A Dishin’ the Dirt profile.
Interview by Holly Graham.
Jay Khan is a bit of a veteran behind the bar. The award-winning bartender is Hong Kong born and bred, and has tended at the likes of Lily & Bloom, Foxglove and Dr Fern’s Gin Parlour, which clocked in at number 48 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list this year. Most recently, Jay was the brand ambassador for Remy Cointreau, but after nurturing a love for agave spirits and upping his knowledge in this category over three years of traveling through Mexico, Jay has opened his own agave focused bar, COA. He tells The Loop HK about his undying love for the industry and all things agave.
Where did you start out in your early days?
Ten years ago, I was working on the floor of the Hard Rock Café Hong Kong when it had a branch in TST. I worked my way up to the bar and since then, I’ve always had a love and passion for bartending. You can be so creative and interact with awesome people.
What made you take the leap into opening your own bar?
I’d always wanted to. It’s every bartender’s dream! My passion for agave spirits is more than any other category. The way it’s made is very emotional and labor intensive as it’s more handcrafted than any other spirit in the world. I decided that agave needed to be formally introduced to Hong Kong as it’s doing really well abroad, and HK is a pretty sophisticated market when it comes to drinking – we’re open to trying new things.
Tell us more about the booze.
We have agave spirits like tequila, mezcal, raicilla, bacanora, sotol (which is made from a close relative of the agave plant) and our own house-made tepache in seasonal flavors. There’s also a great selection of cocktails, wines, beers and other spirits, so the bar is for everyone, not just agave nuts.
The agave products we have focus more on quality over quantity. We stock unique products that aren’t available in Hong Kong so I have to work directly with distributors and producers in Mexico, who ship bottles to me. I also buy some stuff online and have hand-carried bottles back from my travels.
How will you differ from other Mexican bars in the Hong Kong market?
We’re not really Mexican themed, but Mexican inspired. In Hong Kong there are a lot of of cliché Mexican bars – think lots of yellow and orange, skulls etc. We’ve avoided that as COA inspired by bars in Oaxaca, and they’re really simple and all about the products they’re serving.
The more I traveled to Mexico, the more I fell in love with the people, culture and produce, so I’ve tried to recreate a piece of that in Hong Kong. Plus, the hospitality in Mexico is incredible. They do so much for you, and I’ve never experienced that anywhere else. They make sure you have a great time – that comes first.
What’s with the name?
A coa is a machete used to cut agave. When I was last in Mexico, I asked to buy a coa from a guy I know, but he gifted it to me and now it hangs above the bar. Of course it’s a tool, but it’s also a symbol of craftsmanship and I think that relates to our concept. Plus, it’s a short and sweet name, and I don’t think I know any other bars called COA!
How do you guide your customers when it comes to drinking mezcal?
Mezcals vary in how ‘approachable’ they are. For newbies, I’d recommend the arroqueño as it’s very mild. Mezcal purists say that it has to be 45 percent alcohol by volume or above, but if you’re serving mezcal to the uninitiated, something lower in alcohol is better. For experienced agave spirit drinkers, jabalí is the hardest to work with and very complex but it’s fantastic.
We also have chapulines (cricket salt) and sal de gusano (worm salt) as you tend to get those in Oaxaca drinking dens to complement agave spirits, so if customers want to try something more crazy, we have lots to offer!
Why will people come to COA, and what experience do you hope they have?
We want to be an agave institution and teach people more about this category. We want people to treat agave spirits with the same respect and intricacy that wine is given.