Q&A WITH BEN TURNBULL: HOUSE OF MALT
Created, managed, and run by Ben Turnbull, House of Malt will be 7 years young this year. And in this short space of time, it has blossomed into a thriving shop and online retailer. Whisky is their core offer, but if you’re also looking for other spirits or wine & Champagne, then this company is definitely worth checking out. Oh... and they host a bunch of online tastings as well.
Located in Carlisle, Cumbria, it’s an example of what gems can appear where you’re not expecting them. I managed to get Ben for a quick interview for CopperedWrench, and I found it interesting to understand what running a small independent retailer is actually like – especially when there is some serious competition and in the midst of a global pandemic.
Tell us a little about House of Malt and yourself
We started House of Malt in 2015 down a backstreet in Carlisle. We quickly gained a following with our friendly service and extensive knowledge on whisky primarily. We also created a website for customers further afield to experience our passion for whisky which grew almost too rapidly making the store much too small for our needs. 18 months later we moved into a bigger store on the high street creating an absolutely stunning shop; which has a very high-end feel but with super-competitive prices. The store was designed to make our customers feel special as soon as they walked in, and it certainly does that. With library-style bookcases displaying the whisky and huge custom-made Glencairn whisky glass chandeliers, which certainly have got us noticed. I came from a hi-fi-based background, selling Linn Hi-fi systems, but my passion was always for whisky and wine, partnered with music of course! So I have really only worked with my favourite things – which is great.
What’s been the biggest highlight of being a whisky retailer?
The biggest highlight for me is tasting evenings, we love to see our customers enjoying new brands they may not have tried, or customers new to whisky who surprise themselves after avoiding it for many years. The other benefit is helping customers choose better. So many people like to stick to a brand they have known or have liked for a long time and need a little kindly nurturing to expand their horizons into new bold flavours. We have seen some great success with this, and it is a joy to see.
As a small, independent business, what’s been the most difficult part?
As an independent, it certainty was difficult to speak to the bigger brand suppliers in the beginning. Sadly a lot of the larger brands which, we will not name of course, don’t make it easy to deal directly with them. Even when they do, little-to-no margin is usually offered at the beginning of any relationship when you are competing online. But things do improve over time, but it’s not easy for the little guy to start out from nothing. For a few years, you basically have to work for larger brands for free.
You have quite an amazing range of whiskies. How the hell do you decide what to stock?
Taste primarily, though popularity has to take part here too, as we have to cater for everyone. But our recommendations come from the whiskies we think are best value for money and superior taste. We usually ask for samples from suppliers before listing our brands, and myself and a small team, judges the quality and value for money.
What do you see as the current top distilleries that get all the attention?
We are seeing new Scotch and English whiskies popping up all over the place, some of which are producing some very good products. We are seeing some serious quality coming out of the likes of GlenAllachie, Springbank and Kilchoman to name a few.
How’s 2022 looking for House of Malt – any big plans?
2022 is a very big year for us, we have once again outgrown our bigger store and we are currently in plans to move our online operations to a large warehouse. Since Covid hit, we have been so incredibly busy online that we simply couldn’t operate our store and run online at the same time. Sadly we had no option other than to close our store for public access. Which meant our beautiful store became a warehouse overnight and has been so since. But the good news is that we have secured a warehouse locally and we are hoping to be there and operational by the middle of the summer. This means we can also open our store back up, which will delight local customers and those traveling to see us.
Your favourite whisky, and why?
A hard question; and you know it! I have a soft spot for Glengoyne, as it was one of the first non-mainstream whiskies I tasted so I can’t ignore what they do. But generally, I would look for something salty as a regular dram; sherried Springbank I would say is usually very special for me. I do love a well-aged grain, and Stillwater Whisky Co. released a 47-year-old single grain from the now closed North of Scotland distillery; that was absolutely incredible! It had everything, it tasted like a salty Caramac bar that had been sat under a swan in a dunnage warehouse.
What do you do when you’re not running the shop?
I like to travel, wine and dine. But that’s been far from fun for the last 2 years. I am very much looking forward to getting back out there and visiting other countries, tasting good food and tasting good wines and spirits.
Is your shop dog-friendly? Just in case I stumble past with Oogie….. :)
When we reopen in the summer. And yes of course. We would love to have you and Oogie share a coffee and a dram!
Thanks Ben - looking forward to that coffee and a dram!
Discover house of malt at https://www.houseofmalt.co.uk/