Inside the storied hotel bar that claims to be the birthplace of the martini

Cocktail, bartender, martini, drinkSarah JacobsA bartender makes a martini at The Knickerbocker Hotel.

The official history of the martini is shrouded in mystery, and competing stories come from both the East and West Coast of the US. Despite the cocktail’s recipe being documented in the 1880s in Harry Johnson’s “Bartender’s Manual” (the first guide to the bartending trade), there’s still some debate as to where it came from.

Its West Coast origins involve stories of gold miners going to the bar after striking it rich. On the East Coast, however, its rumoured origin story takes place in the heart of New York City and involves the wealthy Astor and Rockefeller families.

The storied birthplace of the martini is The Knickerbocker Hotel, which was opened by John Jacob Astor IV in 1906, in New York City’s Times Square. Back then, rooms averaged around $US3.25 per night, and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and George M. Cohan were frequent guests.

The Knickerbocker, subway entranceSarah JacobsThe old entrance to The Knickerbocker Hotel.

Guests would enter the Knickerbocker’s speakeasy via a door located underground in the Times Square shuttle stop. The door, though no longer functional, can still be seen in the Times Square station today. Once they entered, they’d see bartenders who were busy serving a roster of guests that included oil tycoon and millionaire John D. Rockefeller.

It was Rockefeller who was supposedly served an eponymous cocktail by then-bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia. Made with gin, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, citrus bitters, orange bitters, and garnished with a lemon twist, the original martini recipe is still served at the new bar inside the recently reopened and landmarked Knickerbocker Hotel today.

Cocktail drink, bar, martiniSarah JacobsA martini.

While Astor died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the Knickerbocker Hotel didn’t close until 1921, and the building went through several renovations, including a stint as the Newsweek Building in the ’40s and ’50s.

The hotel reopened as the Knickerbocker Hotel in 2014, after a $US240 million renovation.

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