The term dram originates from Scotland and is a synonym for one serving of Whisky. However, a dram of Whiskey is a very flexible unit to measure the amount of spirit.
Initially, it referred to a small amount, less than 5ml: 3.69ml or 1/8 of a fluid ounce. However, in daily use, that would be pretty impractical. -Especially, when ordering a dram of Whiskey (imagine getting served such a tiny portion). So some adjustment was inevitable.
Also, a wee dram, wee means a little in Scotland and Ireland, can turn out quite a lot when dramming with your best friends.
So, let's see what a dram Whiskey is and why it is called a dram Whiskey in the first place.
Dram size around the world
As the UK and Ireland adopted 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 to choose 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 exactly making it easier to understand the dram size. So, read on to learn how the various measurements came about.
Origin of dramming
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 amount of Whiskey you feel comfortable with at the moment. You see, that may vary 😉
Therefore the Scottish are using some additional terms to specify the amount further: The dram size ranges 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 intend 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, the other the fluid dram we know from drinking Whiskey. It initially equaled 1/8 oz of the spirit.
However, at one point, the British Empire decided that, from 1973 on, the Anglo-American measurement system should gradually be replaced by the metric system. Then, a dram 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 that, 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.
History of the word dram
Dram as a term for a weight measure originates from the ancient Greek term Drachma.
A Drachma had been the currency, a coin, actually, of 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 is now kind of standardized for pubs and restaurants, it still widely varies for private events or Whiskey distillery tours. Some serve less, some more.
By the way, should you be looking for distillery tours serving drams on the stiff end of the scale, I recommend visiting distilleries on Islay.
If you're still confused about the size of a dram by all the numbers, 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.”