The Knickerbocker – a Hotel and a Dry Martini

The Knickerbocker
The Knickerbocker, corner of Broadway and 42nd Street

There are West Coast and East Coast versions of the origins of the martini cocktail. The West Coast stories usually feature a rough character challenging a bartender to mix him a drink before venturing into the town of Martinez to search for gold, or an even rougher personage returning from Martinez with a fortune and a strong desire to reward himself with a new alcoholic beverage. In these stories, a bartender (often paid with a nugget of gold) complies and creates a syrupy concoction of sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and a bit of gin. From then on, Gold Rush adventurers could enjoy this sweet new martini mixture while daydreaming of the promised riches of Martinez.

We in New York, however, insist on another story. Our story involves the Knickerbocker Hotel (located in Times Square), John D. Rockefeller, and none of this maraschino liqueur nonsense.

The Knickerbocker
The Knickerbocker detail

Designed in 1906 by the firm of Marvin & Davis with Bruce Price as a consulting architect, the Knickerbocker Hotel is a striking presence. The Knickerbocker, one of the very few Beaux-Arts style grand hotels in the Times Square area, was financed by John Jacob Astor IV, heir to the enormous Astor fortune. Renowned for developing many upscale hotels in New York, he was equally famous for his disagreeable personality, marrying an 18-year-old at the age of 47, and taking his last voyage aboard the ill-fated Titanic.

Caruso’s wedding party on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel (New York), August 20, 1918. Left to right: Bruno Zirato (Caruso’s personal assistant), Dorothy Caruso, Enrico Caruso, Mrs. J. S. Keith

Constructed in the heart of the theater district, the Knickerbocker was intended to attract theater-goers and serve as a residence for artists. The most famous of these artists was Enrico Caruso, who lived there with his family until his death in 1921. Caruso’s daughter, by the way, was born in his hotel suite! The world-famous tenor chose the Knickerbocker for its proximity to the Metropolitan Opera which, at the time, was located on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets – fewer than three blocks away.

The Knickerbocker closed its doors in 1921, a mere 15 years after its grand opening, in all likelihood falling victim to the Prohibition. The hotels could not survive without serving alcohol, considering that the hotel bars were patronized by the rich and the powerful… leading us back to the story of the martini.

The Knickerbocker Hotel had a bartender by the name of Martini di Arma di Taggia who invented a drink of gin, dry vermouth, bitters, lemon peel, and one olive for John D. Rockefeller. According to the story, Rockefeller loved the drink so much that he introduced the cocktail to his business associates, making it THE drink of Wall Street. The story does have its slight rub with the truth since John D. Rockefeller famously never had a drink in his life. But facts are known to spoil the best legends!

Clark Gable ran the damp cork around the lip of the Martini glass

The dry martini became extremely popular, the dryer the better. According to Churchill, “The only way to make a Martini is with ice-cold gin, and a bow in the direction of France.” Hemingway’s version was a “Montgomery Martini”: 15 parts gin to one part vermouth. (The name referred to the British General Bernard Montgomery, who never joined a battle unless he outnumbered the enemy fifteen-to-one.) Swirling vermouth around in the glass before dumping it was LBJ’s preferred method. The “dryest” options belonged to Alfred Hitchcock, whose recipe called for “five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth,” and to Clark Gable, who ran a vermouth cork around the rim of his glass.

The hotel that invented the dry martini, or at least made it popular, bears the name Knickerbocker, a term coined by Washington Irving. Washington Irving, the first American man of letters, was shocked by the ignorance of his contemporaries since most 19th-century New Yorkers had no idea that their city started as a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. He wrote a book entitled A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, presumably written by a fictional pedantic historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Ever since then, the term Knickerbocker came to denote a native New Yorker.

The Knickerbocker Hotel reopened in 2015 as a luxury hotel that takes its history very seriously and proudly serves the Knickerbocker Martini. Try it.

And here it is, the legendary Knickerbocker Martini. We invite you to join us here at Charlie Palmer at The Knick to try the classic cocktail yourself!


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