Life

The Best Iced Coffees In The Fast Food Universe (Including The Mighty Starbucks), Ranked

With the world regaining some sense of “normal” in recent months, a problem that didn’t really exist during the height of the pandemic is returning to our lives — the early morning coffee rush. Who amongst us hasn’t been twenty minutes late to work because we took a chance on a Starbucks drive-thru that deep down we knew we didn’t have time for? These days, it feels like there are even more drivers on the road than in pre-pandemic times. Couple that with many fast food chains’ inability to attract workers, and we’re experiencing the slowest drive-thru times we’ve had in a good long while.

Is that going to stop us from attempting that last-minute Starbucks run? Not a chance.

But for those mornings where the drive-thru lines seem particularly punishing, when cars tangle through parking lots and spill out into the street causing even more traffic, you should know that you have a lot of other options that aren’t Starbucks. Almost every fast food restaurant these days has some form of coffee — be it blended or sweetened — and some of them are just as good if not better than the sugar-loving Seattle chain. So we went on a quest to rank all of the best fast food iced coffees we could find to help satisfy your morning coffee cravings.

Why iced coffee? Because we figure if you’re waiting in a drive-thru line for Starbucks, you’re probably not getting a hot black coffee with cream and sugar — you can make that sh*t at home in less time. So we went with a crowd-pleaser: sweetened vanilla iced coffee. Why vanilla? Because judging by a lot of fast food menus out there, it’s the most popular besides straight black.

Before we begin, let me define what makes a good iced vanilla coffee in my opinion. Ideally, you have a nice balance between the rich and complex flavors of a quality coffee blend, and the creamy textures and sweetness of milk and vanilla. A good roast will have an earthy bitterness to it that contains the nutty and sometimes buttery flavors of roasted coffee beans perhaps featuring a subtle natural fruitiness or floral sweetness, all balanced with some acidity. My first job was working as a barista in Southern California, so I’ve had all kinds of different coffee blends hailing from the best coffee-producing regions from South and Central America to Africa to Jamaica to Hawaii.

Living in Los Angeles has also left me spoiled with good coffee options. So I’m the perfect person to call out the best and worst iced coffees in the fast food game. Now let’s get to drinking!

10. Burger King — BK Cafe Iced Coffee Vanilla

Best Iced Coffee
Burger King

Calories: 201

The Coffee:

Burger King isn’t good at anything they make, and that extends into the BK Café branded line of coffee beverages. If you follow our fast food rankings you’ve probably picked up on the fact that Burger King consistently ranks at or near last place across the board. Trust me when I say this, it brings me no joy.

I wanted this to be good, but it’s just not. It has absolutely nothing going for it.

The coffee here is highly acidic, giving off a sort of rotten quality to it that there isn’t enough vanilla in the world to mask. Yes, this drink is sugary sweet with a whopping 26 grams of sugar, but it’s not the sort of drink that tastes worth the high sugar dose. The BK Cafe iced vanilla won’t make you feel like your indulging your sweet tooth and pampering yourself with a decadent treat — it’ll just make your stomach turn.

The Bottom Line:

Why are you even at Burger King? Seriously, do you have any other options? Order a Coke if you have a caffeine craving.

Find your nearest Burger King here.

9. Wendy’s — Vanilla Frosty-ccino

Best Iced Coffee
Wendy

Calories: 210

The Coffee:

The Wendy’s Frosty-ccino is a disgrace to the Frosty name. Okay, that sounds harsh. And in truth, Frostys aren’t actually that good in the first place, but the Frosty-ccino totally fails to deliver anything worth spending your money on. I wouldn’t even drink one of these if it were free, but I’d happily take an actual Frosty for some fry-dipping ecstasy.

The Frosty-ccino tastes like bitter dirty water. You only get the sense that you’re drinking coffee because of the blunt, unwelcoming bitterness that dominates the aftertaste. The vanilla is somehow barely there, despite this drink packing 28 grams of sugar. The first time I had a Frosty-ccino, I figured they just made it wrong, but after drinking this one a few times it’s been consistently watery and flavorless, so… I guess that’s just what it tastes like!

The Bottom Line:

Don’t let the Frosty name fool you, this is shockingly bad and incredibly bland. Real bottom of the barrel trash.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.

8. Jack in the Box — Vanilla Sweet Cream

Best Iced Coffee
Jack in the Box

Calories: 180

The Coffee:

I really appreciate Jack in the Box for not loading its Vanilla Sweet Cream Iced Coffee with a large amount of sugar to mask the undoubtedly low-quality coffee beans used as the base for this drink, unfortunately, they probably should have. This coffee just isn’t good, it tastes burnt with an overly blunt flavor and a sour aftertaste that will instantly curse you with bad breath.

The vanilla doesn’t really add sweetness, it just tames the bitter burnt flavor and makes it a little more palatable. The end result is not horrible, but there is absolutely no reason to ever order this.

The Bottom Line:

The only time I’d suggest drinking this poison is if you’ve woken up with a hangover but have a full day of work ahead of you. The caffeine will get the job done, but you won’t enjoy drinking it. Luckily your head is probably pounding and your stomach is turning, so the way coffee tastes is of little concern.

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

7. Carl’s Jr — Vanilla Cold Brew

Best Iced Coffee
Carl

Calories: 180

The Coffee:

Carl’s Jr’s Vanilla Cold Brew is a massive step up from what Jack in the Box is selling. I wouldn’t exactly describe this coffee as good, but it certainly isn’t bad. Unlike the lower-ranked iced coffees on this list, this Vanilla Cold Brew doesn’t have an overly roasted, burnt flavor. The coffee is a lot more delicate here with subtle floral notes, and that light roast packs a powerful punch of caffeine that really helps to sharpen the mind and get you in the zone.

The vanilla and cream are used subtly here — it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, it adds the slightest hint of creaminess and really compliments the roast. I’m actually surprised at how drinkable this stuff is. It’s totally serviceable and won’t make you regret hitting the undoubtedly shorter Carl’s line over Starbucks.

The Bottom Line:

Carl’s Jr’s iced coffee has no business being nearly this good. This noticeably lighter roast is delicate and creamy whereas most fast food coffees are burnt and then add too much sugar in order to disguise that fact.

Find your nearest Carl’s Jr here.

6. Sonic — French Vanilla Cold Brew Iced Coffee

Best Iced Coffee
Sonic

Calories: 210

The Coffee:

Sonic doesn’t generally rank very highly for us in any fast food category but the drive-thru chain’s coffee offerings are pretty damn good and surprisingly flavorful. The French Vanilla Cold Brew has a very appealing smoothness to it — it’s delicate and creamy while still containing that soothing earthy-bitter bite. It’s almost chocolate-y. Notes of cherry hover gently over a smooth and subtly sweet roasted flavor that is unfortunately sullied by the artificial French vanilla flavoring.

I’d strongly suggest passing on the flavoring here and opting to take this coffee black or with only the sweet cream. The roast is complex and flavorful enough on its own.

The Bottom Line:

It’s good because of the coffee, so skip the flavoring on this one for a distinct blend that tastes complex, naturally sweet, and expresses itself in delicious waves across your palate.

Find your nearest Sonic here.

5. Starbucks — Iced Coffee with Milk & Vanilla

Coffe Ranking
Starbucks

Calories: 80

The Coffee:

Starbucks is obviously the crowd favorite and I’m sorry but, it earns its place comfortably in the middle of this list. I ordered my iced coffee with whole milk and three pumps of vanilla syrup which is the standard amount for a small… sorry, “tall” — and I was pleased to find that the drink had just a hint of sweetness, with the perfect balance of creamy flavors and bitter, chocolatey coffee. All of the elements of this coffee really work harmoniously, but the weakest link is the coffee itself, and when we’re talking about iced coffees that’s kind of a problem.

Starbucks coffee just… isn’t very good. It’s roasted to the point that the coffee comes off as more bitter than it should. It’s a little acidic and has a slight chocolatey quality to it, but it just leaves your mouth tasting very flat and in desperate need of gum.

I also don’t feel a very significant kick from this drink. It’s refreshing, but doesn’t really provide me with that jolt that I rely on coffee to provide.

The Bottom Line:

It’s well balanced but at the end of the day, Starbucks coffee just doesn’t taste very good. It’s over-roasted, I realize Starbucks utilizes a lot of dark roasts, but this isn’t rich, complex, or distinct like dark roast coffee should be — it’s flat and harsh.

Find your nearest Starbucks here.

4. Dunkin’ —French Vanilla Swirl

Best Iced Coffee
Dunkin

Calories: 110

The Coffee:

Dunkin’ is a chain that consistently surprises me. I didn’t grow up with Dunkin’ Donuts, so I don’t have a lot of experience or nostalgia regarding the chain as I’ve always gotten my donuts from the corner mom & pop donut shop. I rarely frequent chains like Dunkin’ or Krispy Kreme but every time I try anything Dunkin’ related I’m taken aback by the focus on flavor the brand puts into everything it does.

This iced coffee is definitely on the sweeter end, so it’s hard to really taste the coffee and decipher the flavors, but the result of Dunkin’s coffee base and their vanilla swirl tastes deliciously buttery, like a homemade cookie. It’s a little decadent and will get you incredibly wired from caffeine, but I’ve yet to have a coffee from Dunkin’ that wasn’t an absolute pleasure to drink from the first sip to the last.

The Bottom Line:

It leans on the sweeter side so if that’s your vibe, you’re going to love it. If you like your coffee a little closer to black, Dunkin’s iced coffee is fully customizable, from milk choice to sugar and flavoring. I’ve just never felt the need to go light on the sugar here — when in Rome!

Find your nearest Dunkin’ here.

3. McDonald’s — Iced French Vanilla Latte

Best Iced Coffee
McDonald

Calories: 210

The Coffee:

You might know a few people who swear by McDonald’s coffee and always roll up with a cup in hand. Well, believe the hype — McDonald’s coffee is surprisingly good. Yes, that comes down to the fact that like everything at McDonald’s, the flavored coffee is packed with sugar, but the combination of espresso and vanilla here is buttery and inviting, with a cool refreshing flavor that is artificial for sure, but not in an off-putting way. It’s a bit like the Starbucks iced coffee, but with a better coffee flavor that tastes nutty and rich, not bitter and bland.

Technically this isn’t an iced coffee, it’s a latte — so it has a lot more milk and utilizes espresso rather than a coffee extract base or a cold brew. That helps the flavors come off more balanced here and plays a lot creamier than a lot of the other iced coffee drinks on this list. Maybe that’s cheating, but who cares? It tastes good and will give you a strong kick of caffeine.

The Bottom Line:

Believe the hype, McDonald’s coffee is way better than similar flavored drinks from Starbucks. Starbucks has the edge on variety, but when it comes to vanilla-flavored coffee drinks, McDonald’s is superior.

Find your nearest McDonald’s here.

2. Panera — Madagascar Vanilla Cream Cold Brew

Best Iced Coffee
Panera

Calories: 190

The Coffee:

Starbucks needs to learn a lesson from Panera — this is how to make a dark roast coffee. Panera’s cold brew coffee is a bouquet of flavors with a bittersweet finish that makes drinking it incredibly addicting. The coffee here is rich and bold, with a lot of toasty depth and a sweet cherry flavor that is elevated by Panera’s high-quality vanilla syrup, giving the experience a delicious dessert-like quality.

That probably comes down to the fact that Panera uses half and half in place of milk here, which makes the drink come off as noticeably creamier than the competition.

The Bottom Line:

Good enough to savor, Panera’s Madagascar Vanilla Cream Cold Brew offers rich and complex flavors that deserve to be slow sipped on a relaxing day, rather than guzzled down before work. This is the best choice for the coffee drinker who loves and appreciates the subtleties of a good well-roasted coffee.

Find your nearest Panera here.

1. Chick-fil-A — Vanilla Iced Coffee

Best Iced Coffee
Chick fil A

Calories: 140

The Coffee:

It pains me to give Chick-fil-A the top spot in any category, but this is simply the best coffee drink you can get from a fast food drive-thru. You can really tell Chick-fil-A brews its coffee fresh each day, the blend here is rich with a light butterscotch flavor that features a smooth toasted body with distinct citrus top notes that cut through the sweet vanilla syrup.

The finish highlights the vanilla flavoring, leaving a sweet flavor on the palate that is more pleasant than the stale, bitter taste left behind by the bottom five on this list. When Chick-fil-A serves you a cup of cold vanilla iced coffee, it comes in this beautiful unmixed marbled state with ribbons of cream that brush against dark cold brew coffee.

It’s pretty to look at, but don’t drink it like this. Make sure you give it a good mix.

When I say “good mix” I don’t mean a few shakes of the wrist before you sip, use that straw and make sure you stir from the bottom until you’re left with a consistent cream color. Then sip and enjoy layers of flavor that ricochet between sweet and creamy notes, and a rich and complex earthiness.

The Bottom Line:

Rich, complex, sweet, creamy — everything a good iced coffee should be. Chick-fil-A crafted a drink here that combines complementary flavors that truly add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. If Chick-fil-A could find a way to add a sprig of fresh mint into this thing, it might even rival the sort of iced coffee you’d get from your favorite neighborhood barista.

Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.

×