Move over, gingerbread and peppermint. This year, pine is on the menu.
Credit: Photo: Hannah Burkhalter

I rolled my eyes when I read about Christmas-tree flavored potato chips. But then king-of-all-influencers Starbucks announced its latest seasonal offering, the juniper latte, and I thought, hold the phone. While Twitter buzzed over its similarity to car air fresheners and certain household cleansers, I started to feel there was something more to this flavor than meets the eye—er, tongue.

Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends & marketing for CCD Helmsman, a food innovation company based in San Francisco, agrees with me. “This trend has some deeper roots than it might seem to the casual observer,” she says. Juniper is central to Nordic cuisine, which has been growing in popularity since Denmark’s award-winning restaurant Noma started collecting accolades, around 2010. One of the hallmarks of New Nordic is hyper-local ingredients, Nielsen explains, including juniper berries, which are often used in spice blends for cured salmon. There are also a lot of flavors from things that aren’t traditionally seen as food, such as pine, fir, and hay, which is used for smoking foods or serving them.

Local is relative, which is why the alpine trend is coming from alpine areas. In Alaska, it’s not uncommon to forage for spruce tips, the small, citrusy buds of pines, and use them foreverything from tea to beer. Juniper is no stranger to the cocktail world, being the defining flavor in most gins, and the rise of artisanal and craft botanical spirits may have helped fuel our taste for herbal things. An Oregon company, Townshend’s Distillery, found that a specialty liqueur it started making in 2016, Bluebird Alpine Liqueur (inspired by the herbaceous Czech spirit Becherovka), has been catching on outside Portland. And of course, Starbucks HQ is in fir-covered Seattle.

“Herbs are plants, and using plants that grow nearby is a traditional way cultures use flavor,” Nielsen says. Plus, she points out, “So much of flavor is aromatics. This is another experiential sensory avenue.”

But will pine-flavored foods and drinks last beyond one festive season? It might be tough to overcome the Christmas tree associations, but the taste of juniper is actually refreshingly citrus-y, not overwhelmingly pungent. Certainly, it’s versatile enough to use, and enjoy, year-round. Just not in chips.