By definition, an americano is a shot of espresso coffee topped up with hot water. It’s the espresso that distinguishes an americano from other black coffee. Whether it’s brewed, drip filtered or pressed, regular black coffee is just the coffee itself, with no added hot water. How did an americano get its name?
According to an NPR report about Italy’s coffee culture by Sylvia Poggioli, coffee has been quaffed in Europe since the 17th century when it was brought back from the East. “But it wasn’t until the invention of a steam-drive, coffee-making machine in the late 19th century that Italy gave the world espresso,” writes Poggioli. An espresso is a preparation method, rather than a roasting style, and is considered by many to be the purest essence of the coffee bean. Early pioneers of the espresso machine include Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni from Milan as well as Pier Teresio Arduino and Achille Gaggia.
Though there are slim pickings when it comes to actual evidence to support this theory, a popular tale about the origin of the americano is that its name is a nod to the US soldiers who fought in Europe in the second World War. The story goes that when American GIs were stationed in Italy, they found the espressos too bitter and the frothy cappuccinos too heavy. They were, the story goes, homesick for the dip-brewed diner coffee they got back home. In this version of events, the Italian baristas adapted the espresso by topping it up with hot water to make it more palatable for the Americans.
It’s a neat story but, alas, there is a reference to an americano coffee that pre-dates the second World War. The drink pops up in a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham, called Ashenden: Or the British Agent, published in the late 1920s. The stories are partly based on Maugham’s experience in the British secret service in Europe during the first World War. In one of the stories, Ashenden orders a drink called “an americano” in Naples during the first World War.
While the vast majority of American troops became embroiled in battles in France in the first World War, some were sent to Italy towards the end of the fighting. So it's possible that the American connection is true, but perhaps the timeline is a little off. You can read an account of the troops who arrived in Milan in 1918 written by military historian Matthew J Seelinger entitled Viva L'America! The 33rd Infantry on the Italian Front on armyhistory.org. This account does not mention americano coffee but the journey outlined is so epic one that one can only assume there was caffeine imbibed at some point along the way.