What Is a Cortado? A Complete Guide


So, you’ve heard of the cortado. When you visit your local coffee shop, it's the drink listed right below a macchiato and above the cappuccino. But what exactly is it? And why should you order it?

What Is a Cortado?

The cortado is another drink that made its comeback through third wave coffee shops. People are drawn to the simplicity of the drink and the bold, espresso-forward flavors. The subtle, yet nuanced, savory flavor notes and powerful caffeine punch make this drink one of the best.

The cortado is a basic drink with a 1:1 espresso to milk ratio. No larger than 40z., it is served without any customizations or added syrups to maintain the integrity of the espresso's flavors.

The ratio of espresso to milk and brewing method set the cortado apart from other drinks. Let's take a closer look at how other espresso-based drinks are made. A latte is comprised of 1/3 espresso and 2/3 steamed milk, topped by some foam and, often, latte art. The frothy texture and extra milk combine to make a sweeter drink. At the same time, a macchiato has similar proportions to a cortado. The two drinks are only differentiated by the use of milk. A macchiato can be identified by the frothy milk and milk "mark" on top.

The Origin of the Cortado

Originating in Spain, the cortado represents the typical Spanish, espresso-based drink well with the creamy, smooth milk and lack of foam.

Once the cortado became popular in the 1960s, it quickly spread to northern Portugal and Cuba. In turn, each country left its own mark on the drink. You can read more about their variations below.

Fun fact: The name cortado comes from the Spanish word “cortar,” which means to cut. This describes how the sweet, steamed milk cuts through the acidic espresso, creating an extremely well-balanced, richly flavored drink.

The Experience

Drinking a cortado is an experience that you’re meant to sit, sip, and enjoy. The smooth, slightly acidic drink is espresso-forward, highlighting the flavor nuances within the espresso. The steamed milk cuts through with a slight sweetness to offset the acidity and provide further complexity. And then there’s unique, clear, rock glasses, called Gibraltars, that are traditionally used to serve the drink.

Pro Tip: If you want the full experience, ask for a glass of water to cleanse your palate between each sip. This way you maintain integrity of the drink and taste the complex, nuanced flavors from the espresso.

Pulling a shot of espresso

Brewing a Good Cortado

Before you start the brewing process, make sure you have high quality, freshly roasted coffee beans to work with. Bonus if you roasted them at home within the past few weeks! We recommend trying coffee beans from Ethiopia, Central America, or South America for those sweeter flavor notes that will balance out this bold, espresso-forward drink. Not a fan of coffee from these countries? Check out our guide on the best coffee beans for espresso.

Now, onto the rest of the supplies that you will need:

  • Fresh coffee beans
  • Burr coffee grinder
  • Espresso machine (or moka pot)
  • Milk steamer
  • Milk

Whole milk or 2% milk works best. When steamed, the fats in the milk break down, creating a sweet taste and creamy mouthfeel that perfectly balances the espresso. Remember to steam the milk without incorporating too much air. You want a creamier texture, rather than a frothy one.

Finally, the proportions! Pull a double shot of espresso (around 2oz.) into a glass, add 2oz. of steamed milk, and enjoy!

Shot of tonic water and shot of espresso

Cortado Variations

If you’re ready to try something new but love a good cortado, check out these unique variations on the cortado from around the world.

Cortado Condensada

Also originating from Spain, the cortado condensada swaps condensed milk for regular milk, making a much sweeter version.


Cuba also leaned into the sweet side of the drink, whipping sugar into a single shot of espresso and topping it off with steamed, condensed milk.

Leche y Leche

Similar to the cortado condensada, leche y leche uses condensed milk with espresso, adding a dollop of cream on top to finish it off.


If you're into the third wave coffee culture, you've probably heard of a gibraltar before. Companies like Blue Bottle Coffee Company are really responsible for making the cortado popular in the U.S. But instead of calling the drink by its original name, these third wave coffee companies called it by the cup it was served in –the Gibraltar. So, the cortado and the Gibraltar are identical!


For all the espresso lovers, the cortado is a great, espresso-forward drink. The power of the drink lies in its simplicity. The complex, nuanced espresso flavors are showcased in this drink. Next time you visit your local coffee shop, go ahead and give this drink a try!