What is a Cortado? (The Espresso Drink!)

What is a Cortado?

Translated from Spanish, “cortado” means “cut”. In short, a cortado is a beverage that is best described as a variation of an espresso that’s “cut” by a balanced quantity of steamed milk. This drink is typically comprised of a couple ounces of milk and espresso, but cafes tend to have varying milk-to-espresso ratios. When ordering at a cafe, you may actually be served a doppio (containing equal parts milk and espresso) for the sake of making the drink slightly bigger.

The origins of the cortado can be traced back to Spain, Galicia, and northern Portugal. However, these countries don’t add a lot of milk into the drinks, unlike a Spanish Latte or a “café con leche”. Instead, it uses a smaller ratio of warm milk to espresso. The cortado started to grow in popularity in America, starting in San Francisco and making its way from one coast all the way to the other. 

Italian coffee beverages usually contain a bit of foam; however, Spanish coffees do not contain “textured” milk. As such, the Spanish cortado allows you to appreciate the smooth, silky feel of the milk integrating itself with warm espresso without any separation between the two. While many people appreciate the “art” of a latte, the cortado is instead beloved for its balanced flavor. Espresso lovers–those with a preference for strong coffee–are particularly partial to the cortado.

For the most part, a cortado is served in a small metal or glass cup (as opposed to ceramic mugs), and the cortado only comes in one size at Starbucks–short. This deviates from the average coffee shop drink, only coming in smaller sizes without any added flavors or sugars. It is intended to be slowly enjoyed and sipped while relaxing.

cortado glass

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How is a Cortado Different than a Latte or Macchiato?

As far as espresso beverages go, the cortado falls between the latte and a macchiato. Each of them contain roughly equal amounts of espresso, but they differ by the quantity of milk added. Conventional short macchiatos don’t contain as much milk as a cortado. Conversely, lattes contain much more.

cortado comparison

Perhaps you don’t want to do away with the milky foam you have become accustomed to when drinking an Italian coffee. However, the advantage of using no foam is that the milk and espresso will integrate with each other fully. Before long, you’ll be ordering more of these Spanish drinks than you do lattes and macchiatos, especially once you appreciate the flavor balance. 

The next time you walk into a new café consider sipping on a cortado in the morning. It offers the right amount of caffeine to wake you up and– best of all– a simple, soothing, rich flavor!

Other Drinks Resembling the Cortado

West coast residents might be familiar with a similar beverage to the cortado that is known as a “Gibraltar”. This drink was invented in San Francisco by Blue Bottle Coffee, and it has been a best-kept secret for quite a while. The name of the beverage is a reference to how it’s served–inside of a glass Gibraltar tumbler. This 4.5 oz cup is filled with steamed milk and a couple of espresso shots. Technically, it can be called a Gibraltar only if the drink is served inside of that particular mug, but most call this balanced-ratio recipe by that name regardless of what they drink it out of. 

A portion of small black coffee (typically a single espresso shot) is called a “café solo corto” in Spain. An espresso containing a pinch of milk is called a “café cortado”. “Cortado” is a term that is broadly associated with all kinds of espressos and coffees that have been “cut” by milk. In fact, a café cortado is interchangeable with an Italian macchiato and resembles a French noisette.

In Cuba, a “cortadito” is a small drink that is a lot like a “café solo corto”. It is comprised of a regular 1 oz. shot of espresso. However, in contrast to a solo corto, a Cuban cortadito tends to be cut with warm condensed milk (sweetened), since it is a more accessible preserved form of milk (historically, fresh milk wasn’t always readily available). Cortaditos tend to be served inside of a unique glass, usually with either a wire handle or a ring base, both of which are made of metal.

There are also a number of nominal variations, such as the “café con leche condensada”, “cortado condensada”, and “bombon” (which is espresso and condensed milk). Another variation is “leche y leche”, which contains a cream dollop on top and some milk combined with it throughout. Introduced in the sixties by Cuban-Americans to the neighborhood of Little Havana in Miami, Florida, the cortadito is served all over the city to this day. It remains a key aspect of daily culture, especially in the Cuban community. With that said, the cortado is a beverage that is unique from Cuban coffee styles, which tends to include milk and sugar. It even has brewing method all its own.

As we noted in our article on the macchiato, a macchiato contains just a small portion (a spot, or “mark”) of milky foam in contrast to a cappuccino, which has both milk and foam heads. Our article on the flat white notes the combination of equal parts espresso and milk like its counterparts, but also the use of textured (microfoam) and steamed milk– producing a lighter, hotter drink resembling a latte.


Piccolos (or piccolo lattes) are similar beverages served in Australia. It features one ristretto shot poured into a macchiato glass, which gets filled with milk (steamed). In Portugal, a larger beverage called “galao” is served, specifically with a 1:3 ratio, and that’s the only difference between galaos and both manchados and the cortado.

Jay Arr

Jay Arr is passionate about everything coffee. What began as a simple interest in the history, production, and brewing of coffee led him to a job as a barista at a national coffee chain. That’s not where Jay’s story with coffee ends, however. Roasting and brewing day in and out, he continued to gather knowledge about all things coffee.

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