A Sit-Down with Jay Khan: Owner of Coa, Asia's No. 1 Bar

By Sophie Steiner, January 20, 2023

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Owner and founder of Coa Hong Kong – the No. 1 bar in Asia and No. 17 bar in the world, Jay Khan, was born and raised in Hong Kong. He witnessed the bar industry evolve from karaoke bars to nightclubs to cocktail lounges.

Being a part of this change – coupled with his extreme passion and dedication to agave spirits and educating others around this niche alcohol – he has been able to make his mark on the Hong Kong and greater Asia F&B scene by sharing agave spirits with the drinking masses.

Image courtesy of Coa

In 2022, Jay took his concept a step further, opening a sister bar, Coa Shanghai, a natural extension of the brand in China mainland.

We sat down with Jay to learn more about his background, why he chose to focus on agave, and how the transition from opening a bar in Hong Kong to opening one in the middle of a pandemic in Shanghai played out. 

You are the owner of the No. 1 bar in Asia and the No. 17 bar in the world. You’ve been awarded the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender award, Drink Magazine’s Bartender of the Year and Bar of the Year awards, Prestige’s 40 Under 40 and a number of equally esteemed accolades. How did your bartending journey begin? Did you always know you wanted to be behind the bar?
My initial job out of university in Hong Kong was pushing a dim sum trolley and clearing dishes like a busboy. This was my opening experience to the food and drinks industry, and my first 13-hour shift absolutely destroyed me – so much so that I never went back.

Eventually, I decided to try my luck again working as a server at Hong Kong’s Hard Rock Café, where I encountered bartending. I was immediately intrigued, and I requested to be moved to the bar team. 

However, because I had no experience, I was denied. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

I channeled that energy into finding a new night job at a karaoke bar. My first shift finally working behind the bar was madness – it was a Saturday night and the previous bartender had quit unexpectedly, so I was suddenly promoted.

I was handed a walkie talkie and told to radio the bar manager to ask how to make any drink ordered – essentially trial by fire. When the shift finished and we all sat down at the end of the night for a recap, I felt exhausted yet satisfied.

From there, I never looked back. I moved into working at a nightclub in Central, and then spent a year in Melbourne, Australia, learning how to properly bartend.

I brought that back to Asia, where I landed a job at Lily & Bloom, one of Hong Kong’s original premier cocktail bars. From there, I eventually bounced to Macau, working as the Bar Supervisor at a whisky-focused venue, Macallan Bar at the Galaxy Hotel. 

In two years, I moved up to Beverage Manager for the entire hotel, which ultimately opened new doors for me back in Hong Kong as a part of the Epicurean Group, and one of the bars I managed was Agave Bar. 

This gave me my first “taste” of agave – so to speak – and I learned so much from their 2,000+ bottle collection of Mexican agave-based spirits. 

How did the concept for starting Coa come to be? What was your inspiration? And why agave?  
After joining the Epicurean Group and focusing time and energy on Agave Bar, this spurred my interest in Mexico – the culture, the people, the food, and – of course – the agave production.

I decided to take a solo trip in 2014 to Mexico and contacted a handful of agave distilleries through social media ahead of time.

They welcomed me with open arms, sharing their practices, walking me through the labor-intensive process required to produce agave spirits, teaching me about the different terroir aspects, driving me around their plantations, introducing me to their culture and just making me feel like a part of their families. 

This solidified my confidence in agave spirits, and that I wanted it to be my focus going forward. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

From that point on, I continue to visit Mexico annually, learning more as my own passion for agave grew. I knew I wanted to bring a piece of that experience to Hong Kong and showcase what real agave is and how it’s supposed to be enjoyed.

Back in 2017, there weren’t any bars putting forth agave spirits in the right direction – it’s not just for shots, and people didn’t understand the difference between the varying qualities of different agave products.

To be successful in sharing this with the Hong Kong community, education about agave would need to be a major focus of the bar. 

Image courtesy of Coa

Additionally, at the time of opening Coa Hong Kong, I was working as the brand ambassador for Remy Cointreau. I had extra time to conceptualize Coa, plus I really missed being behind the bar regularly.

I had already spent a lot of time brainstorming how an agave bar would work in Hong Kong, since my first visit to Mexico back in 2014. So, when I found my now business partner, Flora, within three months of our initial conversation, we were opening Coa’s doors to the public.

We found a location easily, and – because I was allowed to drive the entire process – the other partners fully supported me and the plan came together quickly.  

What was it like opening the second location of your world-renowned bar in a city that you couldn’t visit because of travel restrictions? What were the main challenges you faced, and how have you overcome them?
Initially, I had no plans of ever expanding the brand, because Coa can’t be easily duplicated.

Then, in early 2020, I was approached by a potential investor who was a regular at Coa Hong Kong. He presented a plan for bringing Coa to Shanghai, upholding the same idea, concept, quality of drinks and high-end level of service. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

But, I turned him down. I felt it would be too tough – people would need a lot of training to educate others because it’s so niche.

I also curate the exact bottle selection of agaves we have available for guests in Hong Kong. I know every brand I work with, most of which tend to be family owned, traditional producers with an authentic process.

I was worried about the obstacles I would face regarding the options that are available for import into Shanghai. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Then COVID got really bad. Everything slowed down in Hong Kong, but things were still going well in Shanghai.

This was in the second half of 2020, and I decided to put in some real research regarding the likelihood of how Coa Shanghai could come together. Things really began to progress in 2021, and eventually we opened Coa Shanghai on March 8, 2022. 

What is the key difference between Coa Hong Kong and Coa Shanghai? How do you aim to keep the two within the same vein yet still distinct in their own right?
We took a slightly different approach to the Shanghai venue, but the DNA is still the same.

One of the biggest changes is the layout of Coa Shanghai; the space is tall yet narrow, so we divided it into three concepts under one roof. 

Image courtesy of Coa

The first floor and main bar – The Cantina – is where the action happens. Guests can interact with the bartenders, watch them make cocktails and peruse the Mayan-shaped pyramid agave spirit display that mirrors the exact same format in the Hong Kong location. 

Image courtesy of Coa

The middle level is called The Salon. This space is more relaxing – better for groups to have intimate conversations – plus there’s a balcony for smoking and chilling. 

Image courtesy of Coa

The top floor is El Atico, or ‘the attic’ – the name coming from the shape of the angled-ceiling space. On this level, there is just one communal live-edge wooden table plus a smaller Mayan pyramid-esque display of some of our top agaves.

It’s a spot for the ‘agave nerds’ to interact with others like them, taste different spirits and share them in a social setting. There are no cocktails served on this floor, just spirits, plus the most knowledgeable staff to further the education of the people there. 

Image courtesy of Coa

How does your cocktail menu concept in Shanghai differ from that in Hong Kong? 
The cocktail menu in Hong Kong and Shanghai are quite similar. You can enjoy an Ancho Highball in Hong Kong and savor that exact same libation in Shanghai.

However, Shanghai does have an expanded menu with a few Shanghai-only offerings that showcase local ingredients. There also are a few small ingredient differences between the venues for shared cocktails based on availability. 

Image courtesy of Coa

Do you believe the China market – and Shanghai specifically – will be as accepting of agave culture? How do you aim to bring this lesser known spirit to the forefront?
When we first opened Coa Hong Kong in 2017, we were starting from scratch. We didn’t have the education materials created yet and most of the market hadn’t had exposure yet to agave spirits.

But, when we opened Coa Shanghai, the spirit had already been introduced to the market and the local community was much more accepting, since many were already familiar with the bar concept. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Furthermore, when we first opened Coa Hong Kong, it didn’t make a profit in the first year as our original goal was to focus on education and introducing the spirit to the market.

On the flip side, Coa Shanghai has been busy since day one – people are already familiar with the bar’s reputation. The two markets are quite similar in that people want to learn and try new things. 

What’s your favorite bite with an agave drink? In other words – in your opinion – what is agave’s best food friend?
Mezcals tend to be quite smoky and intense, so it must be paired with something that can stand up to and match that intensity with a contrasting or complimentary flavor.

I particularly like pairing mezcal and other agave-based spirits with rich, dark chocolate. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

We specifically hone in on that with our cocktail Cacao Husk Rosita (RMB118) – a blend of tequila reposado, Campari, and Ecuadorian cacao husk that is aged two days and topped with a 75% cacao small-batch production chocolate wedge.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

What does the future hold for you in Shanghai, China, Asia and beyond? 
With regards to expanding the Coa brand, nothing; because I had never planned to expand it in the first place, I’m not currently entertaining offers we have from those reaching out to us from other cities across Malaysia, Singapore and Japan. 

We are, however, planning on opening a new bar in Hong Kong soon with a concept that is totally different than Coa, but details are still hush hush. All I can say is, be excited.

Coa Shanghai, 313 Jiaozhou Lu, by Wuding Lu 胶州路313号, 近武定路

[Cover image courtesy of Coa Shanghai]

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