Forget Santa in the store or the juniper Christmas tree stand. The new way to tell the holidays are here is the arrival of the red cups, a.k.a. the lineup of special-edition indulgent drinks served by Starbucks.
And for 2013, the company has done some tweaking with potentially earth-shattering consequences: the addition of real molasses. You'll find it in the form of a drizzle atop the gingerbread latte. That's not the only new wrinkle. Hold on to your coffee mug: The whipped cream is no longer plain – it's now spiced. Starbucks' description says that they've added cinnamon, cloves and ginger to the whipped cream, "followed by a drizzle of sweet molasses."
The gingerbread latte is one of four drinks Starbucks serves for a limited time beginning in November, along with eggnog latte, peppermint mocha, and its 2009 release, the caramel brûlée latte.
Starbucks has the power to transform an obscure ingredient like molasses into a rock star, says food trend expert Darren Tristano.
Tiny modifications such as a drizzle of molasses may seem silly to fixate on, but for Starbucks' diehard fans, they become big news. The drinks generate devotion not only because of their holiday theme, but also because of their limited-edition status. Not being able to get them all the time makes them all the more tantalizing.
Starbucks has the power to transform an obscure ingredient like molasses into a rock star, says Darren Tristano, VP at Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm.
"Starbucks is one of the big three – when you're talking about Starbucks, Subway or McDonald's, anything they do can have an impact," Tristano says. "I don't think molasses as a flavor has trended yet. It is a more indulgent ingredient, a flavor associated with many comfort foods. As far as it finding its way into a coffee drink, if you were going to do it, this would be the time."
The molasses flavor has an old-timey quality with a strong tradition in the South. Long a favorite ingredient of chef Dean Fearing's, it has more recently seen a revival in restaurants as part of the artisanal trend. It's now showing up at restaurants such as Max's Wine Dive where it's used as a flavorful glaze.
An employee at the Mockingbird Station Starbucks called the tweaks "a nice update" from last year. "I'm not sure if most people know that the syrup is molasses, but the spiced whipped cream is really noticeable," he says.
Tweaks like this help make something old seem fresh, says Technomics' Tristano.
"Let's face it, you can’t keep coming back to the market with pumpkin spice latte, when even McDonald's has that," he says. "When McDonald's gets it, you know it's at the end of its lifecycle. It's a smart idea to add something new."
To that end, Starbucks is testing two new flavors: Chestnut Praline Latte and Cherries Jubilee Mocha, in cities such as Tampa, Florida, where it's already making waves. "The chestnut praline flavour is nice," says one commenter on Facebook, "but I have to say that I am absolutely devastated that Tampa doesn't have gingerbread lattes this year." Serious business, this stuff.