In a city of increasingly picky drinkers, we often dream of making the kind of fascinating cocktails found at Hong Kong’s most cutting-edge bars — all from the comforts of our own home. Here at our column Handpicked, Four Seasons beverage ambassador Lorenzo Antinori invites top talents from the Hong Kong bar scene to teach us how to use ingredients easily found in Hong Kong’s backyard (or supermarkets). The challenge: To create a delicious, easy-to-make cocktail recipe that incorporates humble Asian ingredients.
If you meet Jay for the first time at his Oaxacan-inspired bar Coa (named after the traditional hoe used to harvest agave), you might think he’s originally from some exotic locale in Mexico or South America — yes, by his looks — but also by virtue of his encyclopaedic knowhow of agave spirits. But in fact, Jay Khan was born and raised in Hong Kong from a Pakistani family. I like to call him “Don Jay” or “Señor Jay”, to emphasise his Latino look and as a sign of respect for his craft. Jay is a veteran of the Hong Kong bar scene, having earned his stripes in many clubs and bars around town, and spent a two year stint in Macau, where he helped open the Macallan Bar at Galaxy Macau.
His love affair with agave spirits started while leading the beverage program at legendary Lily & Bloom, where he sampled mezcal for the first time. It was love at first taste, and this eventually led to the opening of Coa, now a fine cocktail den listed as number 49 of World’s 50 Best Bars, which pays tribute to the traditions and craft of agave spirit-making. At the same time, it also places an eye to the future, with a creative and innovative cocktail program that experiments with classic Mexican flavours.
Thanks for first of all for being here at Caprice. So I’m curious to learn a little bit about your professional path, and how your creative process has been shaped through your experiences.
All right, well a lot of people don’t know actually, I had a very, very humble beginning. I was actually a busboy in a dim sum restaurant. I had just graduated from secondary school year here in Hong Kong. I just went into this restaurant near where I used to live and I interviewed. Because I could speak Cantonese, they told me to start the next day — it was a morning job. So I worked as a busboy, I was clearing tables, I pushed a trolley and everything, and at the end of the night, I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to do it anymore.’ It was so difficult. It was so tiring. Imagine your first job after you graduate, where you work 12 hour shifts. And in your work environment, you’re surrounded by old people. It wasn’t easy. But that was my first F&B job actually. Then I joined Hard Rock Café — there was one in TST before. A lot of my schoolmates were working there, so I started working there, but it wasn’t enough in terms of salary.
So I decided to go to these karaoke bars in Hong Kong. You know on Tang Lung Street? There’s a couple of buildings — ‘Dai Lei Hong’ (Bloom House), and another one, I forget the name. I just went from the top all the way to the bottom, and gave out CVs to every single bar. I got two or three calls back. So daytime I was working in Hard Rock, night time I was working in a karaoke bar. Eventually, one day their bartender decided to leave and they promoted me. They put me behind the bar, and I had always wanted to do that. It was a Saturday night and I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even know how to make a vodka and soda or vodka and lime.
[Laughs] He still doesn’t!
Yeah, it was an experience! I had a walkie talkie on and anything I didn’t know, I would ask my manager how to make this, how to make that. But during those days, the drinks were Snowball, Sex on the beach, Long Island Iced Tea, Whisky Green Tea, red wine with sprite. And there’s also a local cocktail called Nothing. Have you heard of that? Nothing is a vodka-based drink with a coconut liqueur like Malibu, Midori and pineapple juice. It was a delicious drink back then. People who were more hipster would order a Nothing cocktail.
That was my start. And then I moved into working in nightclubs and eventually I got a bit serious: I actually went to Australia and worked in Melbourne for a couple of years. Melbourne was already a step ahead of Hong Kong back then, there was no cocktail scene here. I worked in the bar that was right opposite of the award-winning bar Black Pearl. That’s how I got into really making cocktails. When I came back to Hong Kong, Lily & Bloom was opening and that was probably the pioneer when it came to modern classic drinks here in Hong Kong.
When you got your first job in Australia, and really started to look at craft cocktails, through ’til now, how did you see your creative approach to ingredients change or evolve?
In the beginning it was simple. It was all about making a simple, balanced cocktail. It was always a sweet, sour spirit and maybe one more additional ingredient. At one point when you do the same thing again and again, you get bored.
But I think what really opened my eyes when I went to Melbourne was when I used to frequent Black Pearl. And it was not the drinks, it was the engagement of bartenders with the customers, and the question and answer process, which then eventually, led to the drink. Back then in Hong Kong there was no such thing. We wouldn’t ask the guests, ‘what do you prefer? What do you like, what do you not like?’ People just simply ask the guests ‘what do you want to drink?’ That was the main difference.
Once cocktail bartending started to evolve, a lot of the bartenders started looking at chefs, at how they made food, how they combined flavours. This is pretty much the approach in bartending even today.
With your cocktails, you use different techniques and you always manage to pull off great flavours, you have a very modern way of approaching flavours. So another thing I’m curious about is, how do you usually think about technique and ingredients? Is there a way that you start this process? How do you tackle certain ingredients when making cocktails?
So recently I did a presentation on Coa in Taipei for Bartender’s Week. I put together my thought process behind how to come up with drinks: Inspiration doesn’t have to start from an ingredient or from a particular food. I think it could be from anywhere, depending on your approach, depending on what you’re trying to do. I have a spreadsheet listing all these special ingredients or flavour combinations or places.
To simplify it, let’s say we have this drink on the menu that’s called the Ancho Highball. It’s basically salted plum infused with tequila, with a little bit of ancho flavour, which is a Mexican chilli. And then we top it up with our own homemade guava soda. The idea of this came from my travels. If you go to Taiwan, Mexico, even Thailand, you will get sliced guava on the streets and they will sprinkle things like plum powder, or chilli powder, on top depending on where you are. And I always like that, it’s a comfort snack and I always enjoyed it in the heat. I wanted to make something like that, but in a drink version.
The guava was the guava soda that I made, the salted plum was the plum powder that they use on the guava in Taiwan. The chilli, the ancho, is the chilli powder on the guava in Mexico. So I put all these together and the drink was born.
The inspiration could come from a place. For instance, we have a drink called La Chinesca, a place in the Northern part of Mexico in Mexicali. Historically, in that part of Mexico, they’ve had the largest Chinese population. So we decided to make a drink that has both Chinese and Mexican ingredients. Sometimes it could be a technique that I want to use. For example, fermentation — we used to make this drink called Tepache.
Your bar has made it onto the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Being a celebrated bartender now with a global platform, how do you introduce cocktails to new consumers, and how do you make your bar still feel very accessible?
The majority of guests nowadays are very open-minded so it’s not as hard to convince them to try something new versus 10 years ago. When you think of a Mexican concept, you think of a restaurant, you don’t really think of a bar. But what we do is maybe 90 percent bar and 10 percent food. A lot of people that walk into our bar these days, they already anticipate that this is going to be not the usual bar experience. There are certain ingredients that we use in our cocktails that are very adventurous. We try to convince them to try it, but if they don’t like it, I’ll change it for them. And of course based on asking about their likes or dislikes, we can suggest what might suit the customer actually. It’s a conversation. Our bar is small so that we can engage more with the customer.
We chose for you an ingredient that is from the cooking world. It’s an ingredient that anyone in Hong Kong would have at home, that you come across in restaurants and so on: hoisin sauce. I’m curious to understand how you chose to tackle this ingredient. What were your first thoughts and how did you incorporate it into a drink?
Hoisin sauce is a very savoury ingredient which has a bit of sweetness inside. I didn’t want it to be too experimental with this ingredient, I wanted to go along with what is already available and accessible. So our bar is a Mexican inspired cocktail bar. There’s this one drink called the Michelada: Imagine a bloody Mary, but you swap out the vodka for beer. It’s very, very popular in Mexico. So when I heard of the ingredient hoisin sauce, I thought, ‘ah!’ There are some ingredients that go into a Michelada that are similar. For example, you use a Maggi sauce, or sometimes even soy sauce. Ingredients that are also savoury, umami and sweet. So I think hoisin sauce is a really good addition to Micheladas because some also come with clam juice. The clam and the hoisin sauce, the flavours go hand in hand.
Usually people are afraid of the idea of having savoury flavours in cocktails. This is something that’s been happening for a while and it’s something that actually helps to announce flavours in cocktails, right? Like with salinity and all that.
I think the most important thing if you want to make a savoury cocktail, at least to me, is to make something that’s approachable. It cannot be overly aggressively savoury or else when you drink, it feels more like you’re actually drinking a soup. There should be a balance. I mean, the menu that we have right now, half the drinks are savoury, I’ve been obsessed with savoury recently, but at the same time you also have some other contrasting flavours, like a good amount of acidity, a good amount of sweetener inside that balances the cocktail.
Were there challenges associated with using an ingredient like hoisin sauce, something that’s more sticky in texture, in a cocktail?
It is hard. It’s a little bit slimy, cloudy. I mean, the idea of this whole thing is to create something that you can make anywhere you go, right? For me, the approach of making a drink with this was, “okay, let’s see what is already out there that is using similar ingredients, so then I don’t have to be like super experimental because otherwise, what comes out may not be good or approachable.” A drink like the Michelada has been out there for ages, probably since the Mexican revolution in the early 1900s. I thought, “Why don’t we use something that’s already out there and incorporate this new flavour into it and see how it turns out.”
I think this is pretty much whenever you build a new drink and you start from a flavour, from a technique, you always look at an existing structure.
That’s exactly what I was talking about, my thought process behind making cocktails is that I have a template of all the classic drinks, which could be spirit forward, it could be like a highball style. Depending on what you want to create, you could just start adding things, removing things until you get to the right drink.
Jay Khan’s ‘Hoisin Michelada’
“There’s a few different theories behind the name Michelada. One story goes, there was a guy named Michel, and he loved his beer with ice and lemon, or lime. Lemonade is called a limonada, so ‘Michel’s lemonade’ becomes Michelada. Another theory is that Michelada, if you break it down, is three words that mean ‘my iced cold beer’ in Spanish: Mi (my), chela (a slang term for beer in Mexico), helada (ice cold).”
40ml of the Michelada mix*
40ml Tomato concentrate
20ml Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur Verde (this adds a nice ancho flavour and a little bit of sweetness without adding sugar)
20ml Fresh lime juice (This needs to be freshly squeezed, to add brightness)
180ml Pacifico beer (this is about half a bottle; any light beer will do)
Tajin spice mix, for garnish
Build the drink with ice in a pint glass rimmed with Mexican Tajin spice mix. Make sure the spices are mixed, but try not to disturb the carbonation too much. Top it with ice again.
900ml Clam juice
3g Onion powder
1g Garlic powder
60g Maggi sauce
45g Worcestershire sauce
50g Tapatío hot sauce (you can use Tabasco if you want)
15g Hoisin sauce
5g Black pepper
2g Smoked salt
135ml Fresh lemon juice
Blend everything and refrigerate until use.