In my first week of high school Spanish, I carefully memorized this sentence:
Yo quisiera un refresco, por favor.
(I would like a soft drink please.)
Here’s why: The imperfect subjunctive quisiera is too formal and stilted, everyone just uses brand names instead of un refresco, and saying “please” for every little thing is just sooo American.
If someone walks into a corner bar in Madrid, for example, they’re much more likely to plop down at a stool and say:
Or, in a particularly grandiloquent moment:
Dame una Coca-Cola.
(Give me a Coca-Cola.)
I’m therefore delighted to hereby undo the collective damage of 9th grade Spanish I, and present to you the real ways that Spanish speakers order their coffees, sugar-waters, liquors and other fluids.
As we saw above, the most standard way to order is with the indefinite articles un or una (a) followed by the name of the thirst-quencher. So if you’re thirsty and in a rush, the first half of this piece is all that you’ll need.
But if you continue on, you’ll get the most useful phrases that accompany the consumption of liquids, and finally a few fun Spanish sayings about drinking.
The Complete Guide: How to Really Order Drinks in Spanish
The Drinks in Spanish
First, let’s take a look at the drinks themselves:
una Coca-Cola/una Fanta/etc. — As mentioned, it’s common to use the brand name of the product. Latin America in particular is in the grips of Coca-Cola, which is why you get experts talking about Coke just wreaking absolute devastation on the region. I would never touch the stuff personally, but I’ve just taught you how to order it, in case you’d like to do as the Romans…
un café — a coffee; but you’ll have to be more precise, and order according to the variant that you want:
un café solo — an espresso; literally, “just coffee”
un americano — a very long espresso (with more water). Filter coffee, like Americans actually drink, is usually not available in Spanish-speaking lands, but you can ask for café filtrado or café de filtro if you want to try.
un café con leche — an espresso with a lot of milk
un cortado — an espresso “cut” with just a bit of milk
un carajillo — an espresso with whiskey or rum, and a bit of sugar. In Madrid, lemon is also added, which is just divine. I was so excited when I first discovered this very Spanish alternative to overblown caffeinated cocktails like Irish coffee and vodka-Red Bull.
un descafeinado — a decaf
If you’re in Cuba, note that, as I’ve mentioned before, an offer of coffee is actually a very clear indication that you should get going.
un zumo de… (Spain) or un jugo de … (Latin America) — a juice of …
naranja — orange
manzana — apple
melocotón — peach
piña — pineapple
una horchata — a Valencian drink made from tigernuts (chufas) and served throughout Spain in special horchaterías. In Valencian it’s called orxata, with the “x” pronounced like an English “sh.”
un té — a tea
una infusión — an “herbal tea” or infusion
una cerveza — a beer, but you’ll want to order it by stating the size that you want:
una caña — small draft beer; this is the most common way to drink beer
una mediana — third of a liter bottle
un botellín/un quinto — fifth of a liter bottle
una clara — a beer mixed with lemonade. It’s good for a hot day and often considered ladylike; readers who like to appear feminine, or are afraid to do the same, take note.
un chupito de… — a shot of…
vodka — vodka
whisky — whiskey
ginebra — gin
tequila — tequila
una ratafía — an herbal digestif
una absenta — an absinthe; this is quite legal and even popular in Spain
un cremat — this is not Spanish but a Catalan word and it’s a flaming Catalan-Cuban rum and coffee concoction
un vino tinto — red wine; literally, tinted wine. You can order un vaso de vino tinto and you’ll get a glass of the house red. Una botella is a bottle.
un vino blanco — white wine
un tinto de verano — wine mixed with soda water
un calimocho — a favorite of both teenagers and old ladies in Spain; this is cheap, bad wine mixed with Coca-Cola. One does not usually order it in bars. But oh, the lovely times you can have drinking in a botellón (flash-mob-esque, young-person street party).
agua natural/fría — room-temperature/cold water. In most Spanish-speaking countries tap water is not an option at bars and restaurants; you will be required to order una botella de agua (a bottle of water). For foreigners in Latin America, it’s generally not wise to drink the tap water anyway.
Phrases for Ordering Drinks in Spanish
The following phrases would be used in the informal register, as presented here, in most standard bars and restaurants in Spain. If you’re in Latin America, you should generally use the formal register with waiters and bartenders as a sign of respect.
For example, you might start out an exchange in Spain with: ¿Qué me recomiendas para beber? And in Latin America: ¿Qué me recomienda (usted) para beber?
Here are a few ways to order:
- Tomo… (lit. I take…)
- Dame… (lit. Give me…)
- Quiero… (lit. I want…)
- Ponme… (lit. Put for me…)
- Me vas a poner… (lit. You will put for me…)
So, putting together a few of the things we’ve seen:
Me vas a poner un vaso de vino tinto seco.
(I’ll have a glass of dry red wine.)
But maybe you’re one of those classy people who drinks with friends, family or dates? Order for everyone by stating the number, and adding -s after a drink ending in a vowel, and -es after one ending in a consonant.
Dos copas de vino.
(Two glasses of wine.)
I grew up in the American Midwest, so, while I know that Spanish-speaking people will almost never use these niceties in ordering drinks, I constitutionally just can’t help myself from slipping them in once in a while:
por favor — please
gracias — thank you
de nada — you’re welcome (this is what the bartender says, albeit a bit sarcastically, if I’m being overly polite)
Note that, since they’re not really working for tips, Spanish and Latin American service workers can be rude if they’re in a bad mood, and absolutely lovely otherwise. This is something I’ve grown to love—if you have a great interaction with someone who is serving you, you know that it’s real, and not for the tips. Nobody bothers to plaster on a smile at work like they do in the States.
When you’re ready to leave, wave at the waiter and say:
la cuenta — the check
If you’re at a fancier place and in the mood to learn obscure olfactory vocabulary, before you order you can say:
¿Cómo es este vino? — What is this wine like?
Once you get it, say:
Me encanta este vino. — I love this wine.
Es delicioso. — It’s delicious.
Popular Spanish Sayings About Drinking
You know it’s true if it rhymes! Here are a few well-known Spanish sayings about drinking:
El que con vino cena, con agua desayuna.
(He who dines with wine, breakfasts with water.)
Vinos y amores, los viejos son los mejores.
(With wines and lovers, the older ones are the best.)
El vino abre el camino.
(Wine opens the path.)
No existe la mala cerveza. Sólo hay unas que saben mejor que otras.
(Bad beer doesn’t exist. It’s just that there are some that taste better than others.)
At this point, you should have enough Spanish to know what you want, how to order it, and how to wax poetically about it once served. That’s not a bad way to break into full evening of speaking Spanish!
Mose Hayward writes frequently about cross-cultural romance, the politics of nomadism, and the scientific proof that people speak languages better after a (small!) bit of booze.
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