Your Second Third Drink

You should stop at three drinks. But you can stop there more than once.

Stephen Green, your faithful VodkaPundit, offers an important message on this St. Patrick’s Day. He cites Esquire‘s Ryan D’Agostino‘s endorsement of three as the ideal number of adult libations:

Empirically, there is no better number of drinks than three. Three drinks shoves you right up to the blurry border between you and drunkenness, a line in the sand that’s been washed over by a wave — you can still see it, but barely. It’s a thrilling place to be. You’re flying, feeling it, maybe spitting out the wrong word every now and then, maybe calling your sister for no reason, but you could still operate a forklift if you really had to. You can still hit the dartboard. One fewer and you’re drinking responsibly; one more and you’re walking on your knees and suggesting everybody go for karaoke.

The important thing is, you’re having the time of your life, but there’s no danger of missing the urinal when you take a leak. You feel fantastic, your cares have dissolved, and everyone is interesting. Every conversation is both funny and important. Good ideas seem brilliant. Semi-interesting theories fascinate. Plans are made, and they sound like fun. And if at the end of the night you get in a taxi and it goes the wrong way and you’re not exactly sure where you’re headed, everything will end up okay.

Here’s where I would ordinarily cite the sage advice of the late, great alcoholic Christopher Hitchens that, “Martinis are like breasts: One is one too few, while three is one too many.” But, no, Green advises, it’s all a matter of perspective:

Pause after your third cocktail. Spend some quality time with that “water back” you ordered with good intentions, but which you’ve left untouched thus far all evening. Step outside with that one friend who still smokes and steal a few drags or maybe even a whole ciggie. Make conversation, make friends, make for the appetizer menu. You’re in the Third Cocktail Zone — enjoy it.

Let your liver do its thing and metabolize some of that alcohol you pounded down over the last hour or so. Let your BA count, count down a few tenths. Then, and only then, do you order your fourth cocktail.

Your fourth cocktail is the one Chris Jones in the same Esquire piece says is “the gateway drink, the point of no return.” But if you take that refreshing pause, your fourth cocktail won’t be your fourth cocktail — it will be, and this is very important, your second third cocktail.

Now perhaps “second third cocktail” sounds to you like the kind of notion only a serious drinker, maybe even an incipient alcoholic, would come up with. And maybe you’re right, but I find it’s a vital distinction from “fourth cocktail,” which we can all agree really is nothing but trouble.

Your second third cocktail isn’t a point of no return — it’s an extension of that “thrilling place to be.” The second third cocktail doesn’t come easy — I was aiming for just that and overshooting it for years and years before I finally got good at hitting it. Youth and inexperience have lead many, perhaps millions, to going over the edge to the fourth cocktail when what they really wanted and needed was a second third.


As the longer discussion at the link makes clear, this mathematical principle can actually be extended to higher orders of third drinkedness. The bottom line is that you should definitely stop at three drinks. But you can stop there more than once.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    Dorothy Parker has the rebuttal to this:

    “I like to have a martini,
    Two at the very most.
    After three I’m under the table,
    after four I’m under my host.”

  2. Mikey says:

    It looks like a Negroni in the picture up top. It’s one of the classics and my current favorite cocktail.

    I’d recommend one variation on the “second third” theme when drinking Negronis: stop and wait after two rather than three, then have a “second second.” They are very easy to drink and deceptively strong. Three in a row will put me down pretty good, and I’m an inveterate boozer.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: The Vieux Carré is my current favorite. I”ll have to give the Negroni another shot. Campari was too bitter for my tastes back in the day but tastes evolve.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The bottom line is that you should definitely stop at three drinks. But you can stop there more than once.

    Tell that to the carpenter or iron worker who had to wake up the crane operator in his car for the 3rd time that week.

  5. Mu says:

    That’s why I like the German Masskrug. It’s easy to stop after three.

  6. Pinky says:

    Your second third cocktail isn’t a point of no return — it’s an extension of that “thrilling place to be.”

    I once extended it for six weeks.

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    These articles switch out “drinks” and “cocktails” interchangeably, which is infuriating. If I’m drinking a tasty but relatively weak stout, no, 3 drinks does not put me in that angelic zone. Nor will a 4th put me over the top. Nor will probably my 5th or 6th. Wine? Your fourth glass (5 oz) passes you out of the quiet contemplative zone to the “Name a subject, I have a coherent thought about it” zone, and only your fifth or sixth is a potential for danger.

  8. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Thanks a lot! (There’s always some RA out there to spoil the delusion for the rest of us ;-0).

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Theoretically at least, a drink is a drink. But, of course, it’s not. The aforementioned Vieux Carré is one shot of rye, one shot of cognac, one shot of sweet vermouth, a barspoon of Benedictine, and dashes of both Angostura and Peychaud’s biters. That’s essentially three drinks. I tend not to have three of those, stopping instead at two.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: Yowza! I think one of those would be my limit….

    One of the reasons why, if I’m having a cocktail, I prefer something with a lot of lemon juice and other fruit juices in it.

    Oh the hell with it–just serve me a tall glass of Bloody Mary Mix, leave out the vodka. I can go through many many glasses of that stuff.

  11. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner: You should try it again. The beauty of the Negroni is its simplicity: three ingredients in equal measures. And the beauty of that is no matter how many you have you still remember how to make the next one…

  12. Mikey says:

    @Neil Hudelson: My understanding is “back in the day” a drink wasn’t considered a “cocktail” unless it had some bitters in it.

  13. Joe says:

    @James Joyner: Similarly, Hitchens and Green can both be right. A proper martini includes a double shot of gin (not vodka), so two martinis gets you to your second third and three takes you no place good.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: Aside from the martini (needs an olive on a toothpick), aren’t all cocktails mandated by the Universe to have one of those little Japanese umbrellas stuck through a maraschino cherry on top? Or is that only for cocktails dating from the 50s?

  15. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: I can’t imagine the horror of a Negroni with a maraschino cherry in it, let alone one stuck to a paper umbrella. It would be like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa with a Sharpie.

  16. Tony W says:

    @Mikey: I do love me a Negroni – my wife thinks it tastes like ear wax.