The term Dram itself originates from Scotland and is a synonym for "one serving of Whisky." However, a dram Whiskey is a very flexible unit to measure the amount of spirit. A "wee dram," wee means a little, can be significantly more when you're dramming with your best friends. So let's find out what a dram of Whiskey is and why it is called a dram Whiskey in the first place.
Where the dramming began
The first country to call a glass of Whiskey a dram was Scotland. It is an unofficial measurement, best described as the "amount of Whiskey you can swallow at once." When you pour for yourself, a dram is just the right amount of Whiskey that you feel comfortable with at the moment. You see, that may vary 😉
To further specify the amount, the Scots use some additional terms. The dram’s size can vary from a "wee dram" over a "healthy dram" to a "stiff dram." For most of us, dramming in company tends to create drams on the stiffer edge.
The dram as a unit in the British measurement system
They could have left it at the free interpretation of a dram. But while this certainly makes sense when poured at home, it is different if you desire to sell Whiskey by the dram. Then you are going to need a more precise definition.
Dram, as a unit of measurement, exists in two ways. One is a weight measure, and one is the "fluid dram" we know from drinking Whiskey. It initially equaled 1/8 oz of the spirit.
When the British Empire decided that from 1973 on, the Anglo-American system of measurement should gradually be replaced by the metric system, a dram, therefore, represented as little as 3.55ml. Dramming, in this case, would not have been much fun, as this is barely enough Whiskey to moisten our mouth - Surely a dram on the wee side.
So this impractical size of a dram definitely needed adjustment. And for this we need another measure: In the old times, the unit of choice in British pubs was the gill. A gill is the same as a quarter pint, a weird size as it is way too small for a beer and too much for an average Whiskey. Therefore, spirits got served in quantities like 1/6, 1/5, or 1/4 of a gill. That converted to shots with 23.7ml, 28,4ml, and 35.5ml. So over time, these common parts of a gill got called a dram. So the size of a dram still varied regionally, but now there was a smaller range. As a rule of thumb, you could apply the "Distance to London rule." The further away from London, the more Whiskey equals a dram.
Dram size around the world
As the UK and Ireland started adopting the metric system, the measures were standardized and converted to milliliters. Ireland decided to continue the classic 1/4 gill, converted to 35.5ml as standard dram. In the UK, it's up to the pub or bartender, choosing between serving 25 or 35ml per dram.
In other countries, the size of a dram will vary as well. Ordering a dram Whiskey in Germany can get you a serving of 20ml or 40ml. Most of the time, it will be 40ml, but you can't be sure unless it says so on the menu. Ordering a dram of Whiskey in France will most certainly get you a serving of 30ml. And the list goes on. There are different amounts for almost every country. And that is not making it easier to get a grip on the dram size.
History of the word dram
Dram as a term for a weight measure originates from the ancient Greek term "Drachma". A Drachma is a currency, a coin actually, used in ancient Greece until 2002. Then it was replaced by the Euro. Its Latin translation "Dragma" was adopted by the French and continued the journey from there into English-speaking countries. And that was when it became a dram and was used to measure the physical weight of objects.
Even though a dram now is standardized for pubs and restaurants, it still widely varies for private events or Whiskey distillery tours. Some serve less, some more. By the way, if you are looking for distillery tours serving drams on the stiff end of the scale, I recommend visiting distilleries on Islay. It seems they make friends fast 😉
If you still don't know what a dram is exactly, the following quote by an unknown genius will clear it up:
"A dram is a measure of Scotch determined only by the generosity of the pourer.”