AIMS: To investigate among adolescents whether (i) drinking motives are related to beverage preference; (ii) beverage preference is related to alcohol use (drinking levels and risky drinking occasions); (iii) the association between beverage preference and alcohol use is moderated or mediated by drinking motives. METHOD: Data from a national representative sample of 5379 8th-10th graders in Switzerland (mean age 15.1, SD = 0.95) were analysed using multiple regression analyses. Beverage preference was based on the proportion of a specific beverage in the total amount of drinks consumed at the last drinking occasion. Drinking motives were assessed by the drinking motive questionnaire revised (DMQ-R). RESULTS: A significant positive association was found between enhancement motives and a preference for beer and spirits; the association was negative with regard to a preference for wine and alcopops. Conformity motives were positively related to a wine preference but negatively to a beer preference. Only a preference for beer and spirits was significantly associated with alcohol use in models that exclude motives. However, the association between beer preference and adolescent alcohol use was mediated by drinking motives. A preference for alcopops and spirits was moderated by motives: social drinkers who preferred alcopops drank less than those who did not prefer alcopops. Coping drinkers who preferred spirits drank more than those who preferred other alcoholic drinks. CONCLUSIONS: Drinking motives are potential explanatory factors for the association between beverage preference and alcohol use. Prevention approaches should target coping motives, particularly for adolescents who show a preference for spirits.