What Does "Pure Malt" Mean
Single malt, vatted, single malt - some definitions
Single malt whisky is a whisky made entirely from malt, from one source (distillery). It does not necessarily come from a "single" production batch, or even from the same vintage. The youngest age can be indicated. For example, Macallan, Laphroaig, etc...
Cask malt whisky is a whisky made entirely from malt, usually a blend of whiskies from different sources (distilleries). It is not necessarily the same vintage. It can say the youngest age. It is also often simply indicated as "malt whisky". Example. Poit Dhubh, The Bennachie.
Single malt whisky is a whisky made entirely from malt. There is no sign of origin, so it may be a single malt whisky or a cask strength malt whisky and is usually found in both. It does not necessarily have to be the same vintage. The youngest age may be noted. For example, Glenfiddich, Poit Dhubh, and The Bennachie are all single malts (as are all single or fermented malts). Pure does not mean that there is no caramel in them.
Note that Glenfiddich, while certainly a single malt (from a distillery), is labeled "pure malt". There are other examples of single malts that are labeled this way as well. Apparently, in the past, it was more common to label single malts as pure malts, perhaps because the word "pure" also had some image of being natural, unadulterated, unfiltered, etc. in the minds of consumers, whereas the word "single" might not have as many positive associations. Unfortunately, this is now quite common due to the possibility of labeling fermented malts as "pure". The Bennachie, for example (before the company went out of business), changed the label of that whisky from "Vatted Malt" to "Pure Malt" at one point. Fortunately, it can be safely assumed that Vatted Malt's market share is almost negligible compared to blends or mass-produced single malts such as Glenfiddich or Glen Grant. Besides, there are now denominators that are not very clearly defined but are used more or less consistently.
A single malt, single cask, is a whisky bottled only from a single cask. For example, most IB bottlings (Blackadder, Cooper's Choice, etc.).
Vintage malt, a whisky of the same vintage. But maybe from a different cask or production batch. For example. Vintage Islay Malt, Finlaggan. all single cask bottlings are also vintage malts (even if the year is not specified), but vice versa.
Cask Strength. While in the IB world this is usually associated with "straight" whiskies bottled directly from the cask, we must not forget that the industry bottles large batches adjusted to a specific strength (e.g. Glenfarclas 105), which means that it does not come from the cask.
These are the definitions of these terms, and usually the definitions of these terms. Yet, some bottlers use "neat" and "cask" interchangeably, and occasionally "neat" is used instead of "single". Caution.
My Own Opinion on This
I get this question about single malt whiskeys from time to time and tend to respond directly. But I came across a ten year old thread on Yahoo with the same query followed by a bunch of replies, most of which were off-topic. So here's an open answer.
The term 'single malt' was used throughout the twentieth century synonymously with 'single malt', implying that the bottle contained 100% pure malt whisky from the same distillery. And it was likewise used to refer to a "single cask" whisky.
Yet, sometimes "Single Malt" is used instead of "Cask Malt", which implies a blend of whiskies from different distilleries, but still consisting entirely of single malt whiskies. More recently, in today's standardized whisky industry, the term "cask strength whisky" has been replaced by "blended malt" in an official capacity.
For example, the "Dewar's Pure Malt Whisky" label of the early 20th century would have included various single malt whiskies from different distilleries in cask strength.
Yet, since commercial single cask and cask strength whiskies (without grain spirits) were not common after World War I, the term "pure malt" almost always referred to what we would today call a "single malt", a bottle of malt whisky produced entirely by the same distillery, but possibly a mixture of various casks.
The term "single malt" has been used from time to time since the 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1980s that it became popular. Until that time, "single malt" remained the generic term in Scotland, while "single malt" and "whole malt" were used much less frequently and were seen more often on export labels in the United States.
I suspect it was United Distillers (now Diageo) that started using the term consistently, mainly for whiskies exported overseas.
Examples of this include Auchentoshen in the early 1970s, which said Pure Malt, and the distillery's label in 1977, which said Single Lowland Malt. In the same year, another Diageo brand, Mortlach, had a label on its bottles that said Highland Malt Whisky, and in Shortly before it changed its label to Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
But in reality, all these terms are relatively new.
For most of the century, if the brand on a bottle of single malt whisky was a regional re-seller who bottled it themselves, then it probably said All Malt, Pure Malt or Single Malt. But anything resembling an official distillery bottling would simply say Scotch Malt Whisky.
Sometimes the name of the region is included. Here are some examples.
From the mid-1950s onwards, Macallan's labels featured "Single Highland Malt Whisky".
An 1890s Ardbeg says: "Fine Old Islay Whisky: specially selected and fully matured pure malt."
Meanwhile, a Laphroaig from the same period simply says "Islay Malt Scotch Whisky". But exported Laphroaig often later added "unblended" to the title, possibly due to the propensity for blended Scotch whisky to be shipped to the United States.
A bottle of 1960 Springbank says: "Cambeltown style Scotch malt whisky, made from 100% pure malt."
Both Wm. Cadenhead Ltd. and Gordon and McPhail used the term "single malt" on their independently bottled single cask malts well into the 1980s.
However, they tended to use the same language as the originating distillery. Thus, the 1978 Cadenhead bottling of Glenlossie-Glenlivet speaks of a single malt whisky, while the Springbank single cask bottled by Cadenhead during the same period speaks only of Campbeltown malt Scotch whisky.
It seems that the more traditional distilleries that are not under the Diageo umbrella, the more they take the time to start using "single malt" on their labels.
And that's one man's word for it...
Single malt whisky and what it means ()
* The creation of "blended malt" as an official name was almost certainly intended to confuse a blend of single malts in the minds of consumers with "blended whisky", which can contain up to 90% grain spirit and still be referred to as "Scotch" if distilled in Scotland. Blended whiskies, which usually have 40% single malt whisky mixed with 60% grain whisky, are much cheaper to produce and also taste much worse.
If you want to learn more about single malt whiskey, you can click bolded words.
Edition: Rubick L.