Ideally one should make havdala over wine, which is the most dignified beverage, as it nourishes and gladdens, so when it is enjoyed in the service of a mitzva, it has the unique capability to reveal the inner goodness of the Jewish people. The Sages state that one who makes havdala over wine on Saturday night will be blessed with children (Shev. 18b).
However, if there is no wine available, one may use ĥamar medina (lit. “the wine of the country”), a dignified beverage that people in that locale drink as one would drink wine (SA 296:2). For example, in many places people commonly drink beer. In such places, since beer is important for them, they may make havdala over it, replacing Ha-gafen with She-hakol.
If one has wine but prefers ĥamar medina, some say that he may not make havdala on ĥamar medina (Rabbeinu Ĥananel; Rashbam), while others maintain one may nevertheless use ĥamar medina (Rambam; Smag). In practice, it is proper for even one who prefers beer to recite havdala over wine, as long as he also likes wine. However, if he wants to, he may make havdala on ĥamar medina.
Vodka and arak are also considered ĥamar medina, but because they are so strong it is difficult to drink a melo lugmav (c. 50-55 ml) of them. One who is able to drink a melo lugmav of them may recite havdala over them.
The poskim disagree about whether a beverage must be alcoholic to be considered ĥamar medina. The lenient poskim maintain that any beverage that one would serve to important guests, and which people sometimes sit around drinking with friends, is considered a dignified beverage and may be used for havdala. Thus, one may make havdala on coffee, tea, or malt beer, as well as fresh-squeezed apple juice or orange juice. However, one should not make havdala over flavored beverages or other soft drinks, like grapefruit juice or Coca Cola, because they are not dignified beverages, merely drinks that quench one’s thirst. Some rule leniently even regarding these beverages, since one would serve them to important guests.
The stringent poskim maintain that only alcoholic beverages are considered ĥamar medina, because these are the beverages that people drink at collegial parties. Other drinks, however, are not so dignified and should not be used for havdala. According to this, one may make havdala on beer and other alcoholic beverages, but not on coffee, malt beer, or fruit juice.
In practice, one should be stringent and make havdala over alcoholic beverages only. Only if these are unavailable, then be-di’avad one may make havdala on dignified non-alcoholic beverages.
. There are many different positions on this question. Tzitz Eliezer 8:16 writes, based on a number of Aĥaronim, that one may make havdala on black coffee and the like. SSK 60:6-7 is also inclined to be lenient regarding coffee, but writes that one should not make havdala over soft drinks. R. Mordechai Eliyahu and R. Dov Lior are lenient and allow havdala to be made over soft drinks as well (Ha-morim Ba-keshet, p. 14). This is also the opinion of R. Naĥum Rabinovitch (Melumdei Milĥama, p. 206). In contrast, R. Ovadia Yosef (Yabi’a Omer 3:19) mentions opinions of stringent Aĥaronim who insist that havdala may be recited only over alcoholic beverages. He rules stringently in practice because this could involve a berakha le-vatala.Since there are differing opinions, one should not make havdala over a non-alcoholic beverage. However, it seems that under extenuating circumstances, when one is unable to attain wine or alcoholic drinks, he may rely on the lenient opinions. After all, there are Rishonim who maintain that one may recite the berakha of Ha-mavdil without any beverage at all. Maharam of Rothenburg quotes this position in the name of R. Simĥa. Tur states that this position is also found in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer. Furthermore, it would seem to be the position of Rif and Rosh, who maintain that in a case where one must do melakha before making havdala over a cup of wine, he should say the berakha of Ha-mavdil, including God’s name, even without a cup of wine, and do what he needs to do. Later on he should make havdala over wine. Even though the halakha does not follow this opinion, we nevertheless see that some say one may recite ha-mavdil without wine. Therefore, in a case of necessity one may rely on those who permit making havdala over a dignified non-alcoholic beverage.