In recent years, Starbucks has remained sharp and forward reaching, even if it has gone underappreciated in higher critical circles. While audiences have focused on its yearly, perfunctory release of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, there’s been a surprising and quiet artistic renaissance going on further down the company’s menu. From the insouciant Parrot Cake Pop to the politically charged Pokémon GO Frappuccino, it’s been a fertile time for the Seattle giant, if not a particularly well understood one.
Into this era comes perhaps Starbucks’ most daring effort since the rollout of the PSL 14 years ago: The Unicorn Frappuccino.
Obviously, the first thing one notices about the Unicorn is its unapologetic fuchsia coloring and undulating band of electric blue. It’s a departure from Starbucks’ usual brown iced drinks that recalls the wonder of seeing a Green Tea Frappuccino for the first time. Yet, these cheery nursery-room looks belie the tempest underneath. At its core, the Unicorn is a profoundly challenging drink that, while perhaps attractive to children, constitutes Starbucks’ most mature offering to date.
Despite a color palette that usually announces a berry-heavy profile, the initial sip off the straw is a wash of smooth whole milk flavor dominated by notes of caramel, mango, vanilla and simple syrup. This is first of many ingenious feints and turnarounds.
After five or six sips of this silky sweetness (best compared to melted Dolly Madison ice cream) the Unicorn presents its second surprise: an electric jolt of refined sugar, cherry and sourness. This is the wildly discussed “fairy powder”. Notes of Wild Cherry Nerds blend with undertones of Lemon Sour Patch Kids for a nostalgic spark of youthful pleasures gone by.
What quickly follows is a hard chemical aftertaste most will associate with Sam’s Club brand nicotine gum. It’s truly arresting. As it broadens across the tongue and palate, it transforms the pure taste Starbucks’ whipped cream into a nest of contradictions and synthetic tang.
But don’t be fooled. The Unicorn Frappuccino doesn’t not fail on account of this aftertaste. Indeed, it succeeds because of it.
insider tip you have to be high to unlock the flavor of the starbucks unicorn drink— MAD DECENT (@maddecent) April 20, 2017
With a drink of this measure, it’s necessary to reframe one’s appreciation of it. Much as how one would discuss Heston Blumenthal’s “Sound of the Sea” at the Fat Duck or Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament, it’s best to speak of impressions rather than tastes here. On these terms, the Unicorn Frappuccino is a triumph.
The first sensation one gets from a Unicorn Frappuccino is that of a smooth, sugary, liquid hug. To Starbucks’ credit, it’s exactly the kind of warm, pure, sweet embrace an actual living unicorn would give you if it had arms (which it would not.)
The next sensation is counter to the first: Temple-to-temple brain freeze. How exactly Starbucks engineered this cold sequel to the Unicorn’s initial warm hug is a mystery, but it remains one of the more fascinating experiences available on the company’s menu (and that includes the highly controversial gas caused by its Egg White and Red Pepper Sous Vide Egg Bites.
In this context, the aforementioned issues with the “fairy powder” become brilliant. Just as the silkiness of the initial sips is countered with brain freeze, so are the nostalgic Nerd and Sour Patch Kid notes countered with bitter nicotine-gum aftertaste.
To Starbucks’ credit, it’s exactly the kind of warm, pure, sweet embrace an actual living unicorn would give you if it had arms (which it would not.)
It is in these looped contrasts of color and blandness, of warmth and pain, of childhood and crushing disappointment that this drink truly comes into its own and the importance of its “unicorn” theme becomes clear. A unicorn is itself a fantastical beast, a totem promising magic and purity. But in even thinking about the unicorn, we are forced to confront its falseness and, through that, the falseness of magic, the of falseness of purity.
From the moment you first see it to the moment you throw it half consumed into the trash, the Unicorn Frappuccino presents and then deconstructs these various fantasies in multiple ways, transporting you from childhood wonderment all the way through adult cynicism and unpleasant midday bloating. Clearly, Starbucks included the beautiful, yet constantly disintegrating, crown of whipped cream to bolster this central conceit.
Just as admirable as this thematic coherence is the way the drink sticks with you. The rumbling indigestion and perfectly timed sugar crash it causes give the Unicorn true dramatic heft. Those who are lactose intolerant should find particular emotional resonance these brilliantly arranged aftereffects.
In short, what we see in the Unicorn Frappuccino is the work of a master transitioning from youthful exuberance and mid-career success to what appears to be a period of mature self-reflection. More importantly, Starbucks has given us a vital wakeup call for a time when immature fantasies dominate both media and politics.
It’s a necessary explosion of 410 dazzling calories and 59 grams of angry sugar that shouldn’t be missed.