A Three-martini lunch refers to a business lunch where martinis or other alcoholic cocktails are ordered. Since the lunch is business-related, it is used as a tax write-off, despite the fact that the martinis are a frivolous, expensive, and unnecessary addition to a lunch and are solely there to soften up the parties involved.
The term three-martini lunch, therefore, refers to wasteful and unnecessary business expenses for which other tax-payers foot the bill.
It is not absolutely clear where this phrase came from, but it may have begun with a comment made by Florida Governor Reuben Askew on July 11, 1972, while speaking at the Democratic National Convention:
The business lunch of steak and martinis is tax-deductible, but the workingman’s lunch of salami and cheese is not.
Askew was talking about tax inequity. Then South Dakota senator, George McGovern, who was running for president on the Democratic ticket in 1972, may have been recalling Askew’s comment when he said:
The rich businessman can deduct his three-martini lunch, but you can’t take off the price of a baloney sandwich.
Jimmy Carter later attacked tax-loopholes and expense-account abuses, calling the three-martini expense-account lunch a disgrace. Carter is often given credit for coining the phrase but his use of it came later. He also said that he did not care if they had three-martinis, he only cared who paid for it.
Earlier, George McGovern had attacked Carter for “trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the jobless.”
The three-martini lunch has also been called a “martoonie.”