Why is a measure of whisky called a dram?

There are lots of names for a measure of whisky. They include: a nip, a toot, a tot, a snifter, and a wee one. But the most common name for a measure of whisky is a dram. What does that name mean? And how big is a dram? In this article we're going to take a closer look, while sipping on an... ahem, you get our drift.

Word does the word dram come from

If we look back at the history of Ancient Greece we can find the word 'drackhme'. In the Ancient Greek language this meant coins. You can find the term in the bible, where it meant a unit of treasure. As the Roman's took over the Greek empire, 'drackhme' became 'dragma' in Latin. As the word went through Old French, and then into Old English, it evolved further. During this time the word meant the physical weight of an object. Finally, the shortened and Anglicised word "dram" started meaning a measure of whisky.

Shakespeare's favourite drink was scotch

OK, we may have made that fun fact up. But the word dram appears in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo says "Let me have a dram of poison. Such soon-speeding gear as will disperse itself through all the viens. That the life-weary take may fall dead." Here we can see the term dram, which was one-eight of an ounce, used for something that was being drunk. Please don't drink poison, though.

If we look at the 'modern translation' in No Fear, Shakespeare translates that line into "Let me have a shot of poison." So, again the language is becoming closer to what we may recognise today.

How big is a dram?

So, enough of the history. How much is in a dram of whisky? Well, it does depend on who is pouring the whiskies. You can have a 'house dram', which can be as large as you like.

Now, I have heard that a dram is the amount of whisky that can fill someone’s mouth. But, this definition is subjective and 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 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. 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 35.5ml (the same as a quarter gill). In the UK, publicans can choose whether to serve a dram of either 25ml or 35ml.

Some people to say 25ml should be a ‘dram’ and 35ml should be a ‘large dram’. But there isn’t an official definition of a dram in the UK.

Why is whiskey called a dram, what does that name mean?A Dram in the United States of America

The United States Customary System do define a dram in the US. This system sets the definitions for length, size and volume unites like foot, acre and cubic inch. Interesting the dram defined in America relates to the apothecaries’ system.

But, for most whisky drinkers, it’s not a useful definition. It refers to one-eight of a fluid ounce, less than a teaspoon. Hardly 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. But, 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.

Why is it called a dram of whiskey?

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 evolved into Latin, Old French and Old English. Finally, it entered the modern lexicon. 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 we can all agree that the first pour is hardly ever enough.

So, whatever you're drinking. Whether its a small dram, or a double measure. A nip, a toot, a tot, a snifter, or a wee one. We're raising a glass of scotch to you all.

Slainte, Evan

Further reading: if you enjoyed reading this article, here are a few more:

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