A Complex Spirit: Jay Khan of Coa on Drinking Mezcal Like a Grown Up

a-complex-spirit:-jay-khan-of-coa-on-drinking-mezcal-like-a-grown-up

Jay Khan, Co-founder of Coa and agave enthusiast, talks to us about Mexico’s misunderstood spirit and why we should all be sipping it slowly.

You’re drinking your tequila wrong. In fact, you’re drinking the wrong tequila. There isn’t even any need for lemon, lime or salt, according to Jay Khan, the co-founder and head mixologist of Mexican-inspired cocktail bar Coa.

As the recipient of the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award 2020, Khan is something of an industry veteran. Voted by peers who are ranked on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020 (in which Coa places third), Khan has been recognised for his contribution to agave education, along with the significant impact he’s made in the bar industry and drinking scene in Asia. So when it comes to agave it’s safe to say that Khan knows a thing or two.

Coa, as the bar is named, refers to the tool used to harvest the agave plant. A long, rounded knife, it’s utilised in cutting leaves and chopping the agave from its roots. The plant’s core is then used to produce an agave-based spirit – a mezcal.

“Coa is a symbol of craftsmanship,” says Khan, “because all the agave is harvested by hand.” Indeed, owing to traditions that date back 500 years, the entire labour-intensive process of planting and cultivating is completed by hand. “So we named the bar after something that would remind us of all the hard work that goes into making these spirits.”

Jay Khan making a Mezcal martinez with Los Cuerudos Joven, Punt e Mes, and Luxardo maraschino cherries.

Opened in 2017, Coa has won the hearts of many bar-goers in Hong Kong with its intimate yet open space and a mezcal-dedicated menu. “That’s why we opened Coa. We wanted to build a bar that focuses on these misunderstood spirits … so we can re-educate, and then reintroduce mezcal and tequila [a type of mezcal made only from only blue agave] to our guests.”

I must admit that tequila has always seemed like a drink for parties, representing occasions that I probably should forget – or for that matter, had no choice in remembering at all. But thanks to Khan, and perhaps several serious tasting sessions on my part, that has now changed and I can enjoy mezcal responsibly.

At Coa, you’ll discover a comprehensive and varied list of Mexican agave spirits. Lesser-known appellations, such as sotol, sia, and bacanora – along with Mexican rums and gins that are mezcals redistilled with botanicals – can also be found.

“Our main focus is to work with brands that aren’t as well known, but are still really good,” says Khan. “There are many big brands of tequila that everybody knows, but what we want to do is showcase what people don’t know. So instead, we mostly choose to work with smaller and family-owned producers.”

As my agave education continues, I’m told there’s the good (100 percent blue agave), the bad (51 percent blue agave and the rest sugars), the stronger (maximum 55 percent ABV) and the lighter (minimum 35 percent ABV). But in its true – and pure – form, tequila is meant to be sipped and enjoyed.

Ancho highball with salted plum, ocho blanco and ancho, topped house granny smith apple soda.

“Tequila also happens to be one of the most regulated spirits in the world,” says Khan. Controlled by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), standards are maintained to ensure and certify its quality and authenticity.

As Khan describes it, mezcal is also akin to wine. Just as a particular wine can comprise several grape varieties, mezcal can be made up of different types of agave – and both can be single variety. What’s more, depending on the region of Mexico the agave comes from, mezcal will taste differently as, like wine, it’s affected by terroir and climate.

Khan also tells me about the time it takes for a plant to grow. “Agave doesn’t grow every year,” he says. “It takes, on average, eight years for one plant to grow – and some agave used in mezcal can take up to 30 years. So, while you can age a whisky for 30 years in a barrel, we’re talking about ageing a plant in the ground for the same time.”

All of this begs the question as to why tequila and mezcal aren’t more appreciated and sought-out. The labour-intensive – and really rather lengthy and strict – processes are all factors in making this high-quality spirit. I’m sold, so I ask Khan where to start. “Let’s say you come in having never tried agave before,” he says. “First, we ask a few questions to get to know you better: what you like, what you don’t like. Then we answer any questions you have before we start introducing.”

Clarified coconut milk punch with tamarind, Mount Gay XO rum, Los Danzantes Joven, dry sherry, coffee, coconut cream, pineapple, lemon cardamom, and salt.

“We usually advise to start with something aged. Ageing the spirit gives you roundness, it’s softer, more approachable and a bit sweeter,” says Khan. “Then we work our way down to the non-aged spirits. Because non-aged agave is a pure form of the spirit.”

“Or we can start with a cocktail. You like a negroni – try it with mezcal. You like gin and tonic, so why not try a mezcal and tonic?”

Ever the cynic, I’m dubious and go for something more refreshing to start with. The Ancho highball, a refreshing and almost savoury cocktail, is lifted with the sweet and floral notes of ocho blanco, before salted plum and ancho chillies add punchier flavours. It’s then tempered and finished with a house granny-smith apple soda that’s as cooling as it’s revitalising. It’s a win, and I’m game for the next.

I opt for clarified-coconut-milk punch, which uses Mount Gay XO rum, Los Danzantes Joven and dry sherry as its base. Creamy and aromatic, thanks to coffee and clarified coconut cream, the cocktail is sweetened by pineapple and seasoned with lemon, cardamom and salt. Thereafter, a spirit-forward Mezcal martinez completes my session. Deep, complex and slightly smoky, this rendition of a favourite cocktail, which uses Los Cuerudos Joven mezcal, Punt e Mes Italian vermouth and Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur, has me convinced.

It’s a truly eye-opening experience, to taste the different expressions of agave like this. So much so that I can clearly see the potential in agave-based spirits, just as Khan had explained. So I think it’s now time for us all to give tequila and mezcal a second chance – and a second sip*.

*Coa has temporarily closed its doors due to the current restrictions and safety measures, but are offering bottled mezcal and tequila-based cocktails for delivery at www.coa.com.hk.