Jay Khan Founder of COA Hong Kong

DrinksWorld Meets Jay Khan—Founder of Hong Kong’s COA Cocktail Bar

Jay Khan, owner and founder of Hong Kong’s COA, is a man on a mission to change people’s perceptions of tequila and to introduce us to other agave spirits.

After his eye-opening experiences in Mexico, Jay returned to Hong Kong with a passion for all things agave and eventually opened his Mexican-themed bar, named after the tool used to harvest agave plants. 

From humble dim sum beginnings to managing the best bar in Asia, we discuss Jay Khan’s rollercoaster journey to becoming an expert mixologist and how you can reach your top potential too. 

Where did your bartending journey start?

jay khan

It’s a long story. 

My first job in the food and beverage industry was in a dim sum restaurant. I was a bus boy working 14-hour shifts and it completely broke me. After, I moved to bigger chain restaurants as a waiter. Here, was where I witnessed bartending for the first time. I wanted to become one but they never let me because I had no experience. I had to find some. 

After giving my CV to a lot of places, I was eventually given a chance in a karaoke bar. I moved on to work in some popular nightclubs but I wanted to study cocktails specifically. There were no cocktail bars in Hong Kong back then, so I traveled to Melbourne! 

It wasn’t the most popular bar but it was experience,  opposite a very popular bar called the Black Pearl, where I was a regular. I became even more fascinated with cocktails. How the bartenders would make the cocktails and how they interact with guests, was all very professional. It was real bartending, and it inspired me!  

When I eventually returned to Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to be part of the opening team at arguably Hong Kong’s first cocktail bar, Lily & Bloom. It’s an institution here and it helped me to eventually open my bar.

At COA, your menu features only agave spirits. Where did this love for agave come from?

Agave spirits are my absolute favourite. It all started when I travelled to Mexico eight years ago. I wanted to learn everything about the industry for myself in its homeland. 

I reached out to distilleries over Facebook explaining who I was and my intention to study their work. They were very welcoming and showed me around their countryside distilleries. The whole experience was so amazing that it just became a routine to go back to Mexico. 

Which do you prefer working with—tequila or mezcal?

Tough question, but mezcal intrigues me the most.

There are many different varieties and production methods of mezcal, meaning there’s more room for creativity. Even the microclimate of the village where a mezcal is produced affects its character, so it’s very unique in this respect.

How did you end up opening a Mexican-inspired cocktail bar in Hong Kong six years ago? 

jay khan

I opened COA out of love and to represent my passion for agave spirits. After Mexico, I told myself if I ever get the chance to open a bar, I want to offer the experience I had to the people of Hong Kong. 

When COA opened, there weren’t many agave lovers in the city. Now, we have a small-but-growing, enthusiastic community. Part of our mission is to introduce agave spirits to the locals, to understand the product and its potential. Outside of the U.S., agave spirits aren’t taken too seriously, so it’s our job to change it. 

What is the bar scene like in Hong Kong and Shanghai?

Hong Kong is a vibrant city with a very diverse bar scene. 

Most of the best bars are located in one area, all walking distance from one another. It’s so convenient for people to ‘bar hop.’

The cocktail scene started around 2010 when the first professional bars opened. It was a slow progression and in 2015 it just exploded. Now, I’d say Hong Kong is one of the top cities in the world for cocktails. 

It’s the same in Shanghai—many of our guests from China are very enthusiastic about agave, so it made sense to open our second COA in Shanghai. 

What inspires your cocktail creations?

I’m very intrigued by flavours. If I’m out at a restaurant I’m very observant as to what’s in the dish and why it tastes so nice. And if I’m visiting another country I always want to try their cuisine and discover new flavours, so this is a big motivation for me when designing quick and easy cocktails

At COA, we look at interesting flavour combinations. We love to experiment with uncommon ingredients and see what works well with each other. It’s the experimentation and potential to find the next best thing that drives us. 

But we also want to strike the right balance between being adventurous and being approachable. 

If we’re too adventurous, the drinker may like the cocktail, but will probably not have another one. We want to offer unique cocktails that can be enjoyed again and again, without the drinker feeling fatigued or overstimulated by the flavours. 

Cocktails are there to stimulate your appetite, not suppress it! 

What’s been your favourite COA creation?

jay khan

This is a tough question because they’re all so unique. But it’s the Bloody Beef Maria. 

It’s a take on the classic Bloody Mary but swaps vodka for mezcal and tequila. We also add beef stock, Szechuan pepper and Mexican chilis to the recipe, so it really brings together elements from Mexico and the local area. 

 As the best bar in Asia and 17th worldwide, what advice can you give to aspiring mixologists?

Find your niche. 

It’s really important to discover something you’re interested in and then invest time into it. Put the effort into learning your niche inside and out. Something that makes you stand out will give you a reason to rise above the rest. 

You’ve recently opened a new bar in Hong Kong, The Savoury Project. The bar offers drinkers ‘unorthodox ingredients and emphasise savoury and umami notes.’ What made you go this way?

We realised at COA that most of our drinks were leaning towards savoury and our guests really liked them. So, we thought about a new cocktail project, unrelated to agave, that would be driven by savoury flavours. 

We also put a lot of emphasis on non-alcoholic drinks. At COA, we realised many of the groups we host often have non-drinkers, so we wanted to put their experiences on par with those who drink. 

Your project Mission Mezcal raises funds from tequila and mezcal tasting workshops for charity. How and why did this come about?

Mezcal Mission is an initiative I started with my friend Andrew Davis. We wanted to find a way to promote agave spirits. We request a small fee in which all the proceeds go to charity. This way people are more likely to turn up! 

It’s a nice initiative, and I love teaching people about agave and sharing my experiences with the industry.

What’s your favourite bar in the world?

La Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca, Mexico.

They scout remote, independent brands of mezcal, hence the name that means ‘mezcal library’ in Spanish. Some of my inspiration for COA came from this place, everything from its chill vibes to its impressive array of mezcal on offer. 

When you’re behind the bar, which ingredient do you love working with the most?

It really depends on the season. 

I went through a phase of using cardamom a lot. But now I enjoy playing around with chilis. Exploring different types of chilis and how they work in drinks is good fun.

What’s the best classic tequila cocktail?

Nothing beats a well-made Margarita, and in fact, it’s probably my favorite cocktails

Palomas are also great.

Finally, what’s the future of mixology as you see it?  

It’s an evolution, but also a cycle. 

Many bars are going back to the basics. Palette fatigue has appeared again in the industry. The demand for super-experimental cocktails is disappearing and people just want a nice-tasting, well-made drink they can have without feeling overwhelmed. So, classic cocktails are making a comeback. 

But there are always new trends so don’t be surprised if this completely changes a couple of years down the line. 

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