Why "dram shop" laws, and the expression "dram drinking"?

For anyone unaware, dram shop laws exist to make bars and other establishments selling liquor potentially liable for damages, if they knowingly serve intoxicated patrons, or if they reasonably should have known. I believe most states have enacted them. Similarly, “dram drinking” was an expression used especially by 19th century prohibitionists to denote what went on in saloons. As such, it has an almost Hogarthian feel to it, e.g. his engraving of a tavern sign “Drunk For A Penny, Dead Drunk For Tuppence”

Now a dram is about an eighth of an ounce. Nobody drinks by the dram, and a couple of drams wouldn’t begin to get any typical adult drunk.

So given that a dram is so small, how did the word come to figure in expressions alluding to excessive or dangerous consumption? Were distilled spirits typically much stronger back in the day? I know they couldn’t possibly have been more than about 2 1/2 times stronger that 80-proof is today, but at least there we’re getting to a level where a couple of drams would be close to a standard 1 1/2 ounce shot.

Granted, enough dimes will make a dollar and enough drams will make one or more shots. But that seems like a slow way to tie one on, if that’s your intention.

I think it’s just being used as slang for any type of bar, as insinuated here:

While a dram in the scale of apothecaries’ weights signifies one-eighth of an ounce, it has long had a slightly looser meaing of “a small measure”. Beer was sold in large measures (e.g. pints) but spirits in small measures; “dram”, with reference to alcohol, never refers to beer or indeed wine; it’s always spirits. And, while beer was the healthy honest drink of the sturdy yeomen of England, spirits were a mother’s ruin. So a dram-drinker was not just any drinker of alcohol but specifically someone who drank spirits and, colloquially, someone who was addicted to drinking spirits. A dram-shop was not just any pub but one that catered particularly to dram-drinkers.

yes, the looser meaning is because you’d drink spirits by the dram, so it reduces to just dram.

In Monty Pythons Philosophers song, which is all about alcoholic philosophers, Hobbes was fond of his dram.

FWIW, relating to the word itself, the apothecary connection may be right. Grose (1811) gives it as:* a glass or small measure of any spirituous liquors, which, being originally sold by apothecaries, were estimated by drams, ounces &c.*

In current usage I think of it being pretty much exclusively Scottish. If I type <a wee> into google, the first thing it offers is <a wee dram>. Granted, the expression is a bit white heatherish*, but there you go.


It’s so dramatic.

In Norwegian “dram” still means a shot of a high proof liquor. The only people who know a different definition are chemists, who use small cylindrical capped flasks called “Dramsglass”, but these aren’t generally limited to being one or even a multiple of drams.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Selling alcohol in smaller quantities leads to a greater risk of excessive consumption–or at least, excessive consumption with undesirable social side effects such as drunk driving.

Among establishments that sell liquor, we have bars, clubs, and restaurants that serve alcohol, all of which sell liquor by the drink, with a limited dosage per serving–probably not a literal dram, but small enough to justify the collective term “dram shops”. And then we have liquor stores, which sell in much larger quantities, but you don’t consume it on the spot, and usually not all at once.

Many early temperance advocates found the first form of drinking to be more problematic than the second. A man drinking in his own home was (theoretically, at least) under the observation of his wife and children, but a man in a saloon was among other men and, temperance advocates believed, more prone to get drunk. That’s why we had the Anti-Saloon League and agitation against “dram drinking” and “liquor by the drink”.

Later on of course the automobile added issues with drunk driving to dram shop concerns, so that a bar or restaurant will face “dram shop insurance” costs that a liquor store doesn’t. The problem isn’t the “dram” itself, it’s that you drink it at the point of sale.

You sure about that?

Note the etymology of “dram”. Originates from Greek for “a handful”. So a shot, if anything, is on the small size of a handful.

People keep forgetting that sometimes an ancient word gets adapted for a particular modern use but that other meanings based on the origin still persist. E.g., “quantum”.

Holy shit. That is one depraved dude.

Emile Zola’s *L’Assommoir/I] gives you a fantastic view of Second Empire Parisian dram shops and their clientele. You’ll probably be a bit more sympathetic to the laws after reading it.

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor. . .

I have to dig up a video from Korea; one dude, sitting on the floor, knocked back seven bottles of soju. Keep in mind, that soju is between 16 - 53% ABV, so I’m sure his evening ends. . . entertainingly.

. . .

Found it.

I don’t know what the equivalent of “wee dram” is in Korean.

Merry Christmas.