Hot on the heels of winning Best Bar in Asia, Jay Khan reveals a new COA is coming soon. By Holly Graham.

Jay Khan, owner of agave bar COA in Hong Kong, is no stranger to awards. COA just took the top spot at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, knocking last year’s winner Jigger & Pony (Singapore) to second place. The bar is currently number eight on The World’s 50 Best Bars and also won Bar of the Year (Asia) at our very own DMBA 2019, where Jay also won Bartender of the Year (Asia). We took some time to get to know the tequila titan and mezcal maestro, who also exclusively reveals to DRiNK that he’ll be opening a second COA…

Why did you choose to focus on agave spirits when opening COA?
To me, it is one of the most terroir driven spirits in the world. With agave spirits, you can talk about agave varieties, soil, climate, terrain and human influences. Sadly it is also one of the most misunderstood spirits around. That’s why we established COA as a platform for us to share agave spirits with our guests and show them how diverse they can be.

How do you educate your guests on agave spirits?
Besides sharing with our guests at the bar, we do many tasting events such as our Mezcal Appreciation Class and more recently Mezcal Mission, in which 100% of the proceeds go to charity. 

Mezcal Mission is a project I started with my friend Andrew Davis as a way for us to share our love for agave spirits with our guests, and also help our local community in need through charity. Follow us on Instagram @mezcalmission for more information.

You’ve hand carried a lot of products from Mexico. Which ones are your personal favourites?
Too many favourites to be honest! One that many of us can relate to was a special edition of Los Danzantes Madurado matured in glass for four years before bottling.

One of the funniest experiences I had moving products was  hand carrying an actual coa (the axe-like tool used to harvest agave) from Oaxaca. I had to explain at the airport that it was for gardening. Everyone looked very suspicious.

COA Hong Kong

How has consumers’ perspective on agave spirits changed in Hong Kong since COA opened and won major awards?
I’m surprised to see how many local guests actually enjoy mezcal – it helps that most can relate it to a peated whisky. We as a team at COA spend as much time as  required to share our knowledge of agave spirit with our guests who show interest. No matter how busy we are, we take our time with each individual guest so they enjoy the spirit to its fullest. This is what we do on a daily basis and we enjoy it a lot.

Our accolades definitely help bring in more people. It was very tough especially when we first opened – we weren’t getting enough guests and we were losing money as a business especially for the first six months. It took a while but eventually we got busier!

2020 was a tough year for the F&B industry. What measures did COA take to get through the difficult times?
We did a lot of collaborations with bars and breweries to come up with ideas to interest our guests during the adversity. One most notable one was our signature canned Paloma de Oaxaca. We collaborated with local craft brewery Young Master and it was very successful with guests really enjoying the drink at home. We have sold approximately 6000 cans to date. 

We also took this time to establish our e-commerce. We realised that WhatsApp ordering wasn’t good enough so created a website where guests could see all our offerings and order with convenience.

Andrew Davis and Jay Khan

What inspired Mezcal Mission?
Andrew and I discussed what we could do together to help educate more people about agave without turning it into a business, since we are both extremely passionate about agave. We were also worried that if we made it completely free, people would sign up and wouldn’t show up. So we decided to charge guests a small fee for signing up and donate the proceeds to charity instead. We are currently working with Habitat for Humanity which is a global charity with some great initiatives in Hong Kong. We started Mezcal Mission in December 2020 and we have done approximately twelve tastings so far with two classes a month.

Tell us more about your latest venture: COA Shanghai.
The bar scene in Shanghai is phenomenal. I’m always impressed by how good it is whenever I get a chance to go back. The drinking culture is sophisticated and I can see COA fitting in nicely. Most of our travelling guests before the pandemic came from Shanghai, and I can see they are very interested to learn and explore more in depth about these misunderstood spirits.

The decor will be slightly different but it will have a similar aura to it. We will try to ensure that we have some core drinks from COA Hong Kong available in Shanghai. We are looking to open around early July in Jing’an so stay tuned!

Just like when COA first opened in Hong Kong, agave is still a niche category in Shanghai. How do you plan to educate local consumers?
It is predicted that China will soon become the biggest agave consumer in the world. I’m feeling positive that once we establish ourselves in Shanghai, we will have plenty of opportunities to work with partners and suppliers on events and tastings that will help educate more locals in agave. But first we have to lay the foundation, which is the bar!