The Great Pumpkin
Maybe it’s on account of our fond memories of Charlie Brown. Or perhaps it’s because pumpkin is associated with not one, but two delicious holidays — Thanksgiving and Halloween — that it is such an evocative flavour. All you have to do is watch people’s faces in line during pumpkin spice latte season to know it’s the kind of taste that brings back a lot of warm memories. If you really grilled the people in that lineup, though, most would actually be hard-pressed to tell you what pumpkin actually tastes like.
“Pumpkins themselves are a very bland squash, and we don’t see any pattypan or turban cocktails on lists,” explains Simon Ogden, bar manager at Veneto Tapa Lounge in Victoria. “What people are actually talking about when they talk about pumpkin drinks are the traditional spices used in the North American staple pumpkin pie, being nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves — you know, winter spices.”
Pumpkin spice, Ogden warns, has not only become a stand-in for pumpkin, but the base for quite a few bottom-shelf liqueurs and pretty forgettable — often overdone — fall-release ales. While Ogden thinks these spices often overwhelm the integrity of a good beer, he is a fan of using these flavours in eggnogs and punches which, he says, can be delicious if done right.
The main pitfall, it seems, is that most pumpkin beverages are overly sweet. Maybe we’re hard-wired to start thinking about dessert as soon as pumpkin comes onto our radar, or perhaps it’s the gourd’s bitter notes that make people reach for the sugar.
Robin James Wynne, bar manager at Toronto’s Rock Lobster, has combatted this by dialing back the sweet and amping up the savoury. He also maxes out the squash’s natural sweetness by caramelizing it before using it to make pumpkin bitters and syrups, both of which are used in his repertoire of cocktails.
“Pumpkin has a bit of bitterness in it but, if you bake it first, you can bring out all the sugars,” says Wynne. “It’s kind of like when you make a butternut squash purée.”
Wynne says he hates to use the pumpkin pie cliché, but uses it to guide the flavour profile of the spices he uses in his syrup — whole pods of cardamom, cinnamon sticks, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, allspice and black pepper. All of these can add a tremendous depth of flavour to his rich and spicy Pumpkin Flip, a perfect after-dinner holiday cocktail that’s sophisticated and yet still brings back those childhood memories.
Now that’s a great pumpkin.