Cover La Cantina at Coa Shanghai (Photo: Coa Shanghai)

Bartender Jay Khan's Hong Kong bar Coa, which focuses on agave spirits and traditional mezcal, has opened an outpost in Shanghai

How about an Ancho Highball, featuring salted plum, tequila blanco, ancho chile and house guava soda? Or a Bloody Beef Maria, comprised of beef, morita chile, Sichuan pepper, tomato cordial and mezcal joven? Those are just two of the signature cocktails now serving at Coa Shanghai, the second cocktail bar from Coa Hong Kong’s co-founder and bartender Jay Khan.

Coa was founded in Hong Kong in late 2017 with a focus on agave spirits, including tequila, and traditional mezcal. Its conception was fuelled by Khan’s regular trips to Mexico. But while the bar is a household name in Hong Kong today, initial acceptance didn’t come easy.

“The first year was tough,” says Khan. “Most thought it was a tequila bar and the perception of these bars is that they are usually associated with parties and wild nights. However, with time, more and more guests walked through our doors and realised that what we offer is completely different.”

With a passion for national Mexican spirits and using them to make innovative cocktails, while educating along the way, Coa Hong Kong contributed to the local bar scene and its knowledge of these spirits. It’s a contribution that has been rewarded. Khan was named Asia’s Bartender’s Bartender 2020 by Asia’s 50 Best Bars, and in 2020 Coa Hong Kong ranked eighth on the World’s 50 Best Bars ranking. The following year the bar claimed the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, and Khan was honoured on the Tatler Asia’s Most Influential 2021 list. Most recently, Coa retained its crown as Asia's Best Bar in 2022.

Following the success of Coa in Hong Kong, it was time for Shanghai. “The bar scene in Shanghai is very good. The drinkers are well travelled and sophisticated. We want to be part of this amazing scene,” says Khan, who adds that his exposure to a number of guests from mainland China at Coa Hong Kong gave him the confidence that his bar concept would work there.

Coa Shanghai occupies a three-storey space renovated from an old house in Jing’An District. Not only will guests find the main bar, La Cantina, on the ground floor, where cocktails made from the more than 200 bottles of agave spirits are shaken up amidst a lively setting, but on the first floor El Salon offers visitors a more comfortable lounge area with a small balcony offering a more relaxed vibe. On the top floor, El Atico is an agave tasting room, where Khan aims to take guests on a journey through Mexico’s spirits.

“El Atico is a space shared by guests over a communal table,” he says. “It is created to share more in-depth tasting experiences with guests who are enthusiasts and curious alike. Since it is a small space, it is usually reserved for guests who ask for it, or if we find someone who is interested in agave spirits. It’s part of the bar and everyone is welcome in the attic.”

Related: Learn All About Tequila and Mezcal with Expert Jay Khan

With Coa Shanghai, says Khan, “our aim is to share and spread our love for agave spirits. We hope that with our bar we can educate as many guests as we can. [However,] at the end of the day, we are a bar, and our priority is that guests are happy and enjoy themselves at our establishments.”

Guests who visit Coa can choose cocktails from a creative selection, as well as a wide range of Mexican spirits, from well-known tequila and mezcal, to agave-derived raicilla and bacanora, to Sotol, made from a Mexican shrub known as desert spoon, and Charanda, which is similar to rum. The bar also has an “agave bible”, in which spirits are categorised by the species of agave from which they are derived. You can imagine the extent of this list when you realise that agave spirits are similar to wine in that variety, soil, micro-climate and human factor all influence the final product—this is a spirit whose diversity of taste is driven by terroir.

The market for agave spirits has grown consistently in recent years, and while the US is the largest consumer of all tequilas that are exported, there is plenty of potential in China.

“Agave spirits will continue to grow in Asia, and China is forecast to be a huge market,” says Khan. “It usually needs a little extra effort to convince some guests to try them. But once they do, there is no going back. That is what agave does to you.”

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