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Ever heard of agave spirits? Perhaps tequila or mezcal would be more familiar names to you instead. Distilled from the agave plant species, these spirits originate from Mexico and are known for encompassing a range of notes, flavors and finishing feels.
You may be the type of person who drinks for a good time, tossing back shots, or perhaps you’re looking to explore different cocktails and learn more about them. Hong Kong’s COA appeals to both types of people – whether you’d like to test yourself as a drink aficionado or just want to have some fun. Operating since 2017, COA has garnered much success in its time, being named No. 1 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list for the second year in a row in 2022. It’s also made it twice into the Top Ten of the World’s 50 Best Bars list.
COA specializes in agave spirits and is named after the tool (coa de jima) used to harvest agave plants. The bar is inspired by the “drinking dens" COA’s founder Jay Khan visited during his many trips to Mexico. Offering a 41-page menu featuring a wide range of inspired spirits and cocktails, COA aims to educate guests on the diverse and rich flavors of agave.
TMS recently caught up with Khan to discuss his journey into the world of spirits and bartending and the success of COA in Hong Kong.
Jay Khan’s journey into bartending
Khan hadn’t always thought of joining the F&B industry. He describes getting into the field as something more like an accident than something he was set on from the get-go. While initially, the laid-back nature of working behind the bar caught his eye, his passion for bartending has been what’s kept him in this competitive industry for the long run.
“Making drinks is definitely the first thing that got me into bartending. I love the idea of creating flavors and cocktails, but also at the same time, it allows me to meet so many people," says Khan. “And also the environment, working behind the bar is so relaxed and, I mean, there are not that many jobs out there where you can have fun and you can call it a job."
Khan’s first job was at a dim sum restaurant near his house, working as a busboy. But, after a grueling 14-hour first shift, he ended up quitting, pretty dismayed by the experience. However, sometime later, Khan found himself back in F&B alongside some schoolmates working at the Hard Rock Cafe.
He wasn’t able to bartend at the Hard Rock without any experience, so he was back on the floor. Khan then moved over to a karaoke bar, and they said they would move him up to the bar once a position opened.
“In Hong Kong, we had these buildings … full of karaoke bars at all different levels," he recalls. “So I went up to the top floor and started giving out my CV to every single one from the top to the bottom, and I got a few phone calls. I think people were intrigued because I didn’t look local, and I could speak Cantonese."
He worked as a bartender full-time in the karaoke bar for a couple of years, after which Khan set his sights on the Lan Kwai Fong bar scene.
“Lan Kwai Fong was the place to be if you want to pursue bartending seriously like you need to go into Lan Kwai Fong and work there," explains Khan. “But then again, it was a struggle for me to get into Lan Kwai Fong because people wouldn’t hire me from my experience. So, again, I had to start from the floor and then slowly work my way back into the bar.
“In Lan Kwai Fong, you need to be at a different level if you want to work in a bar," explains Khan. “So they put me on the floor again, and then they said the same thing that, ‘OK, if you learn and if there is a position that opens up, we’ll move you back into the bar.'"
But, when a club owner was desperately trying to find a new bartender after losing some of his staff all at once, Khan took the opportunity to prove himself and his talent for bartending with a simple cocktail – a cosmopolitan.
“I made him [one], and he was like, ‘Oh, this is the best I had among all the people I interviewed.’ And then he told me something that I still remember. He said, ‘OK, you can work in the bar, but [just] until I find a permanent replacement," Khan recalls. “So I felt sad but also happy at the same time. I mean, at least I got to work behind the bar, but then again, I didn’t know [if] it’s going to be permanent or not.
“But the moment I stepped into the bar, I never looked back."
Finally becoming a permanent member of the nightclub’s bar team, Khan continuously displayed his genuine passion and drive for the job. From there, he moved around in many famous nightclubs in Lan Kwai Fong and across Hong Kong before heading overseas to Australia for a few years.
COA’s origin story
While traveling through Mexico, Khan found a newfound appreciation for agave spirits. Incorporating this fresh interest with his dream of opening his own bar, COA was born as one of Hong Kong’s first agave-focused bars.
“Most bartenders, I think, they want to own a bar at one point in their life," Khan points out. “I mean, if you ask any bartender that you think is serious about their job, I’m sure they probably would have thought of opening their own bar if they had the opportunity. For me, it was the same way, I always wanted to open a bar, but I didn’t know what until I got into agave spirits, and that was through my travels to Mexico …
“I really liked the idea of agave spirits, how they’re made – like, super labor intensive, very traditional and very terroir driven," he explains.
But, agave spirits weren’t particularly popular in Hong Kong. Although some places may have served versions of agave cocktails, it wasn’t necessarily a primary focus.
“It’s a very sort of niche concept and also a concept that needs a lot of convincing. But for some reason I thought if I do it differently, if I come from a different perspective, like not what people already know about – what about if I come from a perspective that is 100% authentic, traditional, something that’s more educational?"
The bar’s interior is sort of a temple to all-things-agave. “There’s many elements in the bar where it’s directly sort of related to the educational perspective," says Khan. “Like for example if you walk in, the first thing you will see, it’s a mural of a goddess. Her name is Mayahuel, and she’s known to be the goddess of the agave plant. A lot of people, they usually don’t ask so much, they think maybe it’s just a decoration, but whenever we have a chance where we could explain, we would."
So, for guests that want to know more about agave spirits, all they need to do is ask, and the bartenders at COA are happy to explain. However, guests are also welcome to just drink and have fun without the back story – it is a bar, after all.
COA’s first year was tough, but things kicked off once people started realizing that it wasn’t your typical “shots, shots, shots!" type of tequila bar. Word of mouth eventually spread the news of COA’s laid-back and unique vibe, leading to its massive success in Hong Kong.
“So I think it’s more by feel, rather than having a system in place, because we’re a very casual-style bar. We really want people to come in and they feel like COA is their second home. We want them to feel really comfortable; we don’t want to intimidate anybody."
A roller coaster ride
COA started out with Khan’s passion for bartending. However, there are a lot of other things that come along with opening your own bar. The devil is in the details. Having to manage everything at the start – from the bar to the kitchen to the floor – Khan realized the importance of the small details and the value of feedback.
“So, in the beginning, the place [was] nothing like what it is today. But I think that was the beauty about COA. I think it’s a bar that has a lot of contributions from a lot of people – it’s not just me and the bar, I think a lot of the guests played a really big part, and we allowed that. So, I think that was the most important thing. We allowed people to be a part of this and that’s why people really love our bar, and they’re still coming back since day one," says Khan.
Also, the stereotype that a “tequila bar" is typically just for partying was initially hard to push past. It was only with time and relying on guests’ word of mouth that COA was able to attract more people looking for a different experience and the chill kind of atmosphere COA aimed to create.
Now, with so much worldwide recognition, the challenges have changed for Khan and his team. The source of stress now doesn’t stem from making COA successful but rather the expectations that come with success.
“When you win awards, people come in with a lot of expectations. It’s a different sort of stress, you know? When people come in with expectations, you need to make sure that you are on top of your game all the time," Khan explains.
With COVID also affecting the industry over the past few years, Khan compares running COA to a roller coaster ride – the ups and downs and the uncertainties were seemingly endless. However, these uncertainties also brought about a new opportunity through e-commerce.
“Now we have a website where people could buy cocktails, people could buy spirits. Because [the] bar could be a very one-dimensional business," says Khan. “We never [thought] about what we could do outside of that, you know, how could we sustain the business, what could we do outside of just running a bar? So I think COVID really opened our eyes and helped us think outside the box [for] what else could we do or how we could improve or how we can make our business more multidimensional, not just doing one thing."
The e-commerce aspect also came with new collaborations, like COA’s partnership with Young Master, a local brewery. One of their collabs was a canned version of COA’s Paloma, a regular favorite. With a bit of creativity, COA found new ways to reach and retain guests even during the worst of the pandemic.
From an entrepreneurial perspective, Khan firmly believes that as long as you have great passion and find the “right execution," you can do any sort of concept in Hong Kong. As much as agave spirits may have been foreign to the area when COA first opened, Khan’s passion has paid off.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in COA when we first opened," he says. “They thought, you know, agave spirits, it’s never going to work here in Hong Kong. But it’s working. I mean, it’s the fifth year we’re in the business, and people love it."
As demanding as the F&B industry is, Khan emphasizes the importance of balancing work and your personal life, finding hobbies outside of work and making time for those hobbies.
“I think when COVID came, things slowed down a bit, and it just allowed me to rethink what I want to do with my life besides just running a bar," he says. “And that’s when I started finding other hobbies, like, I started taking photography as a hobby and then I started doing a lot of, let’s say, outdoor activities. I do a lot of running. And it really allows me to balance my life."
Khan has found that actively pursuing that balance keeps you on top of your game when you return to your other pursuits.
“This is something I always tell my team now," says Khan. “Don’t just work but also try and find something outside of work that makes you alive, that makes you happy. Because if you have that, you always will come back to work happier and with a better mindset."
Khan also advises budding entrepreneurs to take their time. “Patience is the key. Take your time, make sure everything is solid before you do anything.”
When it comes to hiring, it’s essential to find the right person for a job like bartending, where people interact with guests. COA looks for employees that are approachable and comfortable talking to people first, whether they’re experienced in bartending or not. “I think that’s the most important thing," he says, “everything else I can teach you."
Khan would rather find someone inexperienced with the right people skills to join the COA team. Because, to Khan, COA’s patrons are more than customers – they are guests.
“A customer who comes in pays for your service. But a guest is more than that, a guest is somebody who would come to, let’s say, your home. How would you treat somebody who would come to your home, right?" says Khan. “This is exactly how we treat our guests when they come to COA, make them feel like they’re home, make them feel super comfortable."
Aside from COA, Khan co-founded a charity organization initiative called Mezcal Mission alongside Andrew Davis, a fellow agave spirit aficionado. After chatting through Facebook, the pair grew closer when Davis first visited Hong Kong and COA, and they realized they shared a love for agave spirits. While spending time together, they came up with the idea of sharing this passion with other people while also helping the community.
The Mezcal Mission basically allows anyone to come for a tasting, and all proceeds go to charity. These educational sessions are held bi-weekly on Mondays while COA is closed. The Mission has been running for around a year and a half and is helping to spread the word and awareness of agave spirits.
“It’s a two-hour session where we talk about everything from some basic history to production to tasting. Also [we] guide them [on] how they can buy tequila and mezcal, or how can they find which ones are worth buying, which ones [they]should avoid, for example, things like that."
So far, the sessions are doing very well, and Khan and Davis get to educate people on agave spirits, all for a good cause. If you’re looking to learn more about the nuances of mezcal or tequila – a Mezcal Mission sesh is the place to do it.
“We try to seek sponsors from our partners like, you know, the tequila brands that we use very often, see if they could donate some bottles for this cause, and we get bottles for free from them, but we use it only for the purpose of Mezcal Mission. And, yeah, it’s been ongoing, and our next session is going to be in July; we have two sessions going on, and people love it.
What’s next for Khan and COA?
The COA team is tossing around the idea of opening another bar in Hong Kong with an entirely different concept, but they are taking things a day at a time.
“If it happens or not, that I think will depend on the COVID situation in Hong Kong. So, at the moment, these are the few things we’re focusing on right now."
COA recently expanded with a new location opening in Shanghai in March 2022, so Khan and his team are already quite busy this year. In the meantime, guests can check out the offerings at COA’s online shop or dig deeper into the world of agave at one of Mezcal Mission’s upcoming tastings.