This is a big year for the Asian bar industry. For the first time ever, the World’s 50 Best Bars finale will be hosted in Asia, scheduled for Singapore this October. Another first was just marked, however, with the first-ever hosting in Hong Kong of Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, that I attended a few days ago. Another hallmark is the fact that this was the first full-scale gathering of the bar community in Asia since 2019.
Attracted by a slew of events in the run-up to the finale — mostly in the nature of bar takeovers by some of the bar world’s most eminent personalities and bars — this had the added advantage of exposing me to a number of diverse venues across Hong Kong that I might normally have not visited, from izakayas (Japanese style drinking houses) to scrappy dive bars and speakeasies such as The Aubrey at the Mandarin Oriental - Izakaya, Quality Goods Club - Dive Bar, The Pontiac - all round fun bar, among others,
Let me circle back first, to a 2018 visit to the city and a chat with my go-to man for bar recommendations — Dev Sehgal, a Hong Kong bar veteran who has been in the city for a decade and as insiders say, the OG of Hong Kong bars. Currently the beverage manager at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, and for several years before that, he was the bar manager of 8 1/2 Otto E Mezzo Bombana, the only Italian restaurant outside of Italy to get three Michelin stars. You must visit Coa, he says. A coa, if you are curious, is a long-specialised tool used to harvest agave, the plant that is then used to make agave spirits like mezcal and tequila. Coa, the bar launched in 2017,is not easy to find. With the words ‘Coa’ written in an extremely small font on a brick wall outside the bar, it whispers, rather than shouts its presence in Central Hong Kong.
I found as I entered, the very same Coa displayed on the wall inside, and Jay Khan, the founder behind the bar. Jay’s frequent visits to Mexico, got him fascinated by the agave, especially as he told me then, “They are the only spirits that express their flavour naturally.” As opposed to say, dark spirits like whisky where the bulk of the flavour comes from maturation, or gin, where it is a range of botanicals that contribute to the flavour.
Coa, when I visited in 2018, was fairly empty, and it has been a challenging few years for Jay and his team to stay pure to their mission. Although the rewards were slow to come, it has since been a heady ride for them, coming in twice now as the number 1 bar in Asia, and as I visit two days before the finale, I am fortunate to be whisked in by Jay, because the line outside is a block long.
Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, hosted by Mark Sansom, Director of Content, for World’s 50 Best Bars, is a tightly hosted affair of just 75 minutes, save for the last 10 minutes when it comes to the announcement of the Top 3 bars in Asia. Prior to that, it has been a bumper year for India, with a record nine bars in the Top 100, five in the positions 51-100 (Americano, Hideaway, PCO, Home, Hoot’s) and four in the Top 50 (Copitas, The Bombay Canteen, The Living Room by Masque and Sidecar). No surprise that it is New Delhi’s Sidecar that receives the Amaro Lucano award for the number 1 ranked bar in India, clocking in at number 18 in this year’s list.
In the run-up to the finale in October, the bars are abuzz with rumours of who might emerge as number 1. Would it be Coa for a record-breaking third year, or would it be Singapore’s Jigger and Pony, with their breathtaking new cocktail menu, or would it be the Bangkok Social Club, from the Four Seasons Bangkok? For several years, it has been a toss-up between Jigger and Coa, and as you might have guessed by now, it is Coa again that triumphed.
I ask Indra Kantono, the co-founder of Jigger and Pony, if he feels that this could be the year for an Asian bar to be recognised as the number 1 in the world. “While it’ll be amazing to see an Asian bar be recognised as the number one in the world, we believe that it is more important to foster the growth of the bar culture and community,” he says.
Jay echoes Indra’s words in the media interaction that follows. When asked, how Coa will continue to remain relevant, he says, “We’re going to continue to remain the same”. Amen.
The writer is is the co-founder of 30BestBarsIndia