Every winter, the nation’s coffee chains offer seasonal drinks designed to get your taste buds in the holiday spirit. And it works! Only the grinchiest of Grinches could resist the pull of the holidays when you’re drinking peppermint-flavored coffee from a cup that looks like a wrapped gift.
But which of these holiday drinks is actually worth your money? We tried every single holiday concoction from five major coffee chains ― Peet’s, Starbucks, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Caribou Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts ― and then ranked our top picks. Here are the five best holiday drinks from America’s coffee chains.
5. Dunkin’ Donuts Cinnamon Sticky Bun Latte
While the Dunkin’ near me was decked out in holiday lights and enough garland to make Santa feel at home, the number of holiday drinks on the menu was seriously lacking. The only seasonal goodies available are a Cinnamon Sticky Bun Latte and a White Chocolate Latte, which is superconfusing. Dunkin’ has committed to offering sugary coffee beverages like the Coolatta and Frozen Chocolate, so why aren’t there more than two limited edition coffees on the menu for the holidays? But since that’s all the New England brand chooses to offer, that’s all I’m able to taste.
The White Chocolate Latte is tasty, but artificial white chocolate notes lingered on my palate too long to remain pleasant. The Cinnamon Sticky Bun has a similar issue, but there’s something charming about a doughnut shop that captures the essence of a pastry in a drink. It’s too sweet by a mile, but you don’t go to Dunkin’ for cups of pour over. You go for a quick hit of caffeine and about 60 grams of sugar in a single cup. And sure, there are 40 other doughnut flavors I’d rather have in coffee form, but cinnamon is certainly a holiday flavor, and it’s one I keep coming back to. Pair it with the chain’s Holiday Spice Bacon Breakfast Sandwich, and you’ve got yourself a ludicrously seasonal breakfast.
4. Starbucks Peppermint Mocha
Unlike Dunkin’, Starbucks has a reputation for regularly rotating in new seasonal drinks to make sure people are continually Instagramming photos of its products. One of the many returning holiday drinks ― like the Caramel Brulée Latte ― is back in stores. But if a Caramel Brulée Latte spilled in the woods, would anyone hear it? And would anyone care? I can’t say I would. That said, I appreciate that Starbucks trying to incorporate new holiday flavors. It should be commended.
But the other chains, like Peet’s and Coffee Bean, do the newfangled holiday drinks better. Despite that, there’s something satisfying about drinking the old Peppermint Mocha standard. Just as I wouldn’t trust a Pumpkin Spice Latte anywhere else, this is one place I want a minty mocha. There’s a nice balance of coffee, mint and chocolate. Sure, the coffee takes a backseat to the chocolate mint notes, but very few people buy a Peppermint Mocha to taste coffee. This a must-have treat for chocolate lovers looking for a caffeinated boost to their holidays.
3. Peet’s Holiday Spice Latte
The company’s love affair with specialty coffee began with Alfred Peet and a single store in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s and is widely regarded as helping kick-start America’s love of higher quality coffee. The espresso is delicious to this day. I’m a huge fan of the Dark Chocolate Orange Mocha, which offers a lip-smacking twist on the boring old mocha with a subtle citrus hit. The Peppermint Mocha is solid but not exemplary, and the Eggnog Latte really needed booze in order to be palatable; there’s a reason you don’t see any Eggnog Lattes in this ranking.
But the Holiday Spice Latte is something Peet’s does especially well compared with the other chains. Unlike its counterparts, this isn’t a cloyingly sweet, one-trick pony in which you can taste only sugar. Instead, every sip offers ginger and nutmeg in the finish, rich espresso, warm milk and the urge to go shopping for a tree. Maybe that last part was just me.
2. Caribou Coffee Ho Ho Mint Mocha
Caribou only has three holiday drinks, with the Fa La Latte and Spicy Mocha rounding out its offerings. The Fa La Latte is an eggnog-focused coffee option and misses the mark by being made with eggnog. Maybe true eggnog aficionados will disagree, but it didn’t do much for me. I applaud Caribou for rolling out the Spicy Mocha, which adds a touch of heat and a pleasant, creamy mouthfeel to the typical mocha. But it wasn’t particularly memorable otherwise.
It’s telling that despite my overall lukewarm feelings toward Caribou’s drinks that the chain still has the second-best holiday drink around. And that’s because of the joy I got from drinking this Ho Ho Mocha. One reason: It’s objectively fun to say Ho Ho Mocha. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait. Didn’t that feel good? It’s even more fun to drink, what with a delightful smattering of crushed candy canes floating in the whipped cream. The espresso and mint flavors gel wonderfully as well, and did I mention it has candy canes in it? They amp up the minty flavors already present in the drink and add a wonderful visual element. If I had to give Santa one drink to get him pumped up for a night of climbing down chimneys, it’d be this one.
1. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Red Velvet Hot Cocoa
It’s strange that an OG coffee chain that’s nearly ubiquitous in sunny Southern California has the top holiday drink, but that’s how the (gingerbread) cookie crumbles. Not only does CB&TL have the strongest suite of holiday drinks, but it also has the tastiest one I tried.
Hats off to the chain for featuring a seasonal tea drink like the Winter Dream Tea Latte, which is an intoxicating mix of black tea, energizing rooibos, sweet spices and vanilla. It may be a little cloyingly sweet for some, but it’s a nice change of pace from the onslaught of espresso-based drinks. The Cookie Butter Latte is also a standout, tasting like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that were accidentally liquified. That turns out to be a very good accident. The Peppermint Mocha Latte is solid and equal in quality to the Starbucks standard. And for you cold brew lovers out there, how about a Peppermint Vanilla Cold Brew? Before you question the viability of a drink like that during winter, remember that it’s a Los Angeles–based coffee chain.
Ultimately, we’re here to talk about the Red Velvet Hot Cocoa. The first thing I wrote after drinking this was, “Holy [redacted word that is not used in polite conversation].” I kept taking sip after sip, waiting for this to become too chocolatey or rich, and that never happened. This has some of the most intense cocoa flavors I’ve had in a coffee chain drink, and it’s not too sweet, despite the presence of sweet cream. And even though people enjoy red velvet cupcakes all year long, it feels like a holiday drink. It’s so good that I’m surprised Starbucks hasn’t reverse-engineered a version of this and subsequently poured it into every American’s red cup. But it hasn’t. This is a holiday drink you can find only at Coffee Bean locations, and it’s one you should seek out. Happy holiday drinking, America!