At the three-martini lunch of the ‘50s through the ‘70s, high-rolling businessmen got together over steaks and knocked back a few cocktails to close a deal, expensing every last drop. In those days, companies were allowed to write off 100 percent of the booze-besotted lunches as business expenses, so everybody won. But a 1986 change in the tax code meant that suddenly businesses could deduct only 80 percent of expense-account expenses; in the ‘90s the rate was reduced again to just half, and suddenly corporate budgets didn’t have room for martinis.
At the same time, the War on Drugs got under way, and the public paid more attention to alcoholism and drunk driving, which lent a new stigma to on-the-clock inebriation. Conferences and after-work networking functions became the last places where it was still acceptable to knock back a few; otherwise, the party was over, and workplace drinking waned, even in party environments like winning locker rooms. “When I played in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we had beer in the locker room after the games and beer on the bus,” says a baseball scout for the major leagues. “But now players are a lot more conscious of what they put in their bodies, and teams are protecting themselves—if a guy has three or four beers in the locker room and then goes out and gets in a car wreck, the team is liable.”
Today, about 15 percent of employed people nationwide still drink during lunch, on coffee breaks, or before work, according to a study published last January by SUNY Buffalo researchers. Among the likeliest workers to imbibe on the clock are folks in sales, management, food preparation and service, building maintenance, construction and mining, trucking and transportation, sports, and a range of creative fields, including the arts, design, entertainment, and the media.
“Christopher Hitchens used to come in for meetings at 11a.m. drinking some kind of brown liquor and smoking a cigarette,” says a former editorial assistant at Vanity Fair. In publishing, lunchtime drinks are sometimes a job requirement. “One way to get on an author’s good side is to go boozing with him, if that’s his thing,” explains book editor John Rauschenberg. “So every once in a while, you’ll go to a lunch with a writer and end up having several mixed drinks, really tying one on, and not going back to work that day.”
An Image to Uphold
The last strongholds of daytime drinking may be some high-tech, consulting, and advertising firms, judging by reports. “I actually feel self-conscious if I order a Diet Pepsi,” says Rudy Geronimo, an event planner who works in San Francisco’s video-game industry, “because the only things I ever see people get are water, beer, and wine.”
There are tales of companies setting up bars in the office around 5 p.m., even with three-plus hours of work left to go; beer- and wine-stocked fridges that regularly get depleted throughout the day; off-site meetings and company retreats with open bars. “One time we had this competition between different departments to see which one could invent the best cocktail, and the winner would have its drink served at all of the agency-wide meetings from then on,” says Amanda MacLaren, who works at an ad agency in San Francisco. MacLaren speculates that the youth of her coworkers (under 40) has something to do with it, as well as the nature of the industry itself: “The people on the media side get schmoozed by sales reps when they go out to lunch, and on the creative side it’s kind of this idea that, ‘We’re artists, so we should be partiers.’”
And then there’s the food-service industry. “Oh yeah. In the places where I’ve worked, everyone in the kitchen drinks on the job—sous chefs, line cooks, everyone,” says a server at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York who formerly worked at Chez Panisse. “It’s the only way to get through it. Servers do it too, though it’s more just drinking small amounts steadily throughout the night, as opposed to taking shots. When you’re waiting tables, you want to get a nice buzz going and become more personable.” When I asked him if that was why, on my recent visit to his workplace for an early dinner, our server (his coworker) had seemed a little spaced out, I got set straight: “That was too early for him to have been drunk—he was probably stoned. It’s ‘Come in stoned, leave drunk.’”