The Search for the Perfect Holiday Drink Can Lead to Sugary Heaven—or Hell

·13 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

This weekend, millions of Americans will be traveling by air, rail, and road. At some point—for a treat, to counter exhaustion, to soothe frayed nerves, or just to have a minute to yourself—the desire for something hot and comforting in a cup may be strong, and as it’s the holidays maybe you will also have the desire to try one of the many-worded, holiday-specific concoctions at the nearest Starbucks, Dunkin’, McDonald’s, and Peet’s Coffee.

The New Rules For Holiday Eating & Drinking in 2020

With this in mind, my colleague Alaina Demopoulos and I spent an afternoon visiting branches of all the above in New York City to taste-test their holiday drinks. The winners, losers, and the meh are below. Obviously, every drink experience is different. Maybe we struck it lucky with some drinks and unlucky with others in the moment we ordered and drank them, and maybe you will experience them differently. We gave them scores based on sugar hit, holiday vibe, and after effects.

Some pro-tips we can share: If you have the time, let the drink last. We found the drinks tasted very different as they transitioned from hot to tepid to cooler. Also, whipped cream is your friend. Sure, eat a little neat to enjoy at the beginning of your drink, then let the rest melt to make your drink thicker and more luxe. Do not assume most expensive is best: one of our favorite drinks was the cheapest of the day. Oh, and if you drink as many of these things as we did, have an Advil or two to hand. Tim Teeman

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Toasted White Chocolate Mocha.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Starbucks</div>

Toasted White Chocolate Mocha.

Starbucks

Starbucks

Toasted White Chocolate Mocha

Alaina: I’d only recommend this one if you’ve got a shot bottle of chocolate liquor to pour in (which means you’re not driving!). There’s a bitterness to the “toasted” aspect of this drink—and Tim and I still don’t know what “toasted” really means. Whatever, it would work well if boozed up. Otherwise, I say skip.

Tim: There needs to be some kind of public inquiry into “toasted” drinks. This was an acrid, actively unpleasant disaster in a cup. It was also that cardinal sin of holiday drinks: watery. It did have a lovely aroma to it, but there was no pleasure in the drink, and so Alaina and I fantasized a hip flask into existence to save us.

Sugar rush: a not-pleasant 7

Holiday vibe: 3

After effects: Awful feeling that the holidays are over, get ready for the new work week etc.

Iced Sugar Cookie Almondmilk Latté

Tim: The big new ’Bucks drink of the season. The ice pretty much nullifies anything else, and that’s fine. That’s what ice does in iced coffees, it gives you the rush of cold and the holiday taste as advertised should follow afterwards in its colorful scarf and hat. Here that taste is… well, sweet and not much more. There’s a crunch of festive pink and green sprinkles; a milky, cold jolt, with the inescapable sadness that—for all its advertising—almond milk is a bit runny, thin, and dreary, and ice-turning-to-water alongside it only exacerbates this issue.

Leave it a while. Returning to my Iced Sugar Cookie Almondmilk Latté a few minutes after notionally finishing it, I got a freezing cold, totally calibrated hit of coffee, vanilla, sprinkles, and ice, all dancing perfectly together.

Sugar rush: 6

Holiday vibe: 5

After effects: The coffee taste hangs around benignly.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Caramel Brulée Latté.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Starbucks</div>

Caramel Brulée Latté.

Starbucks

Caramel brulée latté

!!!WINNER!!!

Tim: This is gorgeous, the hottest flirt in the joint, a golden labrador by the fire in drink form. This is milk and sugar in perfect harmony. The caramel has that unctuous sweetness oozing through the cream. You can taste the softest hint of coffee too. Let the whipped cream melt for added gloop pleasure.

Alaina: This is my Starbucks winner. I almost wanted to eat it with a spoon—it was nice and thick, especially when the whipped cream started to melt into the foam. It’s milky, sugary but not too saccharine, and basically a hug in a cup.

Sugar rush: 8, perfect!

Holiday vibe: 9, divine!

After effects: The feeling that the world is full of good things, good people, and (excellent, consensual) hugs

Signature hot chocolate

Alaina: This was not a good hot chocolate. Do not get it for yourself, your children, or anyone you actively love. It is watery, disappointing, and worse than a Swiss Miss you could make in a dorm microwave. Avoid.

Tim: Weak, weak, weak. Not much chocolate excitement. Not much creamy excitement. Zero foam. Watery misery. Reminded me of those sachets of hot chocolate in the world’s most miserable hotel rooms. Just add hot water, and lose the will to live.

Sugar rush: 2

Holiday vibe: 1

After effects: Sadness. Questioning looks.

Chestnut praline latté

Tim: I tasted the ghost of a nut, provenance unknown. One of those odd drinks that began as watery and sweet, and then a few minutes later it became thick and sweet after the cream had melted into it. It didn’t transform it into a swan of a drink, but it was… a happy little duck, waddling around.

Alaina: This was just OK. The “chestnut” wasn’t a discernible taste as much as it was a pretty aroma that felt nice to sniff as I sipped. Not as thick as my favorite, the Caramel Brûlée Latte, but has a nice sweetness that is not overpowering.

Sugar rush: 7

Holiday vibe: 4

After effects: Well, you know, nice and all that. Hmm. Next!

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Peppermint Mocha.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Starbucks</div>

Peppermint Mocha.

Starbucks

Peppermint mocha

Alaina: The peppermint is strong here, and it’s got a bit of an artificial taste to it. Tim and I found that we liked it more as the whipped cream melted into the drink. If you love that very controversial ice cream flavor mint chocolate chip, this is the one for you.

Tim: Who knew peppermint could be such a villain? This one has sharp elbows, and it’s out to beat up any other flavor profile that gets in its way. But let this one stand a while, and the chocolate fights back. Whipped cream is also a savior here, adding thickness as it cools.

Sugar rush: 8

Holiday vibe: 6

After effects: OK, peppermint, we hear you. Now, put down the megaphone.

Toasted white hot chocolate

Tim: “Toasted” is not only doing heavy lifting here, but also invisible lifting. Pro tip: take the lid off. This looks like a very fun foam party. Alaina wanted to reach for the hip flask with this one, but I was happy enough to come back 15 minutes later for a thicker, gloopier cool-down sip.

Alaina: Again, Tim and I wondered what was “toasted” here. This tastes a lot like a regular hot chocolate, but a little smokier. Ultimately it was better than whatever atrocity Starbucks is trying to pass off as its “signature” hot chocolate. Once more, I’d prefer it with booze.

Sugar rush: 8

Holiday vibe: 8

After effects: At this point we think Alaina butt-dialed her partner, who overheard us barely making sense through our sugar haze. “But can you taste the burnt thing?” “I just don’t understand this.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Dunkin’ Hot Toasted White Chocolate Signature Latté.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Dunkin’</div>

Dunkin’ Hot Toasted White Chocolate Signature Latté.

Dunkin’

Dunkin’

Hot Toasted White Chocolate Signature Latté

!!!WINNER!!!

Alaina: This might have been our favorite drink of the day. It was frothy and thick, just the right amount of sugary, and something about it reminds me of melted marshmallows. S’mores fans will lose their minds and possible miss their flights over this one. A tip in general for all Dunkin’ drinks: they come piping hot, and are prone to burn your tongue. You’ve been warned.

Tim: The wind was biting, we were already suffering headaches, and then this drink slayed all opposition. The marshmallow-ness was a dream. The gloopiness was a dream. The sugariness was present, but not horribly. It was frothy. Cooled down, it was even better, like a thick shake with Christmas bells on.

Sugar rush: 8

Holiday vibe: 9

After effects: We are ready for turkey, we are ready for presents, Santa is ho, ho, ho-ing, and we hear sleigh bells.

Holiday Blend coffee

Tim: This had nothing remotely “holiday” about it, and was a viciously hot pool of regular black coffee that you would drink in preparation for a morning meeting you had to care about. It wasn’t foul, but it wasn’t the holidays. It was a cup of black coffee, and had none of the “seasonal flavor notes of sweet molasses and dried fruit” that Dunkin claim.

Alaina: Maybe my tastebuds were in revolt since I drank nearly a dozen sugary drinks before sipping this one, but I could not taste anything remotely “holiday” about this blend. It’s devoid of all cheer. Just a black burnt cup of coffee. I consider it coal.

Sugar rush: 0

Holiday vibe: 0

After effects: Aggrieved confusion. Tim said, “Where are the molasses and dried fruit?” in a tone suggesting a thorough search of the franchise was in order.

White mocha hot chocolate

!!!WINNER!!!

Alaina: Oh, this one is very nice—it just sits at the back of your throat and gives you a nice little frothy coating. Need a treat after making it to the airport on time or getting through half of a long car ride? This is your gift to yourself. It’s pure dessert.

Tim: Dunkin’ has a marshmallow/sugar game like no other. This is cake and childhood, a good hug, not gloopy, and a little watery. But let it rest and cool down, and it becomes another magic flavor-deepening shake, suitable for children who want to feel adult and adults who want to feel like kids. Genius!

Sugar rush: 9

Holiday vibe: 9

After effects: The best vibe a holiday drink can offer: Everything is going to be OK.

Original peppermint mocha signature latté

Tim: The Starbucks Peppermint and the Dunkin’ Peppermint are involved in some kind of Sharks versus Jets syrupy stand-off, and we are suffering. Horrible mouth-freshener vibe, but becomes less annoying as it cools if you want to give it the time.

Alaina: Again, aggressive peppermint. Tastes like a bottom-shelf artificial sweetener. Tim and I agreed it’s almost medicinal in its mintiness.

Sugar rush: 7, and bad.

Holiday vibe: 6, and trying too hard.

After effects: Sorry Listerine, your job is done.

Peet’s Coffee

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Holiday Spice Latté.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Peet’s</div>

Holiday Spice Latté.

Peet’s

Holiday Spice Latté

!!!WINNER!!!

Alaina: This one will feel familiar to fans of holiday baking. It’s basically your kitchen cupboard heated up in a cup, and it’s pretty lovely.

Tim: Peet’s does not stint on the cloves and spices. Every flavor element is present, correct, and emphatic; the foam is creamily hug-worthy, and it’s not too sweet. Froth and flavor and the season in stately harmony.

Sugar rush: 9 (and lovely)

Holiday vibe: 10

After effects: Minimal! It was nice to sit and sip, but did not hang around the mouth. It was like the best guest: diverting, memorable, and knows when to leave.

Peppermint mocha

!!!WINNER!!!

Tim: Velvety smooth and subtle. Lovely peppermint flavor: soft and strong; deep chocolatey richness too.

Alaina: Fast food peppermint flavoring can be iffy, cloying, and cough syrup-y, but this one does it right. It’s not too harsh on the tongue, and doesn’t overpower the chocolate. This one’s nothing fancy, but it’s a safe bet.

Sugar rush: 7

Holiday vibe: 8

After effects: Calming, not cloying, and like its partner holiday drink, no lingering aftertaste.

McDonald’s

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Holiday Pie.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">McDonald’s</div>

Holiday Pie.

McDonald’s

Holiday Pie

Tim: Our only non-drink. A strange bit of limp pastry with wan birthday sprinkles, with—especially for an Englishman—an offensively charmless envelope of something-claiming-to-be-custard trapped inside. It seeped out like mutant saliva. Of course, I would have eaten 3 of them happily while listening to the Hello, Dolly! cast album on a long car journey this weekend.

Alaina: You know that pie your aunt always makes for Thanksgiving every year, despite the fact that no one eats it? This is McDonalds’ version of that dessert. It’s a flaky, thin pastry with a disappointing custard inside. It’s small and perfect for a little hand, though, so it might shut a kid traveler up, or at least distract them for a few bites. It just lacks any type of seasonal specialness.

Sugar rush: 3

Holiday vibe: 4

After effects: Where was your oomph, oh sweet, lost holiday pie!

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Hot Chocolate.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">McDonald’s</div>

Hot Chocolate.

McDonald’s

Hot chocolate

!!!WINNER!!!

Alaina: Tim and I were both really impressed with McDonalds’ hot chocolate. It would be the perfect road trip companion. It smells great, tastes smooth, and just has a lovely consistency with each sip. It is STICKY, though, so pack some wet wipes.

Tim: Lovely and cheap, and one of the most mouth and heart-warming drinks of the day. A malted taste, a thickness, a not overpowering sugariness, a hug in a cup—hot chocolate perfection. Reliable, not pretending to be big and glam. The perfect holiday drink on the go.

Sugar rush: 8 (in a good way)

Holiday vibe, all situations vibe: 10

After effects: Thank you for restoring our faith in the holiday drink we all want perfection from.

Caramel hot chocolate

!!!WINNER!!!

Tim: McDonald’s scores again. Very sweet, pillowy foam, comforting, subtle and not overpowering. Not gloopy, but not watery hell. The caramel lingers in a very charming way. It actually loses its smoothness as it cools, so drink as soon as you buy.

Alaina: Again, a solid offering from McDonald’s. It’s very, very sweet, though, which might turn off some folks.

Sugar rush: 8

Holiday vibe: 9

After effects: Happiness. McDonald’s knows that drivers, or travelers who need a minute, require some cosseting. Here it scores again.

Hazelnut latté

Alaina: I could not taste any hazelnut in this drink at all—tasted just like a regular, sweetened latte—but it had a cozy milkiness to it that, again, would perk up any nighttime drive.

Tim: I tried and failed to discern any hazelnut here, but it was hot and milky, and at this point most of my other mouth nerve endings were begging me for some tap water. How nice that all our McDonald’s drinks formed a skin!

Sugar rush: 5

Holiday vibe: 4

After effects: Alaina and Tim both exclaimed variations of “McDonald’s?!! Who knew?!!”

Ralph Lauren

Maple spice latté

!!!WINNER!!!

Tim: My final (at that point insane, given the amount of sugar helter-skeltering through our systems) idea was to go to the very posh Ralph Lauren coffee shop near Madison Square Park. This was the most subtle, milky, beautifully flavored drink of the day. So if you’re in NYC, and wrapped in scarves, rock up here.

Alaina: This is a grown-up drink. Not nearly as naughty as the fast food offerings, which pile on the sugar, but definitely good for people who like more subtle, spicy drinks. Though it had two pumps of maple syrup, the ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon were the main flavors.

Sugar rush: 9

Holiday vibe: 10

After effects: Sober contentment. Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in Love Story would be excellent ambassadors for this brand.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.