The founder of RedCircle, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s first partner bar in China, is Chen Xiao, who goes by the name of Mr Ken and lives life according to his motto: “I enjoy my drinks but I’m never a snob”

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Unfiltered sat down with Mr Ken in Beijing to find out more about his bar and his love affair with whisky

What is your background and how did the concept for RedCircle come about?

There was a girl involved….which led me to change the university course I was doing in Australia in 2003 from International Trading to Viticulture and Oenology. Then, in 2011 I was juggling my career with my new-born son and burning out. I was no longer satisfied with wine, and in need of some relaxing and tasty alternative. That’s when I became deeply enchanted by the special charisma of whisky.

It’s liberating, open, unique, and fits with the youthful belief of seizing the day. The taste is rich, and I became obsessed with it immediately.

RedCircle became The Scotch Malt Whisky Society's first partner bar in China in July 2017.

I think whisky is a product of this age. And personally, if I could fall for it so deeply, I thought that many young mavericks like me would too.

So, from 2011 I started to collect and drink all kinds of whiskies. I also visited where they came from and started to learn more about their characteristics. I hope I can make people like me feel what I feel, that whisky isn’t just for connoisseurs. That’s why I started RedCircle, as a platform for a lifestyle of whisky love.

Chen Xiao, AKA Mr Ken, founder of RedCircle.

Where do you think your passion for whisky came from?

The answer to this question is in young people’s needs and situation today. There is a group of people who are willing to escape, slow down and enjoy their life. They want to enjoy what they have, and the feeling to be free. Close your computer, put down your phone, turn on the music, pour yourself a glass of whisky, and enjoy your moment. Whisky offers them a space to breathe freely and be happy. They enjoy drinking whisky, they start to learn more about the aged spirit and be immersed in its rich taste.

There is also a group of young people who are always looking for something new and try to live in the moment. They are unencumbered by fixed ideas. They express themselves, want to try new things, and even pursue pleasure regardless of the cost. They are full of consumption potential. Different types of whiskies made in different years feed their desire to look for excitement and changes, and help release their desire to be particular and different. They are the future of whisky.

Tell us about the design and layout of the bar

RedCircle is 100 per cent a whisky bar. It takes a great deal of courage to run a whisky-only bar, even in a city of Beijing’s size, where most bars offer cocktails. That’s why we chose a private place and put in place a membership system.

In July 2017, RedCircle became The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s first partner bar in China. We hope to create a warm sense of home. RedCircle bar uses a lot of antique European furniture along with comfy Japanese-designed sofas, to create a place with both a sense of design and of relaxation. The design of our menu also took a huge amount of energy and time, because we created it carefully to let more people know about SMWS whisky, and how to find their own favourite flavour profile.

What about your whisky collection?

In terms of stock, about 50-60 per cent of RedCircle’s inventory is made up of SMWS whisky, 15 per cent is blended whisky and other bottlers’ expressions. The rest are very rare, treasured whiskies, such as some Karuizawa, Yamazaki 25-year-old, Talisker 35-year-old, Springbank 34-year-old. These expressions are sold by the glass, but at a reasonable price.

How many SMWS bottlings do you generally have at any one time?

RedCircle has around 600 bottles of SMWS whisky, the biggest inventory in mainland China.

What does being an SMWS partner bar mean to you?

On the one hand, it’s a recognition of RedCircle, while on the other hand, it’s about the youth I mentioned before – the SMWS is appealing to youth, it is flavour-oriented, it makes people get in touch with whisky in an entertaining way, and then they fall in love with it.

How has the whisky scene in China developed in recent years?

China is experiencing a boom in whisky consumption, which is especially noticeable in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Each year, we have a large number of whisky bars opening in Beijing, but whisky is still only a segment of the market. How to make whisky more approachable, that’s what we need to think about.

Finally, can you give us an overview of what makes Red Circle a special place for whisky lovers?

RedCircle has its own whisky programme, with audio as its main form, a WeChat [Chinese social media] public platform to host ’A dram with Mr Ken’, plus whisky-related output on Zhihu [Chinese Q&A website forum]. That all helps us to build a cohesive community of whisky enthusiasts and build loyalty with our customers.

Many thanks to Hsinyi Chiu and Kirk Zheng for translation.

RedCircle Studio is at 606 East Tower, Beijing SOHO Residences, East 3rd Ring Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing