What Is a Three Martini Lunch?

Businessmen at LunchIf you recently entered into the business world, or have been attending meetings for your employer, you may have heard the expression “three martini lunch” bantered about. If you were born after “Cheers” became a hit TV show, or you think drinking booze before dinner is a big no-no, then you probably have no idea what exactly a three martini lunch is.

You could possibly be thinking that it can’t actually mean people have three martinis for lunch instead of food? Right? After all, wouldn’t that get someone really tanked in a hurry? And if so, such behavior would never go down during a formal business lunch, would it? Wouldn’t that mean the rest of the day is a write-off? What about work?

The reality is that “three martini lunch” became a mainstream expression, albeit more so three or four decades ago, because business lunches back then frequently involved tipping back a few cocktails―yes, shudder at the thought. Like any other expression, however, “three martini lunch” should not be taken literally. Meaning, martinis, and olives of course, weren’t the only things consumed.

Where does the term come from?

Unlike many terms, “three martini lunch” didn’t become a common phrase because it was said for the first time in a hit movie or written down in a famous novel. Instead, it came into common use because plenty of businessmen enjoyed chugging back a few martinis at lunch during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

If you’re shocked then you evidently haven’t seen television shows like “Mad Men.” Programs like this remind us of that having a few belts of liquor at work back then used to be as normal as smoking two packs per day…in your office. Times change.

Of course, in reality, not every man’s “cup of booze” back then was a martini; if you wanted to have a Scotch on the rocks, a Manhattan, or an Old Fashioned―Don Draper’s favorite―chances are no one gave a damn. In fact, more eyebrows were probably raised at a business lunch back then if you told the server, “No thanks; I’ll just have water.”

In addition, the term does not mean businessmen only had drinks at lunch; far from it. Since the meals could also involve ordering entrees like steak or lobster, the expression was also used to point out that businessmen had the time and money for long, expensive lunches. In other words, blue collar workers weren’t stepping out for filet mignon and a few whiskey sours during their lunch breaks.

Believe it or not, though, there was more behind “three martini lunches” than just getting hammered and wolfing down a porterhouse. While plenty of these booze-filled meetings likely got off track in a hurry, and then some, business matters were actually discussed. In fact, thousands of business deals were probably finalized. After all, who better to do business with then a guy that just helped you vomit into a garbage can?

Do people still have three martini lunches?

Yes, but not nearly as much. The thing is, in today’s business world, drinking during the day is not exactly considered “professional.” If you want to have a glass of wine or a pint of beer during a business lunch, no one will probably mind. If you come back to your office reeking of gin, slurring your speech, and tell a co-worker you’ve “always had a crush on them,” your climb up the corporate ladder will likely reverse as quickly as a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Then there’s also the fact that many of today’s businesses and corporations encourage their employees to live a healthy lifestyle, rather than getting loaded at lunch several times a week. There’s also much more awareness today about the dangers of drinking and driving, which is another key reason “three martini lunches” aren’t as common as they used to be.

That’s not to say “three martini lunches” don’t still happen, of course. Depending on the businesses and people involved, tipping a few drinks back together can still be a good way to talk shop and work on new deals. In fact, whether it’s due to shows like “Mad Men” and the recent economic downturn, some business publications like Business Week  and the International Business Times have been calling for more meetings that at least resemble “three martini lunches”, not less. Let the good times roll.

Can I write these lunches off?

Another reason the expression became a common one, when there was still a thing called the Soviet Union, was because American tax laws allowed people to write off “three martini lunches” as a business expense.  As in, lobsters, martinis, tip, and all.

This didn’t sit well with the Carter Administration, however, and although President Jimmy Carter and his supporters were unable to change the law, over the years the exemption has been reduced. During President Reagan’s tenure, the amount you could write off was reduced to 80%, and in the 1990s, under President Bill Clinton, it was furthered reduced to 50%. Still, what’s not to like about a half-priced martini?

What is a three martini lunch?