How pistachio became the new "it flavor" of early winter

Once relegated to pastries and pastel-colored ice cream, the pistachio is now enjoying its time in the spotlight

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published January 26, 2023 2:59PM (EST)

Pistachios (Getty Images/Laura Rosina)
Pistachios (Getty Images/Laura Rosina)

If you visit a coffee shop right now, I almost guarantee there is a pistachio-flavored drink on the menu. 

That's been the case at Starbucks for four years, since launching the original pistachio latte in 2019. This winter, the global coffee chain announced their seasonal menu "featuring the return of the fan-favorite Pistachio Latte and the new Pistachio Cream Cold Brew."

"The new handcrafted Starbucks Pistachio Cream Cold Brew features Starbucks Cold Brew sweetened with vanilla syrup and is topped with silky pistachio cream cold foam and salted brown-buttery sprinkles," the news release said. "The Pistachio Cream Cold Brew builds on customers' love of the Pistachio Latte and the popularity of cold coffee year-round."

Rosalyn Batingan, a member of the Starbucks beverage team, wrote for the company that "pistachio is the perfect flavor to follow the holidays and carry us through the winter season" — and other brands certainly seem to agree. From local coffee shops to flavor-makers to perfume companies, pistachio has morphed into an early winter "it flavor."

I'm delighted by the development. I tried the Starbucks drinks and enjoyed both; the nuttiness was there, but it was subtle and there was no overt sweetness, so anyone who is especially spooked of saccharine coffees need not be alarmed. The foam itself was nuanced but rich and I thought the more reserved flavors really elevated the drinks.

But my interest in the rise of pistachio is a little more personal, too. 

While to me, shelling pistachios always felt like a bit of a laborious process — and so they were never my favorite snack — for as long as I can remember, my dad was obsessed with pistachios. On every holiday or birthday, he'd wind up being given multiple bags of the nut. He would eat them while watching TV, while sitting at the table, while doing paperwork and so on. I distinctly recall certain instances in which he would drive, nonchalantly munching on pistachios, mindlessly chucking the shells out the windows.

For whatever reason, in the United States, nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans and walnuts seem to attract more "attention" than pistachios. But to my dad, pistachios held the spotlight. 

Lately, however, there seems to have been a shift. Never did I think to connect "pistachio" with "winter" — but as evidenced by the scads of companies now offering pistachio flavored and scented products this January, there seems to be a growing subsection of people doing just that. This caused me to ask: is pistachio the new, seasonal flavor of winter?

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Pistachio's current ascendancy isn't entirely unexpected, though; in 2015, Eater reported that "Bartenders Across the Country are Going Nuts Over Pistachio Cocktails

At the time, multiple bars had begun incorporating pistachio flavor into their cocktails. At Gunshow in Atlanta, "cocktail conductor Mercedes O'Brien turned her favorite pistachio strawberry pastry into a fun Boulevardier," while AOC in Los Angeles, helmed by Christiaan Rollich, uses "pistachio syrup [to provide] the body and balance to the sour mix of absinthe, Green Chartreuse, and lime." NYC's Booker and Dax "creates a frothy texture when shaken [by bartender Dee Ann Quinones] ... extracted the pistachio nut milk," resulting in a "creamy pistachio flavor and texture." Also in New York City, Mace's Nico de Soto offers a cocktail with pistachio oil-washed vodka, espresso, and cardamom syrup in order to capture the flavors of "Turkish coffee with baklava."

In the ensuing years, pistachio's popularity has continued to grow. 

"Since launching the brand's pistachio syrup in April 2018 'sales have grown by double digits every year. In general, pistachio benefits from its familiarity and affinity. '"

According to Andrea Ramirez, the manager of consumer and customer market insight at Torani, since launching the brand's pistachio syrup in April 2018 "sales have grown by double digits every year. In general, pistachio benefits from its familiarity and affinity. It has wide consumer recognition (94% of consumers know it and 80% have tried it) and 68% like it or love it."

She described the flavor by saying that it has "an inherent familiarity." 

"It's the kind of flavor of pistachio you might find in a pistachio cream puff," Ramirez said. "It's got a hint of marzipan-like nuttiness, and [a] sweet fragrance that's both novel and familiar. It's a flavor that pairs very nicely with Chocolate and Caramel."

According to Ramirez, pistachios have come a long way over the years. For a long time, they were only available in-shell and when they were served at restaurants, they were available in specific contexts like "baklava in a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant, or maybe in the Spumoni ice cream or cannoli at an Italian restaurant."

Now, though, we have mainstream access to pistachio as a flavor, primarily in drinks, Ramirez said. 

This point was echoed by Kristen Wemer, the chief technical officer at Flavorman — a food and beverage consultancy based in Louisville, Ky. — who said that pistachio flavoring is "one of those flavors that's 'new' to specific categories, but still familiar to the public's palate…what's exciting is using the flavor in new applications, especially lattes and cocktails." 

Colectivo Coffee Roasters — which has numerous locations in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago — is one of the companies that is applying pistachio flavor in this new format, specifically in their pistachio matcha latte. 

"I'd describe this drink as a sweetened, nutty, matcha drink," Emma Cowen, the company's beverage category manager, told Salon Food. "The flavor profile is really well balanced with sweetness and earthy notes, like fresh cut grass and vanilla. It reminds me of green tea flavored mochi! It's a treat for the everyday matcha drinker, and a fun one for coffee lovers to try to expand their horizons."

She continued: "I think pistachio and matcha pair really well together because of their subtle earthy notes. The drink is sweetened with a little white chocolate which brings the whole thing together."

Cowen categorizes pistachio as "the new hazelnut" in terms of its popularity, as it exists at an ideal intersection of familiarity and novelty. 

Cowen categorizes pistachio as "the new hazelnut" in terms of its popularity, as it exists at an ideal intersection of familiarity and novelty. That popularity extends beyond the world of food and drink, too. 

D.S. & Durga — a Brooklyn-based, husband-and-wife helmed company that makes "immersive fragrances" — is one of these companies. (Side note: I'm a frequent customer, who loves their candles.) An Instagram post announcing the return says that the "cult classic" pistachio product is "back by popular demand" and "joining the line full time."

As noted by the Pistachio perfume product page, the top notes are pistachio and cardamom, the "heart notes" are "more pistachio and roasted almond," while the base notes are "even more pistachio, patchouli, and vanilla creme." Elsewhere on the page, the company notes "I think pistachio is an elegant nut. Also a fun nut. It's around good climes (sic) and everyone seems to dig it. We made this on a whim; a fragrance with no story that just evokes the fun of pistachio (especially as a dessert flavor). It was a STUDIO JUICE (limited edition of 100 bottles). People went nuts for the concept (pun somewhat intended) and we knew we had to add it to the line. It's dank & unabashedly sweet which is something I don't normally do." 

The perfume is also getting some top-tier ratings and reviews on the Reddit page  r/fragrance.

Clearly, what may have once been deemed a relatively quiet nut has clearly found its "voice."  Perhaps, as Perfectly Daily Grind notes, a pistachio "milk" (in the vein of almond or oat milk) might even be next on the horizon?

No matter what it is about pistachio that is causing people to now flock to it, it's great to see a sudden resurgence of appreciation for the flavor, which was once relegated to merely artificially-colored and flavored ice cream that was, as far as I'm aware, never a flavor that particularly elicited hordes of raving fans.

But now things have changed. I think my dad would be happy about that. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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