Our nation’s coffeehouse chains are giving us plenty of reasons to feel holiday cheer by releasing brand-new seasonal coffees and teas. It’s tempting to drink anything in a red cup, but some drinks aren’t worth spending your money on. Besides, who couldn’t use a little more cash to buy presents? We subjected our taste buds to every single holiday drink at coffee shops like Starbucks and Dunkin’, and ranked them. Here are the best holiday drinks at coffee chains.
5. Dunkin’ Toasted Gingerbread Latte
The pride of Canton, Massachusetts, Dunkin’ Donuts has been desperate to compete with Starbucks for the hearts of America’s coffee drinkers. And for the past few years, that’s meant rolling out new holiday-themed lattes to lure the ’bucks faithful. In 2018, that meant White Chocolate and Cinnamon Sticky Bun lattes, neither of which were worth pulling into its drive-thru. This year, the coffee and doughnut chain is doubling down, adding four new holiday lattes: Holiday Eggnog, Merry Mocha Mint, Toasted Gingerbread and Frosted White Chocolate.
All of these drinks suffer from the same problem: cloying sweetness. It may be easier to fill up a red coffee cup full of syrup, cover it in whipped cream and just drink that. The Frosted White Chocolate and Merry Mocha Mint are mouth-puckering sugar bombs featuring plenty of white chocolate and mint chocolate flavors, respectively, but very little evidence that they contain coffee. On the plus side, the Holiday Eggnog was much tastier than a similar drink at Starbucks. The eggnog notes don’t taste spoiled like they do at other coffee chains, and the cinnamon sugar on top is a treat. But the standout is the Toasted Gingerbread, which tastes like Dunkin’ liquefied an army of gingerbread men. It even nails the “toasted” flavor! And once you get through the layer of whipped cream on top, you’ll actually taste coffee, too.
4. Peet’s Citrus & Spice Latte
People who love Peet’s know about the company’s delicious espresso. It’s one of the main reasons it’s worth stopping by to order one of their holiday drinks, building on an exemplary espresso base with all manner of sugary, seasonal goodness. Unlike brands that unleashed a slew of new drinks like Dunkin’ and Caribou, Peet’s mainly stuck with their roster of holiday drinks from last year. That includes the Dark Chocolate Orange Mocha, a drink that makes you wonder why you don’t see more mocha and orange pairings in coffee shops.
This year, Peet’s unveiled one new drink that’s also currently its best holiday option: the Citrus & Spice Latte. Last year, we raved about the Holiday Spice Latte, which combines espresso, milk, vanilla syrup and spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg. The Citrus & Spice is similar, except it subs out vanilla syrup for a custom orange syrup, which the company says is made from “bright citrus, sweet vanilla and subtle orange blossom.” The first sip envelops your taste buds with nutmeg and ginger notes, and that gives way to orange essence flavors. The entire drink is brightened with the orange addition, and unlike many of the other drinks in the rundown, you can actually taste the coffee! That’s no small feat.
3. Starbucks Irish Cream Cold Brew
If there’s any coffee chain that knows how to do holiday drinks, it’s this one. However, there’s a little less cheer in those red cups this year, as the brand neglected to bring back the fan-favorite Gingerbread Latte. It’s a shame, as that mix of cinnamon, ginger and coffee is one I truly loved. (In 2017, they released a Christmas Tree Frappuccino. I’m not complaining about its continued absence from the menu.) Still, there’s plenty to order, what with the return of the Eggnog Latte, Toasted White Chocolate Mocha, Caramel Brulee Latte, Chestnut Praline Latte, Peppermint Mocha and one new drink: the Irish Cream Cold Brew.
The Irish Cream Cold Brew isn’t my favorite Starbucks holiday drink of all time (that would be the Peppermint Mocha, a veritable minty delight that has enough sugar ― 54 grams ― to keep you going the entire month of December). But the Irish Cream Cold Brew is the best holiday drink this season because of its inventiveness: This tastes like you poured a shot of Bailey’s into a cup of cold brew. The vanilla sweet cream cold foam adds a delightful airy layer atop the cold brew laced with Irish cream syrup. One suggestion on how to make the drink better: Substitute nitro coffee for an additional layer of creaminess.
2. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Red Velvet Hot Cocoa
The SoCal coffee kings are not opposed to coming out with new drinks. After all, this year the brand released a line of “Friends” lattes (accompanied by tea and coffee blends inspired by the fictional Central Perk coffee shop). It added oat milk as a non-dairy option for all its drinks. And for the summer, it launched a line of trendy cold brew teas. So it’s pretty confusing that the chain is releasing zero new holiday drinks.
That said, the drinks returning from last year are fantastic and worth seeking out. The Cookie Butter Latte delivers on the promise of drinking what tastes like a jar of Trader Joe’s addictive Speculoos cookie butter. The Peppermint Mocha Latte and Peppermint Vanilla Cold Brew are ideal choices for mint fans, and yet retain enough coffee flavor to not make it feel like you’re drinking a cup of peppermint, cream and sugar. Considering the word “Tea” is right there in the name of the company, it’s no surprise it also offers the Winter Dream Tea Latte, an appealing option for anyone who doesn’t drink coffee. You’ll get a pick-me-up from the rooibos and black tea, and added flavor complexity from the drink’s sweet spices and vanilla. But the standout this year is the same as it was last year: the Red Velvet Cocoa, a perfect blend of rich cocoa and sweet cream. Sure, it tastes like a red velvet cupcake, but it also has all the warmth and sugar you crave for the holiday season. Yet, it’s not my favorite holiday drink this year.
1. Caribou Nitro Ho Ho Mint Mocha
I’m not biased against Caribou, I just haven’t particularly liked much I’ve had from the Minnesota-based coffee brand. That all changed last year, when I named the Ho Ho Mint Mocha the second-best holiday coffee drink in the land. Who could dislike crushed candy canes sprinkled on whipped cream? And who could resist a holiday drink with espresso you could taste (a rarity among holiday drinks, which mostly taste like sugar)? Essentially, each sip was a seasonal treat. This year, the brand announced it was making cold brew nitro coffee versions of each holiday drink, including the Spicy Mocha, eggnog-filled Fa La Latte, and the aforementioned Ho Ho Mocha. Because of this, the Ho Ho got even better.
Caribou has realized, along with Starbucks, that people drink cold coffee year-round, which explains why ’bucks released the hugely successful Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew in the fall. Caribou’s nitro cold brew version of this drink isn’t complicated. It didn’t create a sugar-filled nitro coffee with mint and put it on tap. Instead, it’s the brand’s smooth, nitro coffee base, 2% milk, white chocolate sauce, mint syrup and espresso whipped cream. They took away the candy canes, but I didn’t miss them. The whipped cream is reminiscent of soft serve, and as it melts, it adds another layer of creaminess to the nitro. It’s hugely satisfying, and a huge leap forward for the brand ... and for holiday drinks in general. Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean holiday flavors have to be packaged in a scalding hot drink. Slide on your warmest gloves and walk around with the Nitro Ho Ho Mint Mocha this winter.