeper on some of those fall spices. Instead of just nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon, maybe reach for something a little more unexpected. Reach for the mace. Go to a nice spice shop and see what they have,” Joly says. “There are plenty of other warming spices or baking spices.”