Naturally, you can ask for a nip of whiskey. A toot. A tot, a wee one. Or just a whisky. But there is something I find very satisfying in the word ‘dram’.
It can act as a noun -‘Can I have a dram of your finest whisky?’
And on the odd occasion as a verb: -‘You dramming?’
To which the response is of course: -‘I’m dramming.’
But why is it called a dram, and exactly how much whiskey is a dram? Let’s discuss.
The history of the word dram
The word dram comes from Ancient Greece, and the word ‘Drackhme’. Drackhme referred to coins and appeared in the bible to mean a unit of treasure. The term made it’s way to Britain through its Latin translation (Dragma), then into Old French and finally into Old English. During this time, the word described the physical weight of an object.
Used by Shakespeare
Dram was a term for an apothecaries’ weight, of one-eighth of an ounce. Shakespeare used the word in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo says: ‘Let me have A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear As will disperse itself through all the veins That the life-weary taker may fall dead.’
What’s interesting is that the ‘modern translation’ in No Fear Shakespeare translates that line to ‘Let me have a shot of poison, something that works so fast that the person who takes it will die.’ I’m not sure who translates Shakespeare into modern language (although 16-year-old me is eternally grateful for his efforts). But what is interesting is that the translator chooses to turn the word ‘dram’ into ‘shot’.
When did it start to relate to whisky?
In my research, I wasn’t able to find the time when the word dram transitioned from quantifying solids into quantifying liquids, or why the term became so popular in Scotland. But near is I can tell, this was the route that the word dram entered into the whisky lexicon.
How much is a dram?
Now the interesting question is how much is in a dram of whisky? If it was one-eighth of an ounce to an apothecary, how much is a dram for a whisky drinker?
Naturally, it depends on who is pouring. You can have a house dram, and when you’re pouring it for yourself, it can be rather generous.
Now, I have heard that a dram is the amount of whisky that can fill someone’s mouth. I think this definition is slightly subjective and disgustingly inadequate. Although somehow it sounds less disgusting than drinking by the gill, which is how we used to drink in the UK.
A gill was a fairly useless measure because it was too small for beer and too large for a whisky. Whiskey came in a sixth, a fifth or a quarter of a gill (or 35.5, 28.4 or 23.7 in ml). There could be regional variations in dram size, with the amount usually becoming bigger the closer the drinker was to London.
In the 1970s, Ireland and the UK chose to adopt the metric system and spirits came in millilitres. In Ireland, a standard dram remained at 35.5 ml (the same as a quarter gill) however, in the UK, publicans can choose whether to serve a dram of either 25 ml or 35 ml.
Some people to say 25 ml should be a ‘dram’ and 35 ml should be a ‘large dram’. But there isn’t an official definition of a dram in the UK.
Dram is defined in the United States
But a dram is defined in the US by the United States Customary System. This system is responsible for setting the rules for length, size and volume unites like foot, acre and cubic inch. Interesting the dram defined by the US relates to the apothecaries’ system.
However, for most whisky drinkers, it’s not a useful definition. It refers to one-eight of a fluid ounce, less than a teaspoon, or barely enough whisky to get the sides of your glass wet. If you’re having even a modest whisky, you’d have 10 drams, and a cocktail might have as many as 16 drams.
In the UK, we could revert to DrinkAware says that 25ml of 40% ABV whisky is 1 unit so that a dram could be 1 unit of alcohol. However, 25ml of 48% ABV whisky is, according to DrinkAware 1.2 units of alcohol. So that’s not a good definition of a dram size either.
So, why is it called a dram of whisky?
Let's recap: The word ‘dram’ comes from the Ancient Greek Word’ Drackhme’. The term referred to coins and appeared in the bible to mean a unit of treasure.
Drackhme was translated into Latin, Old French and Old English before finally entering the modern lexicon. But no one is sure exactly when it started referring to whisky, rather than medicine. But I like to think that whisky is medicine.
So, let’s say that’s how it made the change. The amount of whiskey in a dram isn’t defined, but I think we can all agree that the first pour is hardly ever enough.
‘A Dram Please: Can We Have Official Name for Measure of Whisky?’ HeraldScotland, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13098939.a-dram-please-can-we-have-official-name-for-measure-of-whisky/. Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.
How Many Units and Calories Are in Whiskey? https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/alcoholic-drinks-units/units-and-calories-in-whiskey/. Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.
‘How Much Is a Dram of Whiskey?’ Bestdecantersets.Com, 1 Dec. 2016, https://bestdecantersets.com/whiskey/how-much-is-a-dram-of-whiskey.
No Fear Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet: Act 5 Scene 1 Page 3. https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/romeojuliet/page_252/. Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.
Scottish Word of the Week: Dram. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle-2-15039/scottish-word-of-the-week-dram-1-3647445. Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.
Waterbury, Margarett. ‘What’s a Whisky Dram? Depends on Who’s Pouring.’ The Whiskey Wash, 30 Oct. 2017, https://thewhiskeywash.com/lifestyle/whats-whisky-dram-depends-whos-pouring/.