Why is it called a dram of whisky?
J.B. Phillips said: "If words are to enter men's minds and bear fruit, they must be the right words shaped cunningly to pass men's defenses and explode silently and effectually within their minds."
I really like that quote because, to me, the word dram fits well into that category that bears fruit. It’s a word that’s uniquely linked to whisky. You wouldn’t order a dram of gin. I mean you could, but you’d look like a fool. And no one wants that.
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 word dram itself can be traced back to Ancient Greece, and the word ‘Drackhme’. This was used to refer to coins and appears in the bible to mean a unit of treasure. The word 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 was used to describe the physical weight of an object.
This is what lead to the dram being used as a term for an apothecaries’ weight, of one eighth of an ounce. This was the term that Shakeapeare used 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 actually translates Shakespeare into modern language (although 16-year-old me is eternally grateful for his efforts). But what is interesting is that the translator choose to translate the word ‘dram’ into ‘shot’.
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.
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, 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.
This was a fairly useless measure because it was too small for beer and too large for a whisky. Whiskey was served in either a sixth, a fifth or a quarter of a gill (or 35.5, 28.4 or 23.7 when measured 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 at which time spirits began to be measured 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.
This has led some people to say that 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.
But a dram is actually defined in the US by the United States Customary System. This system is responsible for defining the rules for length, size and volume unites like foot, acre and cubic inch. Interesting the dram defined by the US relates back 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 has as many as 16 drams.
In the UK, we could revert to DrinkAware says that 25ml of 40% ABV whisky is 1 unit, so 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, let’s recap: The word ‘dram’ comes from the Ancient Greek Word ‘Drackhme’. This was used to refer to coins and appears in the bible to mean a unit of treasure. This 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/.