On a wet and supremely dreary Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, I found myself among hordes of tourists at Chelsea’s implausibly enormous Starbucks Reserve. Why had I willingly entered this ultra-capitalist, multi-level coffee amusement park? To order its newest menu item: coffee infused with olive oil.
Starbucks’s “Oleato” line debuted in Italy earlier this year, introducing glugs of Partanna extra virgin olive oil to a number of coffee preparations both cold and hot. On the whole, impressions of the Oleato line have been…unappetizing. The New Yorker wrote that it “tasted like a large spoonful of olive oil in coffee,” coating the author’s mouth with a “slick, oleaginous sediment.” Grub Street found that the hot latte “tastes like the smell of toast,” also taking note of an “odd film that lingers on one’s tongue after the drink is gone.”
Starbucks’ departing CEO, Howard Schultz, has cast the Oleato line as his tour de force, a momentous cap to his career. “In over 40 years, I can’t remember a moment in time where I’ve been more excited, more enthused,” he said in a recent official statement. While we’re on the topic, Schultz has excitedly and enthusiastically opposed union efforts. Lately he’s divided his time singing the praises of Oleato in a multi-national press junket and defending his union-busting behavior to a dubious Bernie Sanders.
Finding myself flanked on one side by pretty negative press, and Schultz’s shiny, oil-slicked PR language invoking the sun-soaked groves of Sicily on the other, I had to try it when I heard it debuted in the US just last week. There was only one way to indulge that impulse, and that was hauling myself from Brooklyn in a downpour to Chelsea. (Workers at this very location struck last October to December alleging unsanitary conditions—in the end, management agreed to clean their ice machines regularly.)
Sheepishly, I made my way to the counter and ordered the three Oleato coffees available: a hot latte, a cold brew topped with cold foam, and an iced cortado, each costing between $8 and $9 for its smallest size. From a cursory scan, I seemed to be the only one in my immediate vicinity ordering the olive oil coffee.
For fear of being perceived as sad and lonely, and also for fear of passing out after consuming the quantity of caffeine contained in three coffees, I brought along a willing companion. This location was also serving an espresso martini topped with olive oil cold foam, we observed. Should we? It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday, we reminded ourselves. We abstained.
A Bit About the Olive Oil
Olive oil flavor profiles fall into two broad camps—the first “grassy and fruity,” according to a Bon Appétit explainer, and the second “pungent and peppery.” I found that Partanna’s popular extra virgin olive oil, made of Nocellara del Belice olives, veered more toward the former—a logical pairing choice given the sweeter notes of the drinks I tasted, and the bitterness already inherent to coffee. GQ recommends Partanna as a cooking oil; others tout its versatility and palatability as a salad dressing base or a bread dip.
The Golden Foam Cold Brew
We started first with the cold brew, topped with olive-oil-infused foam. On the nose, as the sommeliers like to say, it immediately smelled like a leafy salad—specifically a salad doused in a very oily vinaigrette. As the cold foam hit the tongue, I was immediately slammed with the potent, earthy taste of Partanna, as if the foam were composed of it exclusively. I generally like the taste of olive oil, but I’ve never yearned to drink it. And I felt like I was drinking it, left with the sensation that the interior of my mouth had been basted in oil.
Stomach greased for more, we moved on to the hot latte, which featured oat milk that had been infused with olive oil and then steamed. Oddly enough they had not opted to infuse other milks with olive oil for the latte. I was most enticed by this option because a hot latte is normally my coffee of choice. My friend astutely noted that the nuttiness of the oat milk cut the olive oil taste, subtly complementing rather than dominating the beverage, and I agreed. Unsurprisingly, this one ended up being my favorite of the three, and the only one that I actively wanted to drink more of.
The cortado was the most confusing and least redeemable of the three. By the time I carried it over to our table, it already began to separate into its constituent components—namely, olive oil and espresso. The green-hued oil began to rise and bubble to the top, so that a centimeter-thick viscous layer floated on the surface. Tasting this one indeed simulated what I’d imagine it’d be like to down a shot of olive oil and chase it with a shot of straight espresso. 0/10.
Would I order any of these coffees again? Maybe the hot latte, definitely not the others. At this point, I felt as though I consumed many tablespoons of olive oil (Schultz, for one, says he drinks a straight tablespoon of it a day, a la Sicilian tradition). I started to feel vaguely nauseous, though it was difficult to disentangle the effects of the oil from the effects of excess caffeine rapidly entering my body. In any case, I wasn’t feeling my best.
And will Oleato change how people drink their coffee? Probably not. I’d be hard-pressed to envision it becoming a PSL-like fave. Maybe it’ll turn into a “secret” menu item, with stores outfitted with carafes of EVOO in case someone wants a pump of it. Undeterred by internal chaos, Starbucks will evidently keep churning out its gimmick of the day and then the next one. It’ll just be up to the fans to decide whether or not they want them.