Coa is not just the coolest drinking den in Hong Kong—and Asia—but also its owner, Jay Khan, really just wants you to care hard about agave, nature and helping the community.
MEZCAL RULES! That, at least, is the overwhelming view of voters at the Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023 awards, who crowned Coa in Hong Kong the region’s best for the third year in a row. The unprecedented feat is made more remarkable because the city was closed to visitors for nearly three years, only fully reopening in March of this year, with bars struggling to operate during the pandemic. Mix in the fact that Coa’s total-nice-guy owner and chief agave-evangelist barely drinks, and you’ve got a surprisingly winning, er, cocktail.
Coa, named after the machete-like tool used to harvest agave, features more than 200 labels of 100-percent agave tequila, mezcal, and lesser-known Mexican spirits such as raicilla, bacanora, sotol, and charanda. The bar, which emphasizes root-to-tip cocktail making and helping small suppliers grow, is tucked off the staircase of little Shin Hing Street, in SoHo, and feels like your cool friend’s basement hangout.
Owner Jay Khan seemed surprised at the result and was initially lost for words when he appeared on stage at the Rosewood Hong Kong to collect the award. Khan founded Coa in 2017 after discovering the joys of agave, which he describes as “magical” on a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of Tequila in Mexico. He has since been on a mission to educate drinkers about the much misunderstood and maligned agave-based spirits.
Following the win, Khan said that he hoped to “keep Coa going for a long time… and continue promoting agave in a way where people in Hong Kong and Asia can understand it.” He does so through workshops, and by explaining to guests that mezcal and tequila are some of the most terroir-driven spirits in the world suitable for sipping like a premium spirit. By making a connection to wine, which most people drink, “they actually have a better understanding because they can relate to it.”
His workshops and events, organised under the fitting brand Mezcal Mission, are not just about uplifting spirits but also the community. All proceeds go to charities such as Impact Hong Kong and Feeding Hong Kong, so you can learn to drink well and feel good about it.
The highly respected Khan, a Hong Kong native with Pakistani roots, started on his career path from a young age, while working at Hard Rock Café in Tsim Sha Tsui, where he found himself intrigued by the bartenders’ flaring and showmanship. He shared that this year’s win on home soil was the best yet. “I was born here, grew up here and Hong Kong is everything to me. I’ve seen how Hong Kong evolved from just karaoke bars, which is where I started working, having to clean up vomit… to now having a great community of agave spirit drinkers.”
Khan took up trail running and summit running during the pandemic, did a news-making 14 peaks in 14 days series of hikes to raise awareness for mental health and money for people with disabilities in Nepal, and is a pretty good amateur photographer to boot. Though he loves alcohol, he is a self-described “not a big drinker”—so that while you could hear many folks at the Asia’s 50 Best party exclaiming, “I’ll be he’s having a drink tonight,” we found Khan at Coa late into the evening chatting amiably with well-wishers, giving away free beverages… and still describing his team with a laugh as “the soberest bartenders in town.”
Asked about the secret to the success of Coa, which now also has an outpost in Shanghai, Khan replied that “our emphasis is not really on how much sales we’re making a day. It’s more about whether the staff can do what we’re asking them to do, and give them equal attention as much as we give attention to our business.” It’s about looking after employees, because “happy staff means happy guest. It’s an easy formula.” Little wonder he was voted Bartenders’ Bartender in 2020.
Coa Hong Kong sits at No. 7 on the 2022 World’s Best Bars list, so do keep an eye out for them when this year’s global rankings are announced this October in Singapore. Oh, and go have a mezcal or charandra or two with Jay and his team.
Images courtesy of Coa Hong Kong unless otherwise noted.