All Mixed Up: Jay Khan, Co-founder of COA Bar in Hong Kong, Shanghai
February 06, 2023
Our continent loves a good drink. To cool off from our temperate weather and hot food, you can find us huddled in an airconned bar, sipping on something cool, sexy, and clean. To celebrate our boozing culture, All Mixed Up explores the stories behind Asia’s famed mixologists, bartenders, and cupbearers that make our tipples and what makes them tick.
Jay Khan holds the formidable title of leading Asia’s Best Bar in 2021 and 2022 as the co-founder of agave tequila and mezcal-forward COA bar, located in the SoHo neighbourhood of Hong Kong.
Born in Hong Kong with Pakistani roots, Jay braved the bars of Lan Kwai Fong and cocktail joints of Sydney and Melbourne before opening COA in late 2017 in a personal mission to share his love for the misunderstood spirits of agave and traditional mezcal.
Ranked seventh in the world by World’s 50 Best Bars in 2022, Jay has charted a five-year-long venture into the education and proliferation of Mexican-inspired cocktails locally in Hong Kong and regionally around the continent. We sat down with the celebrity mixologist at his SoHo bar to quiz him on his passion for Mexican spirits.
The Bitter Melon Colins made by Jay Khan at COA, SoHo
- Tablespoon of citrus acid solution
- 50ml of white bitter melon colins cordial
- 45ml of tequila infused with coconut and green curry botanicals
- 50ml of bitter orange tonic
Mix citrus acid solution, melon colins crodial, tequila and tonic together in a tall glass. Carefully add a clear block of ice and garnish with cucumber slice.
Thanks for sitting down with me Jay, for those who don’t know you, who is Jay Khan?
Jay Khan is born and bred in Hong Kong. I love agave spirits, and five years ago I decided to open COA, and here I am still!
Have you always held an interest in alcohol and mixing from a young age?
I was always curious about alcohol and cocktails, but [was] never a big drinker. My first ever F&B job was working in a dim sum restaurant, not a bar. My first shift lasted 13-14 hours, and it destroyed me. I worked there for one day and didn’t go back. Eventually, I found work at the Hard Rock Café in Tsim Sha Tsui where [my] schoolmates worked, and that’s where I first encountered bartending.
What intrigued you about mixing when you worked closely with bartenders at the Hard Rock Cafe?
I saw the bartenders flaring, making these colourful cocktails in these fancy glasswares, but the restaurant didn't allow me to join them. At night, I found a job working at Ed Club and Karaoke Lounge in Causeway Bay. I spent the beginning working on the floor, but one day I replaced the bartender to mix cocktails.
My first shift was on a Saturday night. I was left alone at the bar with my manager at the door with a walkie-talkie, mixing whisky and green tea, classic cocktails, and a sweet local cocktail called ‘Nothing’ mixed with vodka, Midori, pineapple juice, and Malibu. The satisfaction I had after the shift was great. I knew this was the job for me.
You mentioned your work at Hard Rock was followed by a move to Lan Kwai Fong to work in nightclubs and bars. What changed in your career at this point?
I transitioned to Lan Kwai Fong because if you wanted to be a proper bartender [in the mid 2000s], you needed to work at LKF. I found a job working at a new opening called Avenue on D’Aguilar Street in 2006, beside Dragon-i, working on the floor.
After impressing the manager with my cocktail skills, I became the club’s senior bartender. Following Avenue, I got a job at Beijing Club in 2007 as a supervisor. We were super busy, making millions of dollars on a weekend. This was a segue into proper bartending, as Hong Kong lacked any proper cocktail bars yet.
How did your working holiday journey in Australia determine your pathway to professional bartending?
Australia was already a step ahead of Hong Kong with its cocktail space. I travelled to Melbourne to experience bartending at cocktail bars down under, positioning myself for success when I returned to Hong Kong.
In 2010, Lily & Bloom, Hong Kong’s first real cocktail bar opened, and I was lucky enough to get the job as a supervisor.
We had many American bartenders coming to Hong Kong and working with us. That was the place I got to try Del Maguey agave. I fell in love with it, it was different, unique, smoky, and savoury. From that moment, it occupied the back of my head.
After work at the Galaxy Hotel in Macau at the turn of the decade, and a short-term experience as an ambassador for Remy Cointreau, what prompted you to jump in the deep end and open COA?
With more alcohol brands coming to Hong Kong and Macau, I was exposed to more Mexican spirits. In 2014, I travelled to Mexico for the first time, seeing how tequila and agave were made.
With my job [at] Rémy Cointreau, I had a lot of free time to think and plan. I had always wanted to open an agave bar. I met my business partner, Flora, and we spoke about opening a bar. She wanted to create a business. In September 2017, we agreed to open COA, and by December, we launched.
What is significant about the location and design of COA in SoHo?
For a bar, we didn’t want to be on a main commercial road, [but] rather tucked away. We never have had a designer, we just did everything from scratch. The four concrete walls today have stayed the same. We bought in high and low tables, and imported art, always listening to guests’ advice on what they like.
We wanted to provoke the aura of bars in Ohaxa and Mexico City. Very approachable and a space to come have fun and drink, very simple. Every time I visit Mexico, I become even more inspired by the country's drinking culture and wanted to emulate the experience back in Hong Kong. Lights are dim with candles. There’s a nice aura. The size is comfortable and cosy.
How has COA impacted Mexican alcohol culture and the proliferation of mezcal in Asia?
When we first opened, [agave] consumption was rising, but all we wanted was to create a place where we can share the proper knowledge of agave spirits and way of drinking. In the beginning, people held a negative connotation with tequila, something you drink on the weekend, and only to party and get drunk.
Our team has an intense knowledge of agave spirits. At COA, every staff member changes shifts weekly, working at the bar, on the floor, in the kitchen. But we know everything about agave and can explain this to guests and deliver the same experience.
In 2020, I created Mezcal Mission with my friend Andrew Davis to raise money for Impact Hong Kong, and Feeding Hong Kong, teaching Hong Kongers twice a month about tequila and agave, history, techniques, flavors. All proceeds, raised from sponsored bottles and tickets, go to charity.
What does this year represent for the growth of your career and COA in Asia?
We have no immediate plans for COA in 2023, but we are planning to open a new bar in Hong Kong, targeting March 2023.
We look forward to seeing what that could be! Thanks for having us, Jay, and chatting with The Beat Asia.
Thanks for having me!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Enjoyed this article? Check out our previous All Mixed Up profiles here
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