Gibraltar vs. Cortado: What Is the Difference?

Let me guess: you are currently glaring at a coffee shop menu and wondering, “What in the world is a Gibraltar?” A barista may have said it is a coffee drink similar to a cortado. However, it’s still probably hard to picture what they were referring to. After all, the names sound insanely different! So, let’s find out if there is any difference between Gibraltar vs. cortado.

What is Gibraltar coffee?

A Gibraltar is an espresso-based beverage with a double shot of espresso topped with just under two ounces of steamed milk. Coffee shops traditionally serve a Gibraltar in a Libbey Gibraltar glass, hence the name. A Gibraltar glass holds 4.5 fluid ounces.

Ironically, Gibraltar coffee doesn’t receive its name from the British territory on the south coast of Spain. Instead, this espresso drink emerged in San Francisco.

It all began when in 2005, Blue Bottle Coffee company had mistakenly purchased a bunch of 4.5-ounce Libby Gibraltar glasses that appeared to be too small for coffee cupping. So instead, those glasses were used by baristas experimenting with espresso shots.

As baristas needed a quick pick-me-up drink, they added a dash of milk to the espresso. They also treated some of their loyal clients with this coffee drink, and it was well-liked. When the clients asked the name of this concoction, it was impromptu nicknamed Gibraltar due to the Gibraltar glass it was served in.

James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee Company, described Gibraltar coffee as a “short, concentrated espresso and milk drink that’s made to be consumed on the spot.” With the expansion of Blue Bottle Coffee across the United States, this beverage gained popularity. It even appeared on the menus of other coffee shops worldwide.

gibraltar coffee in libbey rock glass

What is cortado coffee?

A cortado is a small coffee drink made using equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Usually, it is one shot of espresso and one ounce of milk, but the variations exist, depending on who makes it.

The word cortado comes from the Spanish word cortar. It means “to cut” and refers to the milk cutting down the acidity of espresso. Traditionally cortado comes in a 4.25-ounce carajillo glass, which is essentially a shot glass.

Since many popular espresso-based beverages are Italian by origin, people often mistake the cortado for Italian coffee. However, if you try ordering this coffee drink in Italy, you may get some strange looks from the waiters not understanding what you want. But ask for “un cortado” in Spain, and it will be prepared swiftly.

The exact date when cafe cortado was created is unknown, but multiple sources agree that it first appeared in Spain’s Basque Country. Like almost any Spanish coffee drink, the cortado has little to no milk foam present, which allows the milk “to cut” right through the espresso (quite literally). It is often confused with a macchiato or a latte as it comes in a glass.

A cortado has become a popular order in many coffee shops across the globe. Coffee fanatics love this drink for its perfect balance of smooth milk and rich espresso.

A cortado is a bit stronger than the flat white as it contains a little less milk. A flat white is made of one part of espresso and two parts of steamed milk, while a typical cortado contains equal parts espresso and steamed milk.

making cortado

Are Gibraltar and cortado the same thing?

If you’ve been researching Gibraltar vs. cortado topic for a while and getting confused with finding contradicting information, you are not alone! While some sources say these coffee drinks are the same thing (even the Blue Bottle founder admitted it himself), others argue that they are different. So let’s clear the confusion once and for all, shall we?

Ingredients

When looking for the similarities of those coffee drinks, one thing is pretty obvious: they both contain the same ingredients – milk and espresso, and neither comes with milk foam. The perfect balance between the two gives these drinks their signature smooth finish.

Cup size and material

Both Gibraltar and cortado traditionally are served in 4.5-ounce glass vessels rather than ceramic cups designed to retain heat longer. It makes sense as these coffee drinks are small, and it takes a couple of sips to drink them, unlike cappuccino or a flat white that you’d sip on for a while.

Flavor

Gibraltar and cortado have a silky texture and creamy mouthfeel when you can still taste the espresso. Traditionally they don’t contain sugar or flavored syrup (with some rare exceptions, such as caramel cortado in Costa Coffee shops). Most avid coffee drinkers would agree that sugar is unnecessary for those drinks. Being able to taste the coffee is arguably the best part of appreciating the cortado or Gibraltar flavor.

cortado coffee on the table

Is there a difference between Gibraltar vs. cortado?

While you may have concluded that Gibraltar and cortado are the same, if digging real deep, you can discover subtle differences between those coffee drinks.

Origin

Gibraltar and cortado originated in different countries. The cortado roots can be traced back to 20th century Spain, and Gibraltar was birthed in the 21st century in San Francisco. So while the cortado has been around for quite a few decades and is an integral part of Spanish coffee culture, Gibraltar is a fairly new take on the classic espresso drink.

Espresso to milk ratio

Different baristas and coffee shops often have their own riff on Gibraltar and cortado recipes. While espresso to milk ratio variations are less common in Gibraltar coffee, the amounts of espresso and milk in cortado can vary greatly.

In Spain, the espresso to milk ratio in a cortado can be from 1:1 to 1:0.5. Meanwhile, in the United States or some coffee chains (such as Caffè Nero), the formula can be totally reversed, with the espresso to milk ratio of 1:2. One of the reasons for this could be that baristas prefer using more milk to create latte art.

Also, Starbucks makes a cortado with a double shot of ristretto, meaning the coffee is much more concentrated.

This does not exactly set Gibraltar and cortado apart when evaluating the differences objectively but rather brings more moving parts to the equation.

Glass type

The most noticeable difference when Gibraltar and cortado coffees are compared is the type of glasses they were prepared in at their origins.

Gibraltar coffee is traditionally served in tapered octagonal bottom rock glasses. Meanwhile, a Spanish cortado comes in smooth carajillo shot glasses (the same ones used to serve the spiked coffee drink in Spanish-speaking countries).

While in the ideal world, you’d be able to tell those coffees apart just by seeing the special glass the drink comes in, the reality is a bit different. You are likely to come across the cafes that serve cortados in ceramic cups, especially in Latin American countries, such as Argentina.

Gibraltar vs Cortado

Ordering at a coffee shop

You will hardly ever spot both Gibraltar and cortado on the menu of the same coffee shop as they are essentially the same thing. However, find out how they prepare each of those drinks if you do. In fact, this could be an exciting topic for a coffee chat with a barista!

Starbucks or other big coffee ships may not be able to customize your drink to your liking. However, specialty coffee shops probably would. Even if there are none of those drinks on the menu, you can ask for macchiato with more textured milk or flat white with less milk, and it will be close enough to achieve that desired smooth yet strong coffee taste.

Are you still determined to try these two beverages to see if there are any subtle differences that you can pinpoint? Making an objective comparison might be tough as you will likely get different variations of those drinks or the same coffee called “Gibraltar” on the West Coast and “cortado” on the East coast.

Also, if you choose to travel to Madrid on the mission to track down the original cortado, you may get slightly disappointed. It won’t be exactly your specialty coffee shop concoction with latte art. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you shouldn’t order an old-school cortado at one of those hundred-year-old nostalgic cafes. On the contrary, it is highly recommended for the experience itself! You may receive a cortado made of dark roasted industrial coffee, and the amount of milk will depend on the bartender’s mood. Still, you’ll be sitting alongside the old men reading newspapers and sipping on their cortados. If your Spanish is decent, you may even strike up a conversation about their coffee drinking rituals.

ordering cortado at coffee shop

How to make a Gibraltar or cortado at home

Are you itchy to try Gibraltar or cortado? Why not try making them at home?

To prepare a Gibraltar or cortado at home, you will need:

  • Espresso machine or portable espresso maker.
  • 4.5-5oz glass or a small cup.
  • Coffee beans. Freshly ground coffee always gives the best flavor. Dark roast Nespresso pods or K-Cups can also be used.
  • Your preferred milk. Oat milk is a crowd favorite for those who prefer dairy-free options, and it steams the best.

Follow these steps to make a Gibraltar or cortado coffee:

  1. Steam the milk first using a handheld milk frother or a built-in milk steamer. An espresso shot will “die” quickly, anywhere from 10-30 seconds after pulling it. The brew will lose its taste when an espresso shot is left out too long.
  2. Pull double shot of espresso. Don’t let them sit and lose flavor!
  3. Pour steamed milk into the coffee. Slow, circular motions are the best when pouring. Aim for around the same amount of milk as you have coffee if you like smooth and balanced coffee, or use less steamed milk for a stronger caffeine kick.
  4. Drink immediately.

Whether you like the sound of a Gibraltar or a cortado more, these espresso drinks offer a rich, robust coffee taste. As long as you know how you want your coffee, you should be able to communicate it to the barista. Don’t be shy to simply tell them your preferred espresso to milk ratio to ensure you get the drink that you truly love and enjoy.