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In search of the three-martini lunch

An essay examining the American cocktail culture

April 18, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Photos by Harry Katz

Classic Cocktails

In an age when vodka and Red Bull and Bud Light Lime are the drinks of choice, traditional cocktails have almost disappeared from people’s bar tabs. At Sycamore, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds aren’t even on the drink menu, but Head Bartender and Liquor Manager Damien Cooke continues to mix these time-honored drinks. Regulars order them, and Old Fashioneds, in particular, are making a comeback, Cooke says. For your next lunch with liquor or Mad Men watch party, drink like Don Draper, and try out some of these classic cocktail recipes.

• 2 oz. rye whiskey
• 0.75 oz. sweet vermouth
• 2 dashes bitters
• Shake with ice, and strain into a martini glass
• Serve with maraschino cherry

Old Fashioned
• 2 oz. bourbon whiskey
• 0.25 oz. simple syrup
• 2 dashes bitters
• 1 dash maraschino cherry juice
• Splash of soda
• Add flamed orange and cherry garnish
• Serve on the rocks in old-fashioned glass

• 2 oz. gin
• 0.75 oz. dry vermouth
• Shake with ice, and strain into martini glass
• Serve with bleu-cheesestuffed olive and pickled onion
• Make it dirty: Add some extra juice from the olive jar

Not even noon yet, and I’m sitting at Sycamore with one of my philosophy professors. At a table across from us, two women and a man who look to be in their 40s have just been seated. The woman closest orders a cola. A woman alone at a two-top behind us is drinking iced tea.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a Manhattan, my third cocktail of the afternoon, while Don Sievert, my dining partner, is finishing up his dirty martini. We’re the only ones in the restaurant with mixed drinks in our hands.
There’s no socially acceptable reason for me to be this drunk in the middle of a Tuesday.

This is a story about indulgence, of imbibing to the point of intoxication and well past it. But it’s a cultural anthropology, as well — an exploration of the meaning of drinking during the workday and an attempt to understand a tradition relegated to the dustbin of history.

This is a story about the three-martini lunch and my attempt to discover the limits and, dare I say it, the joys of drinking during the daytime.

I want to be clear here. I’m not advocating drinking to excess, though a large part of what I wanted to do involved going out in the middle of the day and getting hammered.

I’m no saint, but my regular alcohol consumption pretty closely mirrors the stereotypical college-aged American male. I don’t, to crib a line from Peter O’Toole, drink until I “roll under the table, in vomit and oblivion.” And I wouldn’t by most measures be considered a problem drinker.

But alcoholism is a serious issue in this country, and most countries, for that matter, so one of the worst things I could do is extol the virtues of getting trashed when, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 alcohol caused more than 25,000 deaths in the United States alone. And, mind you, that’s after you factor out drunk-driving accidents or homicides committed under the influence of alcohol.

So I get it. Alcohol, as a general rule, isn’t something to be treated frivolously.

But let’s view it from another angle. Alcohol is so infused in our culture that it’s inextricably bound to who we are or how we define ourselves socially.

Just look at the literature. Cicero points out that, “No one dances sober, unless he is insane.” And A. E. Housman reminds us that, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.”

Even the Bible extols the virtues of drinking in Proverbs. “Give strong drink to anyone who is perishing, and wine to the embittered; When they drink, they will forget their misery, and think no more of their troubles.”

All I’m really trying to say is that drinking is part of who we are. People have been enjoying the pleasures of alcohol for millennia, and even the most ardent teetotalers have to admit that drinking has historically played a pronounced role in cultural life.

There’s a reason Jesus deemed it important enough that he turned water into wine to let his friends have a rocking wedding rather than let the party run dry.

Drinking is just a part of civilization, and CDC data will never excise that fact from our zeitgeist.

But I wasn’t interested in exploring drinking in Biblical times or in the waning days of the Roman Empire.

What I wanted to explore was the culture of drinking that has been so stylishly evoked in Mad Men — that long period of unprecedented growth during the 1950s and ’60s when long lunch breaks were still par for the course and when getting nice and liquored up wasn’t just acceptable, it was a prerequisite for doing business.

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is just one evocation of that era, one my generation has come to fetishize.

The world it depicts, however, was just as well-documented at the time in the work of writers such as John Cheever, J.D. Salinger and John Updike, for whom alcohol, cigarettes and sex were about as ubiquitous as iPhones and lattes are today.

In Cheever’s 1952 short story “The Cure,” the narrator describes leaving the office at noon for a lunch date. “I went there early and drank a Martini at the bar,” he tells us. “I drank my drink and stared at the bartender’s wristwatch, which was hanging on a long-necked bottle of white crème de menthe. When Shea came in, I had two more drinks with him. Anesthetized by gin, I got through the lunch.”

I had these cultural markers in mind one afternoon at the Columbia Missourian when I was shooting bull with one of my editors. And so I made an off-the-cuff remark that I was going to single-handedly bring back the three-martini lunch.

She wasn’t kidding when she told me that I should go out for a round of said lunches and document the experience. “See what you actually get done afterward,” she says with a smirk.

Look, she tells me, my first summer internship when I was your age was at a railroad company in the late 1980s, and my bosses were still relishing the dying breaths of the three-martini lunch. They didn’t just go out to lunch and get so drunk that their productivity was shot for the rest of the afternoon, but as they were catching their trains out of Union Station in Chicago, they’d also buy a highball — usually a double — at a stand in the train station to stay well-lubricated on the ride home, where more martinis surely awaited them in a chilled pitcher.

This was the end of an era, she says. But was it really an era to be admired? Just look at the adultery, she says, the interminable afternoon naps, the booze-fueled confrontations, the latent misogyny and old-boys’ club mentality that Mad Men documents.

No, she says, don’t just go out, get drunk and look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Don’t glamorize a lifestyle that can throw your blood-alcohol content to 0.2 percent and send your car careening head-on into a pylon on the highway.

So a week later, I’m sitting at Sycamore doing “research” for the story by downing an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan and a dirty martini over a long lunch with a 70-year-old philosophy professor, Don Sievert.

Don and I go to lunch once a week, and when I’d first broached the subject with him about adding alcohol to our standard fare, he told me that he’d never heard the term three-martini lunch before.

He’d heard it called a martini lunch, but it certainly wasn’t something that he’d ever done or heard of people doing in Columbia in the ’60s and ’70s. To him, the martini lunch was something he’d always associated with business types and financiers — that whole lot — not academics.

But as long as he didn’t have to drink three of them, he was on board for a martini lunch.

That afternoon at Sycamore, Don and I are the only ones drinking. By the time I’m halfway through my second cocktail, I realize I won’t be able to even approximate productivity for the rest of the afternoon.

After lunch, I head to class. En route, I realize I smell like a liquor cabinet and detour to Starbucks for a venti Italian roast in the hopes that its over-roasted scent will mask the whiff of vodka.

Then I’m a couple minutes late walking into class. The professor addresses me because he wants to make sure I didn’t miss our updated reading schedule. I’m just hoping that he doesn’t notice that I’m moving a little more languorously than usual. Once I take my seat, a mad rush of questions comes to mind:

Does anyone know I’m drunk?

Is there some sort of university proscription against being intoxicated in class?

When did it become acceptable to get casually drunk to report a story about being casually drunk?

It all seems vaguely absurd, so I turn to two friends sitting next to me, smile broadly and mime, “I’m drunk.”
One of them whispers back: “You are a sad, strange little man. And you have my pity.”

During class, we discuss a work by Vance Packard on the advertising industry and media manipulation, which incidentally is so old it was written during the time of decadent martini lunches. But all I can do is think about how great a nap sounds. I don’t have any commitments so pressing that I can’t blow them off, so as soon as the longest hour and 15 minutes of my life elapses, I head home for a nap and suddenly feel kinship with the iconic image of Don Draper draped over his couch.

Once I sleep myself through my stupor, all my previous questions start to seem a little silly when I consider the fact that 50 years ago, a lunch of this nature would’ve been totally du jour.

How did anyone live like this?

To find the answer, I drive down Business Loop 70, just a few blocks east of the old Columbia Municipal Power Plant, to Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant. It’s in a building that has been there since the 1920s and for most of its history has housed either a beer house or a gourmet restaurant.

Inside, there are deep red leather booths and dark wooden fixtures. The restaurant still feels like an artifact of the 1950s.

Ken Applegate, who has owned Jack’s since the 1970s, has been in the restaurant business since 1955. As Ken and his wife, Melissa, sit down to talk, Ken starts regaling me with stories from his early years when he worked at Putsch’s 210, one of Kansas City’s toniest restaurants.

During those days, the mayor of Kansas City, the police chief, the founders of H&R Block and the founder of Hallmark Cards — just to name a few — would all come in to the restaurant for long lunches over drinks.

The thing you’ve got to understand, though, Melissa says, is that these lunches took place during the most successful time in our country’s history. We were experiencing unprecedented growth after World War II. There was still leisure time then, she says.

The three-martini lunch was also a place where deals were made, and in an era before Skype and conference calls, long business lunches were necessary, Ken says.

In that age, business people were still able to write off the lunches as fully tax deductable. But beginning with John Kennedy in the 1960s, a slew of politicians started calling for a decrease in the entertainment tax deduction.

Jimmy Carter stirred the pot during the 1976 campaign when he decried the ability of business tycoons to write off their “$50 martini lunches.” Gerald Ford later quipped: “The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at
the same time?”

Changes in tax laws were slow to come, but a decrease in leisure time and an increase in the penalties and enforcement of drunk driving laws started ushering out the martini lunch in the 1970s.

Ken and Melissa aren’t bemoaning the decline of the three-martini lunch. It’s just a historical fact, they say, not a thing to be mourned. Ken can count on one hand the number of times he’s been drunk before 5 p.m.

“Everything has changed,” Ken says. “Now everybody emails each other. You can close deals over email. You can close deals over Skype. You don’t have to meet up and drink.”

My, how things change. In today’s world, not only does it seem démodé to have more than a two-hour lunch break with heavy drinking, but also in most cases, the average worker will think less of you for having a beer or a glass of wine at a business lunch.

In a 2012 article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, two researchers coined the term “the imbibing idiot bias” to describe how a person’s intelligence is perceived when he or she orders an alcoholic beverage in a professional setting. They found the relationship between alcohol and the perception of cognitive impairment is so strong “job candidates who ordered wine during an interview held over dinner were viewed as less intelligent and less hirable than candidates who ordered soda.”

But not all companies have banished drinking completely from the workplace. A health care company in Florida has “Beer Cart Fridays,” when beer is distributed to employees to create a more collegial corporate climate. And this seems relatively tame when you consider that Yelp Inc. has a beer keg to which employees have unlimited access, and beer and wine are always in the office refrigerator at Twitter Inc.

I wanted to find out more about why tech companies seem to have a more laissez-faire approach to drinking on the job, so I called my friend Connor, a software engineer at Pinterest.

Oh yeah, he says, it’s standard to go out for a beer lunch with a few buddies. After lunch, we usually throw around the Frisbee for 15 to 30 minutes before getting back to work.

“It’s part of the technology culture in general out here,” Connor says. “It’s San Francisco, man. There are naked people walking around on the corner. People don’t really care what you do so long as things get done.”

But of course, beer lunches aren’t completely inhibiting your productivity the way a three-martini lunch is.

“It’s not like we’re getting tanked,” he says. “It’s like two or three guys sharing a pitcher.”

The thing was, I had committed myself to getting drunk over lunch. For my second lunch, I grab two editors from this venerable magazine to go to Bleu.

We each promptly order a drink — a dirty martini for me and Bleu Rosemary Lemonades for my cohorts. A couple in their 50s walks in. He orders a glass of wine, she a champagne.

So we start haranguing our waiter about what the drink sales look like at lunch, and he tells us that maybe 30 to 40 percent of customers order drinks at lunch. But it’s usually retired folks or people who have the day off from work. It’s uncommon to see a business group order drinks.

That week, though, he said a large business party had come in and ordered drinks for the table. They stuck to beer and wine, though. Not a single cocktail was ordered.

Meanwhile, I’ve just ordered my third — an Old Fashioned. We’re getting caught in the moment and talking a little more volubly, a little more boisterously.

Then it hits us. People are staring. They’re glaring as if we’ve done something wrong. Even the woman drinking out of a champagne flute at 1:30 p.m. is casting judgment in our direction.

I’m not sure whether they’re judging us because we’re buzzed at lunch or because we’re college students who are drunk at lunch. This question seems far less important by the time our creme brulee gets to the table.

After lunch I look up my BAC on this handy online calculator provided by the MU Wellness Resource Center. Based on my body type and the amount of alcohol, I’ve consumed in an hour and a half, my BAC is above 0.2.

In ominous tones, the site warns me, “You might not know where you are or what you are doing, walking may be difficult, emotions run high (aggressive, withdrawn, overly affectionate), vision is very blurry, you are very sleepy, and the sensation of pain is dulled.”

I guess that explains why everyone was staring.

Now, I could tell you what happened after we all left lunch. But I feel fairly confident that discussing all this would probably cause a public relations nightmare that is best avoided for all parties involved. My BAC, after all, speaks for itself.

Let’s just save the trouble and fast-forward to the next time Don and I get lunch, this time at The Wine Cellar & Bistro. Things are back to normal. He’s drinking a club soda, and I’m drinking a Coke.

We’re doing a post-mortem on our three-martini lunches and trying to put a finger on what made the experience worthwhile.

Surely, there’s something about those drink-based lunches worth reclaiming, we figure, and it’s not the experience of getting unequivocally obliterated at midday.

There’s a middle ground that can and should be appreciated between the nostalgia evoked by John Cheever and Matthew Weiner characters for drinks over a business lunch and a professional climate where your bosses will think you’re less intelligent for ordering a glass of cabernet with
your meal.

I’d like to think that this medium is being able to talk about Freud a little more freely with a long-time philosophy professor or being able to linger over a three-course lunch for almost two hours.

It’s not, after all, even the martinis that make the three-martini lunch worth savoring. It’s what the martinis represent: good conversation, good food, good times and, yes, good drinks. It’s about the ability to have leisure time, the comfort to truly enjoy yourself during a workday — being able to have lunch away from your desk and for more than 45 minutes without being constantly badgered by pressures, texts and emails.

How many times are the best conversations cut short by an email or a phone call? How many times do we go out for lunch and constantly have our eyes fixated on our cellphones? Just look around the dining room next time you go out to lunch. Look at all those phones.

I’d rather see drinks in those hands.

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