Grocery store aisles, Instagram stories, and the general populace’s collective soul seem to begin oozing pumpkin the moment autumn (or more realistically, late summer) rolls around. From dog treats, to tortilla chips, to shampoo, pumpkin can be added to just about everything.
Cocktails are no exception. Come Spooky Season, many bartenders find themselves shaking and stirring up this beloved squash — some more willingly than others.
Like most things that have developed cult-like followings, there are plenty of people who love to hate what others love to love. But what do bartenders really think about using pumpkin in cocktails? Is it a useful ingredient that can impart flavor and seasonally fueled joy into a drink? Or, is it an over-hyped trend that should be limited to mass-produced lattes? To solve this autumnal conundrum, we asked 10 bartenders if pumpkin deserves a home in cocktails.
“I do not like pumpkin cocktails, but I blame that on my hatred of coffee and pumpkin spice — I think they’re overrated. I also don’t like pumpkin that much in general, unless it’s in pumpkin cheesecake, which is why I try to make any pumpkin drink I make taste like cheesecake. Fulton Pumpkin Liqueur is what I’ve used the most. As far as making your own, I just don’t think the texture is right and is often grainy. Mixing pumpkin liqueur with White Chocolate Godiva, vanilla vodka, and cream does make an OK drink that I know people are fans of. Like I said, I’m trying to get as close to cheesecake as possible. I do understand the appeal — it’s fall; pumpkins are pretty — but I’ll stick to my apple cider. Honestly, people like what they like — just don’t try to convince me I’m wrong if I don’t agree. However, pumpkin seeds would make an excellent bar snack.” —Camille Schaut, lead bartender, Chippewa Club, Iron Mountain, Mich.
“I don’t mind pumpkin in cocktails, I just don’t enjoy it when it tastes artificial and too sugary. My favorite way to use pumpkin in a cocktail is to not let it be so overpowering that it takes away from everything else in the drink. For example, in a cocktail we have on our menu, our Pumpkin Martini, we make our own pumpkin spice syrup in-house. We also use a house-infused vanilla vodka, a splash of Baileys, and heavy cream with a maple and graham cracker rim. A good pumpkin Old Fashioned is great as well. I’m more of a bourbon girl myself, so being able to pair a classic cocktail with a great pumpkin syrup during sweater weather is a win-win.” —Colleen White, bar manager, Caboose Tavern, Vienna, Va.
“The first thing I’d say is that pumpkin spice without pumpkin is very versatile. It’s basically just a cinnamon-forward, fall spice blend that you can substitute in places where you’d use a cinnamon or chai syrup. As for pumpkin itself, we actually found a really useful hack: baby food. We were looking for pumpkin puree in, like, August to start experimenting. When we couldn’t find canned pie mix, my boss stumbled upon organic squash baby food. The ingredients list is just 100 percent pureed squash with no salt or spices, so we could control the flavor. I think the concept of pairing pumpkin with dark rum is great and approachable because the general public is so familiar with the idea of ‘spiced rum.’ A pumpkin Dark ‘n Stormy is gonna play really well with that ginger being present in multiple levels of your drink. The warm fall flavors work great with whiskey drinks like Old Fashioneds, but if you’re using a puree, you might want to shake it. Stirring the pumpkin might lead to some separation once the drink has sat for a second. I think pumpkin is the poster child of the ‘anti-basic’ movement over the last 10 years or so. Just because something is ubiquitous and sweet and approachable, people treat hating it like a badge of honor and good taste. I’ve never felt it’s that deep.” —Ben Finkelstein, bartender/mixologist, Sonder Social Club, Dunedin, Fla.
“Pumpkin is fun to use because it is such a great canvas for showcasing other flavors. I like to use pumpkin to add some great texture to a cocktail while incorporating seasonal flavors like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. I love seasonal drinks — pumpkin especially — but it seems like every year, the tidal wave of pumpkin spice comes earlier and earlier! So if you order a pumpkin cocktail in October, we are solid. But, if you are someone who starts the season in late August, I’m probably going to tease you a bit. This year, I’m really into pumpkin spiced latte cocktails. At the bar we’re featuring a Pumpkin Spiced White Russian Martini: vodka, Kahlua, and pumpkin topped with freshly whipped cream that’s been infused with pumpkin spice. I also enjoy making Espresso Martinis with Cognac, espresso, and pumpkin spice. It’s a little stiffer than the White Russian, but equally delicious!” —Tommy Caputo, bartender, Momento, Stroudsburg, Pa.
“I think customer expectations are quite important when deciding how to incorporate pumpkin in a cocktail, specifically in regard to texture. In most stirred drinks like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, a smooth, velvety texture is expected, so it is important to maintain that texture by infusing pumpkin into the spirit or using a liqueur that doesn’t have much particulate. In shaken drinks like Daiquiris, or in built drinks that have thick ingredients like White Russians, a little bit of thickness from well-incorporated pumpkin won’t feel out of place. I’ll usually reach for compound syrups and purees that lend more body to the cocktail for those applications. I usually go for dark spirits, in keeping with the trends of the season. Last year, I made a Pumpkin Spice Daiquiri with aged Charanda Rum… as a joke. Unfortunately for my pride, it was delicious and has been my favorite pumpkin cocktail ever since. I say, embrace the season! I understand those who want to steer clear of seasonal flavor hypes, but there’s no fun in being a killjoy. Also, never be afraid to get weird. It might suck; it might be awesome. This year, we’ll be serving up pumpkin spice Malort … I’m still not sure how I feel about it.” —Daniel Carlson, bar manager, Off The Wall Cafe, Park Ridge, Ill.
“I love using pumpkin in cocktails. Fall is my favorite time of year, and pumpkin is a staple of the season. There’s no reason to hate joy! I like to use my own housemade pumpkin spice syrup. I use only whole fruits and vegetables and whole spices in my syrups, and I don’t add any sugar. It’s a really simple recipe: one pie pumpkin, 15 cloves, three cinnamon sticks, and five nutmeg seeds reduced down in just enough simmering water to cover about three-quarters of the cut-up pumpkin. Then, I muddle and strain. My favorite spirit to pair my pumpkin spice syrup with is rye whiskey. The spice of the rye complements the spice of the syrup really well, and it makes for an earthy, spicy, warming cocktail.” —John Stone, bartender, The Nearby Bar, Denver
“I used to roll my eyes at pumpkin cocktails a little bit, I can’t lie! However, the older I get — and especially after the last few years with the pandemic raging on and making everything more difficult — the more and more I just want people to enjoy things. If that’s pumpkin spice in their cocktails, who am I to deny them? A really excellent cocktail can transport you to a time and place. So with that in mind, I think pumpkin spice goes best with a rye and Applejack split base. Make a pumpkin spice syrup, and you have yourself a fun take on an Old Fashioned that will make you nostalgic for your favorite fall activities, regardless of how warm it may still be outside.” —Charlotte Neitzel, bar manager, Milonga Room, Austin, Texas
“Over the years, I’ve come to understand that pumpkin will always be a flavor that comes around once a year, and people will go crazy for it. Personally, I believe if I can make a drink that’s good, why not? As long as the flavor and the cocktail are always consistent. I just find it funny that once a year, people go so crazy about a flavor. I personally enjoy cider or a seasonal pumpkin spiced beer. Getting the right cocktail where the pumpkin flavor doesn’t get lost means using the right spirit. You can use vodka, where flavor won’t be overpowered, or enhance it with a spiced rum to make it richer. I recently played around with some Scotch and rum for a pumpkin cocktail. I turned Thai tea, coconut, cloves, and pumpkin into a syrup. I mixed it with a rum from St. Lucia called Chairman’s Reserve, which is a spiced rum, and added some allspice dram and apple cider.” —Benjamin Zapien, head bartender, The Raines Law Room, NYC
“I love me a pumpkin cocktail! As long as it’s balanced, sign me up for anything fall-flavored. We only get to enjoy this time once a year on the East Coast, so I say enjoy it while we can. I think as bartenders and drink creators, we all have this idea that we’re going to roll our eyes at certain drink requests, but in my opinion, if someone wants what they want, we should gladly make it for them. That’s part of the hospitality aspect of bartending. Using pumpkin butter is my favorite way to incorporate pumpkin flavor into a cocktail. I like to melt it down into some warm water and stir to make a nice, smooth syrup. Trader Joe’s is my favorite brand, since their blend of pumpkin with other fall spice flavors like cinnamon and clove is very nicely balanced, but there are a variety of brands out there that will work. Using a pumpkin butter also allows for consistency between cocktails since every jar you open will be nearly the same as the last. I once paired pumpkin butter with Merlet V.S. Cognac in a savory pumpkin Sidecar twist. The Cognac already has a smooth profile with notes of roasted nuts, toffee, brioche, and honey, and I thought that would pair well with the earthy and spicy notes of the pumpkin butter. I added fresh sage when I shook the cocktail for some contrast to the sweetness of the pumpkin and Cognac. I think when people think of pumpkin, they’re usually thinking of a sweet ‘pumpkin spice,’ but I think the most interesting flavors in cocktails come from pumpkin’s savory elements. It’s a squash at the end of the day, and so it’s so much more versatile as an ingredient than just as a latte flavor.” —Danielle Rutherford, general manager & partner, The Grange Bar & Eatery, NYC
“I love pumpkin! I do think that it gets a bit saturated once autumn starts to come around. If I had one gripe, it would be that there’s a little too much pumpkin. But like I said, I do enjoy it this time of year. We’ve used pumpkin and different squash a couple of ways over the years. Squash and melon are pretty closely related, and any purees or juices we’ve made in the past tend to get icky and slimy pretty quickly. For pumpkin specifically, I’ve always opted to use ‘pumpkin spice’ or something very similar, rather than using the actual squash. I think generally, people are looking for more of the pumpkin pie flavor profile over the flavor of pumpkin itself — something that makes your brain say ‘pumpkin’ even though it’s not really present. Pumpkin itself tends to be very mild and either needs to be amped up or paired with something that won’t mask the pumpkin flavor. When using pumpkin spice, however, the sky’s the limit. We tend to utilize darker spirits in combination with baking and warming spices. My personal favorite is pretty basic: a good spiced rum. This year, at one of our bars, Calico, we’re doing a hybrid of an old classic: Pumpkin Spice Hot Buttered Rum. The prep for the drink is relatively easy and pretty shelf-stable. Plus, butter and any squash are an amazing combo!” —Ian Fletcher, beverage director, Blagden Hospitality Group (Calico, Tiger Fork, Fainting Goat, Hi-Lawn, Bar Ivy), Washington, D.C.