Move over, pumpkin spice Latte. Americans' obsession for all things pumpkin has expanded to the cocktail bar.
Mentions of pumpkin on the alcoholic drinks menus at restaurants and bars are up 38.1 percent from last year, according to Datassential Menu Trends. Pumpkin beers are still the most likely find, but cocktails are gaining ground, fast: they're 550 percent more common than in 2010.
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"Certainly, the whole idea of seasonal spirits is really catching on," said Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. There's room for more growth. "Cocktails have an interesting opportunity to look beyond that usual pumpkin pie profile," she said, with more vegetal or savory notes, "so they're not just an also-ran with the pumpkin coffees."
Distillers are fueling the trend with a variety of pumpkin-flavored spirits, from the boldly spiced (Corsair Pumpkin Spice Moonshine, $40 for a 750-ml bottle) to slightly sweet (Cathead Pumpkin Spice Vodka, $25 for a 750-ml bottle) to pie-in-a-glass richness (Roundhouse Spirits Pumpkin King Cordial, $20 for a 375-ml bottle). Most of the entrants have hit the market in just the past year or two, said Jerald O'Kennard, director of the Beverage Testing Institute.
Playing to the pumpkin craze is a smart business move. "From a business point of view, a lot of hotels and bars change their drink lists seasonally," said Joseph Magliocco, president of Chatham Imports. The distributor's Crop Organic Vodka added a Spiced Pumpkin Vodka ($30 for a 750-ml bottle) last year in a bid for those fall menus, where its summery Meyer lemon- and cucumber-flavored vodkas were less likely to make the cut.
For others, the fall spirits stemmed from a love of pumpkin beer. Great Lakes Distillery's Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit ($50 for a 750-ml bottle), a grandfather of the category with seven years on the market, was conceived when founder Guy Rehorst decided to put some of the pumpkin brew from friends at Lakefront Brewery through his still and age it. The result: "It's fall in a glass," he said.
"I used to make a pumpkin beer in the fall, and I would take it to parties," said Corsair distiller Darek Bell. "I started thinking, what would happen if we distilled this and made it into a whiskey?" Now, his Pumpkin Spice Moonshine and its aged counterpart, Old Punk ($48 for a 750-ml bottle) have been on the market for four years.
Demand from bars and consumers has still been surprising, distillers say. "It's been one of our more popular flavors," said Steve Beam, distiller for Limestone Branch Distillery, which is making 25 percent more of its T.J. Pottinger Sugar Shine Pumpkin Pie Moonshine ($15 for a 375-ml bottle) this fall.
Roundhouse Spirits and Crop Organic both plan to double production this year. Despite quadrupling its output this year, said Sons of Liberty Spirits founder Michael Reppucci, suppliers have already requested three times as much of its Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey ($28 for a 375-ml bottle) than the distillery can supply. "It's a wonderful problem to have," he said.
Although there's no end in sight for Americans' pumpkin obsession, don't expect shelves of pumpkin-flavored spirits in coming years. "I don't know how far it goes—it's a very specific flavor," said Tom Geniesse, owner of Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit in New York City, which carries pumpkin spirits from Great Lakes Distillery and Roundhouse Spirits. "In my family, there are some people who want a slice of pumpkin pie and others who go for the pecan." For the less devoted, it's cheaper to incorporate pumpkin occasionally in cocktails through means such as flavored syrup, puree or just the pie spices, rather than buy a pumpkin spirit.
Most of the distilleries experimenting with the trend are craft producers with small staffs, distribution in just a few states and output of several thousand bottles a year, further limiting availability. "It has to be quality first," said Reppucci, who recruited volunteers to help pick and clean 30,000 pounds of pumpkin for this year's batch. "We're scaling at the pace we feel like we can successfully manage."
It doesn't help that pumpkin is, frankly, a pain to work with.
Difficulties start with finding the right kind of pumpkin, and combination of spices. "Previous to this, I didn't know how many kinds of pumpkins there are in the world," said Ted Palmer, distiller for Roundhouse Spirits. "There are a lot." He tried Cinderella and Jack O' Lantern varieties before settling on organic Baby Bear, contracting with a nearby farm to grow the 10,000 pounds needed for this year's run.
Pumpkins don't have much flavor before cooking, which means distilleries going the fresh pumpkin route—rather than using canned pumpkin or other options—must find laborers and commercial kitchens to clean, cut, roast and puree or juice thousands of pounds worth. The squash has a lot of pectin in it, which is great for making jelly or jam but can create product loss if the spirit gels, said Reppucci.
"These are products that require some imagination to use," said O'Kennard. "It's not an easy off-the-shelf pick."
Although all of the pumpkin spirits we tried could hold their own neat, most of their distillers recommended experimenting with other fall ingredients such as eggnog, ginger beer and apple cider. On the simple end, an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan works well with those spirits with a whiskey base; a quick pumpkin martini or White Russian makes good use of the vodkas.
(For a few easy ideas, see recipes above for a Ward III and Pumpkin Old Fashioned from Kenneth McCoy of Ward III in New York City.)
If you're hosting a Halloween party, Bell suggests mixing equal parts Pumpkin Spice Moonshine, ginger ale and Sprite to serve in a hollowed-out pumpkin. "The pumpkin skin releases some orange coloring and some sugar, which lends it some sweetness," he said.
Of course, you could also make an adult Pumpkin Spice Latte. At Roundhouse Spirits' showroom, their Pumpkinogg uses the Pumpkin King Cordial, Corretto Coffee Liqueur, half & half, whipped cream, cinnamon and nutmeg.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant