A “three martini lunch” is a long, leisurely lunch, usually associated with either business or backroom political dealings.
The three martini lunch had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, when attitudes about alcohol were more relaxed. It conveyed a sense of ease and a clubbish, exclusive world. Lawyers, advertising executives, and of course politicians are all closely associated with the three martini lunch.
As Forbes has noted, the three martini lunch was both ridiculed and envied. It was seen as a mark of success for the professional man. In fact, a brand of polyester suits even began bragging that their fabric stood up well to the rigors of the three martini lunch:
It seems fair to describe the luxurious lunch as a coveted mark of success, albeit one reserved for specific male, white, well-educated professionals. Hence its utility as an advertising tag line in those suit advertisements — it sent exactly the right sort of message to exactly the right sort of person with exactly the right sort of disposable income.
But the three-martini lunch is more than just another old-fashioned business practice. There is a long-standing debate over whether such a lunch should be tax-deductible, and what the implications of that would be for the larger economy.
In 1961, President John F Kennedy called for drastically reducing “luxury” deductions. Presumably, that included the classic three martini lunch.
Kennedy said that widespread deductions were “distorting” America’s social structure and eroding the nation’s sense of fair play:
In recent years widespread abuses have developed through the use of the expense account. Too many firms and individuals have devised means of deducting too many personal living expenses as business expenses, thereby charging a large part of their cost to the Federal Government. Indeed, expense account living has become a byword in the American scene.
This is a matter of national concern, affecting not only our public revenues, our sense of fairness, and our respect for the tax system, but our moral and business practices as well. This widespread distortion of our business and social structure is largely a creature of the tax system, and the time has come when our tax laws should cease their encouragement of luxury spending as a charge on the Federal treasury. The slogan–“It’s deductible”–should pass from our scene.
Jimmy Carter also criticized the three martini lunch, which he also called a “liquid lunch.”
In 1986, Congress finally amended the tax code so that business lunches could only receive an 80 percent write off. Notably, the liquid lunch was now called the two martini lunch. That tax write-off was later decreased to 50 percent.
Then in 2020, President Trump backed a law restoring the full, 100 percent write off for business lunches.
Supporters of the bills said it would boost the restaurant industry, which had been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics, however, said the law helped only a small part of society and failed to benefit unemployed Americans.
Said Sen. Ron Wyden: “Republicans are nickel-and-diming benefits for jobless workers, while at the same time pushing for tax breaks for three-martini power lunches. It’s unconscionable.”