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What does “Pure Malt” mean? – Reader’s Q & A

Where does “Pure Malt” fit in amongst “Single,” “Vatted,” “Blended,” and so forth?

Reader’s Q & A is a new feature at One Man’s Malt, which will be expanded over time.

I get this question about pure malt whisky from time to time, and tend to reply directly. But I have seen a ten-year-old post on Yahoo with the same query, followed by a bunch of replies, most of which are way off the mark. So here is a public answer.

The term “pure malt” was used throughout the twentieth-century, in a manner synonymous with “single malt,” meaning the bottle contained 100% pure malt whisky made at the same distillery. And it was likewise used to refer to “single cask” whisky as well.

At times, however, “pure malt” was used in place of “vatted malt,” which meant a blending of whisky from various distilleries, yet still consisting entirely of pure malt whisky. The term vatted whisky was recently replaced with “blended malt” in official capacities within today’s standardized whisky industry.*

For example, a label reading “Dewar’s Pure Malt Whisky” from the early 1900s would contain a vatting of various single malts from different distilleries.

But since commercially available single cask whisky and vatted whisky (with no grain spirits) were uncommon after the First World War, the term “pure malt” almost always meant what we today call “single malt” i.e. a bottle of malt whisky made all in the same distillery, but likely a mixture of various casks.

The term “single malt” was used from time to time since the 1800s, but it did not come into vogue until the 1980s. Up until that time, “pure malt” remained the common term in Scotland, while “single malt” and “all malt” were used more rarely, and were more frequently seen on export labels in America.

I suspect it was United Distillers (now Diageo) that started using the term in a uniform manner, primarily for whisky being exported overseas.

Examples include Auchentoshen from the early 1970s, which say Pure Malt, while the distillery’s label in 1977 says Single Lowland Malt. That same year, the label on a bottle of Mortlach, another Diageo brand, said Highland Malt Whisky, shortly before it changed its label to Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

But really, all of these terms are relatively new.

For most of the century, if the brand on a bottle of single malt whisky was that of a regional re-seller who did their own bottling, it was likely to say All Malt,  Pure Malt, or Single Malt. But anything like an official distillery bottling would simply say Scotch Malt Whisky.

Sometimes the name of the region was included. Here follow some examples:

“Pure Highland Malt Whisky,” was seen on Macallan labels from the mid-1950s.

A bottle of 1890s Ardbeg says “Fine Old Islay Whisky: Specially selected & Fully matured pure malt.”

Meanwhile, Laphroaig from the same period said simply “Islay Malt Scotch Whisky.” But exported Laphroaig often added “Unblended” to the title later on, probably due to the propensity for blended scotch being shipped to America.

A bottle of Springbank from 1960 says “Cambeltown style Scotch malt whisky made from 100% pure malt.”

Both Wm. Cadenhead Ltd. and Gordon and McPhail used the term “Pure Malt” on their independent bottlings of single-cask malt whisky well up into the 1980s.

However, they tended to use the same language that the distillery of origin used. So a Cadenhead bottling of a Glenlossie – Glenlivet from 1978 says Pure Malt Whisky, while a Cadenhead single cask bottling of Springbank from the same era says simply Campbeltown Malt Scotch Whisky.

It seems the more traditional the distillery, if they were not under the Diageo umbrella, the longer they took to start using “single malt” on their labels.

And that is one man’s word on…

Pure malt whisky and its meaning(s)

* The creation of “blended malt” as an official designation was almost certainly done to confuse blends of pure malt whisky in the mind of consumers with “blended whisky,” which can contain up to 90% grain spirits and still be called “scotch” if it is distilled in Scotland. Blends typically have 40% pure malt whisky mixed with 60% grain whisky, which is considerably less expensive to produce, while also being considerably less flavorful.

** The use of  “– Glenlivet” in the previous instance referred to the traditional name for the whisky producing region now called Speyside.

Pure Malt Cadenhead Glen Elgin Glenlivet


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