© 2019, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited. Platinum-based nanocatalysts play a crucial role in various electrocatalytic systems that are important for renewable, clean energy conversion, storage and utilization. However, the scarcity and high cost of Pt seriously limit the practical application of these catalysts. Decorating Pt catalysts with other transition metals offers an effective pathway to tailor their catalytic properties, but often at the sacrifice of the electrochemical active surface area (ECSA). Here we report a single-atom tailoring strategy to boost the activity of Pt nanocatalysts with minimal loss in surface active sites. By starting with PtNi alloy nanowires and using a partial electrochemical dealloying approach, we create single-nickel-atom-modified Pt nanowires with an optimum combination of specific activity and ECSA for the hydrogen evolution, methanol oxidation and ethanol oxidation reactions. The single-atom tailoring approach offers an effective strategy to optimize the activity of surface Pt atoms and enhance the mass activity for diverse reactions, opening a general pathway to the design of highly efficient and durable precious metal-based catalysts.