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Fib of the Week #12: “A dram is a larger measure, of 35mls.”

To think, it’s #FibFriday already, and this week we have an interesting one for you! Fib of the Week #12: “A dram is a larger measure, of 35mls.” You will find a couple of versions on this one, most commonly also citing 40mls were the exact measure is given. This is because until governments increasingly stepped in, a standard measure for drinks was the gill - one gill is defined as one quarter of a pint, or approximately 142 point it doesn’t matter mls. Even spirits could be bought by the gill, as attested by several fun and popular folk songs e.g. Byker Hill - and yes, that gill is a lot of gin (for a right rollicking raucous, the liveliest clamjamfry, I heartily recommend the version by Bellowhead, that may at times also feel like having a gill of gin). Standard measure for spirits in a Scottish pub would be commonly the quarter gill, with fifth gills also being popular (35.5 mls for the quarter, 28.4 for the fifth). There were also either the half gills or the wee half gills (~70mls and 53mls respectively), from which we get the classic a hauf an’ a hauf, particularly of Glasgow pubs, with a half pint of beer served with either half gill of whisky, that measure continuing well into the latter half of the 20th century (mixing optional towards the end - all Scots can drink, particularly the Glaswegians!). With metrication, Scottish bartenders were given the option of either 25 or 35ml measures as standard at the discretion of the proprietor, although some strange sods managed to get away with 40ml measures as standard, which is why you will also sometimes hear it as the standard Scottish measure, and another touted “correct volume” for a dram.

There have been a lot of numbers in this post already, for which we do not apologise. We hope to make them fun. But the simple fact is all of the above, at least with reference to defining the word dram - all of that is complete and utter codswallop. There have been many, many other proposed definitions for a dram, with varying levels of historical accuracy, some of which we will go into below. But to save anyone less interested a bit of reading here are the simple facts - there is no established, verified or coherently attested volume to which we might ascribe the word dram. Anyone who tells you there is is lying to you. The best definition we’ve heard, however, is a simple one - a dram is any mutually acceptable measure of whisky, agreed between the person pouring and the imminent imbiber. Isn’t that just how whisky is? Communal camaraderie at its best. 😉

Ever the classicist, one of my favourite attempts to define the dram relies on etymology, claiming that dram is a contraction of drachma, the old Greek unit of measurement. This, like others, doesn’t bear up. Some people might get angry about this, but there is no convincing proof that the alchemical measure drachm could convincingly be conflated with the modern liquid pour, a dram. However much Wikipedia of all places may choose to list dram as an alternative British spelling. The drachm is an alchemical measure, obviously derived from the Grecian or Roman drachma (4.37 and 3.41g respectively). Like many other liquids, whisky weighs about the same as water, almost exactly 1 gram per millilitre. The original drachma is clearly far too small a measure for a dram. What about the alchemist’s drachm? On the face of it, whisky making and distillation were seen as alchemical processes. There might be something here, you scratch your chin excitedly. Yes, you shout exuberantly, when you discover that furthermore, The British Weights and Measures Act of 1878 set up an established standard for alchemical measures, and the drachm specifically at 28 grains. 28, ha ha, you clap ecstatically, exactly the measure of a fluid ounce, or near as damn it.

But… It’s not… What is a grain? Well, it certainly isn’t a gram. In fact, it is a now obsolete unit of measure itself also originally from the alchemical system, approximating an ideal seed of whichever grain. As it turns out, that makes its mass 64.79891mg (just over half of one tenth of a gram for anyone really struggling). 0.06479891 times 28 gives you 1.8144g - or quite disappointingly less, we would wager, than a single sip of whisky. How sad… 😢 This attribution comes about in the way old, mainly ancient as well as some mediaeval etymologists would create false history, by wrongly attributing the same origin or meaning to a word that bears obvious surface similarity. Drachma, drachm, dram. Without enough linguistic analysis of how languages change over time. A linguistic historian will know the theory and explain it better than us, but we’re pretty sure it’s unusual for a harsh ‘ch’ to soften so much that it disappears completely, without being replaced by something else, especially in only around 1 to 2 centuries. Dram simply are not that old.

There is another story that the origins of the word dram date back to Scots in the British Raj. There, a standard measure of spirits would now be called a ‘peg’, approximately 50ml. In this context, the word dram was apparently given to measures of approximately 3 fingers of whisky, which might give roughly the same volume as the modern peg (unless of course you have very chubby fingers or are being greedy and sticking them vertically end-on-end - thus giving yourself, incidentally, a lot more whisky!). Although this might have been a local definition in one time and place, we have yet to see any convincing argument for how it communicated itself to Scotland, or convincing explanation of the word dram itself applied in this context as opposed to local terminology. Or why it would then communicate itself back to Scotland. Three sounds nothing like dram in either Hindi or Punjabi. This didn’t stop Eden Mill doing something with the story, though, when there was some talk a couple of years back that they were allegedly considering that they might name their blended whisky Three Fingers. Thankfully, they didn’t, as we’re pretty sure anecdotally that most people would have seen a… *very different* sort of reference, and might have been none too pleased indeed.

There will no doubt be other stories, and other people telling what is truly, correctly, definitely, the right measure for a dram. Don’t listen to them. Dram is just a Scottish word for a(n acceptable) measure of whisky. While there may be a few contenders in Scots for words that may been mentally associated with the whisky making process and contracted to form the word dram (our favourites are ‘drammock’ - a mixture of raw oatmeal and cold or hot water sometimes used to make a poultice; and ‘drammlick’ - the small residual flakes of oatmeal that stick to the bowl when making oatcakes), both etymology and any standardised measure lost to time. Likely, the latter even didn’t exist. So, happily pour a dram with friends. Sip and enjoy your way, as long as it’s responsibly. Don’t worry about pouring any exact measure. It’s more fun that way. We can certainly guarantee. Slàinte! 🥃


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