What is a Cortado?

A perfect drink for those who love balance in their lives, a Cortado is a small coffee drink (generally not more than 4oz) that pairs espresso and steamed/textured milk in (usually) equal proportions. Its name comes from the Spanish verb “cortar”, for “cut”, alluding to the gentle effects of the milk “cutting” the bitter, strong flavors of espresso. In terms of milk volume, it is smaller than a cappuccino and larger than a macchiato—a drink size considered to be perfect by many.

What is the difference between a Cortado and a Macchiato?

A Macchiato (not the Starbucks version) is typically served in a demitasse, with only about an ounce of milk added to the shot of espresso. A Cortado has a larger quantity of steamed milk—the milk is never a dollop of froth, like some macchiatos—and it is more commonly served in a small glass or other taller vessel. (Read on for more on the special glasses!)

Is the Cortado a drink I can get any and everywhere these days?

The drink's popularity has soared in the past decade, and there's no reason not to think it won't keep climbing, because it is delicious. Nowadays, the Cortado (or its associate, the Gibraltar—please see below) is easy to find in cafes from coast to coast (and in the middle). PT's Coffee founder and Bird Rock owner Jeff Taylor says the drink was “a little slow to catch on in the early days, but of course it eventually became a mainstay on our menus in California, Kansas, and Missouri.”

Does the Cortado have any little friends or family members?

Why, yes!

The Cortadito
Often confused with the Cortado, a Cortadito is a related coffee drink of Cuban origin, featuring sweetened espresso (or similarly strong coffee) paired with steamed condensed milk, typically served in equal proportions. While the name sounds a lot like a cortado, it's a substantially different creation.

The Gibraltar
A close cousin of the Cortado, the name Gibraltar is used—more frequently on the West Coast of the United States—to describe essentially the same drink. Named for the specific type of glass in which it's served—a Libbey rocks glass (Get it? Rocks? Gibraltar?) in the 4.5oz size—the creation was an off-the-menu treat first available at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Bay Area in the mid-2000s. It's now widely known, with the name Gibraltar in somewhat common use for this Cortado variant at Third Wave cafes across the United States. (Learn more in this classic New York Times take from 2010, “A Cortado is Not A Minivan.”)

The SG-120

Not to be outdone by the name's wide adoption, in 2008 Blue Bottle unveiled an even more niche glassware-named drink called the SG-120, dubbed in honor of the small thin Hario glass in which it is served. The SG-120 is basically a Cortado made with a single origin coffee and in a more delicate vessel, but as far as we can tell, it's just a chi-chi Cortado.

Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.

Top image via In Los Angeles, Eightfold Coffee Enlightens Echo Park by Tatiana Ernst