Everyone has probably heard the term “dram of whisky”, but few people in the modern era know where the term came from. What is interesting, besides the etymology of the word, is how widely the interpretation of a dram varies from pub to pub – and between the UK, US and other parts of the world. Let’s get a sense, though, of what it is.
What is a Dram of Whisky?
Dram is often referred to “any amount of whisky that can be swallowed in one mouthful.” The term “dram” in English literally means “drink”, so it is not necessarily restricted to be used for whisky or spirits – however, the usage has been such that quaint expressions like “a wee dram of whisky” have stuck. As mentioned below, the term came from an old Greek coin. There are different interpretations of the exact weight. Some could joke and say that the definition depends on who’s asking and who’s pouring.
There are some formal measurements available, though they vary from country to country. For example, the US Customary System defines a dram as 1/8 of a fluid ounce of whisky by weight. That is not a practical definition for pours of whiskey, since the amount is less than a teaspoon.
A Scottish definition of the dram is closer to what may be practical – it is 1/13 of a pint or approximately 43 ml. This is what fits into “dram measures” that are a couple of centuries old. It’s hard to tell if those measures were upgraded from an earlier, smaller measure or if that’s the way it has always been – but certainly, those amounts are closer to a mouthful.
Where Did the Term “Dram” Originate?
The term originated from the name of the Greek coin “drakhme”. That translated into “dragmo” when it arrived in Britain, ultimately becoming “dram” up in Scotland. It was originally used as a measure of weight for substances like gold or gunpowder, where small weights were common. The term began to be used for whisky later, but at a time when good whisky was not readily available and sold for a premium. This may be the reason that small amounts of whisky were considered to be relevant measures in terms of serving a drink.
As times changed and the production of whisky kicked into a higher gear, a dram came to mean something different – a small or medium size drink, enough for one person to enjoy in one mouthful.
How much Scotch is in a Dram?
We discussed two “classical” or “formal” definitions of dram above. The first one, 1/8th of a fluid ounce, is definitely not usable in any practical sense. The Scottish definition presented above seems a better fit. But in practical terms, a dram is defined as follows:
A Dram in the UK
A dram is defined as a pour of whisky which is defined in units set by the National Measurement and Regulation Office, which requires that bars and restaurants serve spirits in a “normal” (read “standardised”) measure. Accordingly, if you order a dram of whisky at a pub, you will get either a 25 ml pour (just under a fluid ounce) or a 35 ml pour (about one a quarter fluid oz). A “double” will get you either 50 ml or 75 ml.
A Dram in the US
In the US, everything tends to be larger. A standard pour of whisky at a bar is called a “jigger”, which is one and a half oz. (just over 44 ml) – interestingly enough, this is actually close to the classic definition of the Scottish dram measure.
A Dram in India
India is another big whisky-drinking nation, the “peg” measure of whisky is actually a remnant of the British Raj days. It turns out that the “peg” is actually a double dram, or 50 ml, and a “chhota (small) peg” is 30 ml.
If all of this confuses you, you’re not alone. The trick is to think of a dram as the smallest standard pour of whisky you would get served at a drinking establishment if you asked for a small drink. By that measure, a dram is either 25 or 35 ml in the UK, and its equivalent, the jigger, is one and a half oz in the US. In other words, think of a dram as a “shot” of whisky, the kind you see hardboiled heroes chug at a rough and tumble bar before slamming the shot glass down on the table.
How Many Drams are There in a Bottle of Whisky?
A standard whisky bottle holds 750 ml. In the UK, the measure was 26 and 2/3 oz. till 1980, till the measure changed to a ml scale. Using the 1 oz “shot” or dram definition, then, a whisky bottle would hold just under 27 drams.
Using the US definition of a “shot” being 1.5 ounces, which is 44.36 ml, there are just under 17 shots (16.9 to be precise) in a full bottle of whiskey.
The Indian bartender has a much easier time – no decimals or fractions for him. A whisky bottle contains exactly 15 standard size pegs.
Since people use different measures for mixing drinks, there may be an easier way to keep track of how much you can pour out of a whisky bottle:
· 33 three quarter oz shots
· 25 one-ounce shots
· 16+ one and a half oz shots
· 12+ two-ounce shots
These are more practical measures which can be used to mix cocktails or pour sipping whisky portions into shot glasses.
The discussion above should have made it clear that the classical definition of a “dram” has practically no modern-day significance. A dram can best be described as a single-serve portion of whisky, which amount varies from place to place and country to country. By this point in time, it almost boils down to the eternal question “what’s in a name?”
Indeed, a dram is what you want it to be – not too much and these days, certainly not a tablespoon full of whisky.