In an industry full of big personalities, there are few people as impactful as Seattle-based Rocky Yeh. If you have ever attended a Cocktail Week anywhere in North America odds are you have run into Rocky. Sometimes in a suit helping usher guests to their seats, sometimes shirtless extolling the virtues of barrel aged spirits. He currently works with Pierre Ferrand as the “Guardian of Cellars”. (But who is guarding them from Rocky?). He took the time to talk with us about some of the events he’s interested in working on and what can inspire someone to step out from behind the bar.
Bartender Atlas: In what year did you start bartending?
Rocky Yeh: I think it was 2009.
BA: What style of bartending were you doing when you started?
RY: I basically jumped right into cocktails.
BA: There was no jumping from crazy nightclub volume to the 7 ingredient drinks?
RY: No, it’s a hole that I sometimes think I need to go back and fill.
BA: How long were you behind a bar before you started figuring out ways to work in other aspects of the industry?
RY: It was probably two years.
BA: Was there a catalyst for the move?
RY: It was more that at the time I was, and I still am, really into Rhum Agricole. I wanted everyone to drink more Rhum Agricole. The more Agricole other people drank, the more I would be able to drink. I wanted to see more brands come in. I was a big fan of Clement and J.M. right from the get-go. I knew that, out there in the world, outside the U.S. there were so many other Agricoles that were available and I wanted them. I wanted to be able to drink them here. And even within those brands, I wanted more than the few core items that were available. I wanted to get my hands on reserve bottlings and special editions and things like that. So basically out of self-interest. (Laughs) Then one day Ben Jones (of Clement and J.M. Rhum Agricole) was like “We’re entering your market in a meaningful way, would you like help with promotion?”
BA: Would you say that Ben took you under his wing and worked with you in a mentor capacity?
RY: Certainly. But also on the mentor side I was always a big fan of Erick Castro and watching Simon Ford work and especially Angus Winchester. Watching him work and the way he prepared for his classes and the depth of knowledge that he has. Also Philip Duff. And Guillaume Lamy from Pierre Ferrand was instrumental.
BA: People all over the U.S. hire you for various jobs, what kinds of things do people ask you to help them with?
RY: A lot of it is event-based. If someone wants to put together an activation or if someone is participating in Speed Rack at whatever location and they can’t be there, I will help them out. I always enjoy helping out brands that I can really get behind. I love a good product especially when it comes with a story. Most importantly I like things that have integrity and have a place in the world in terms of coming from “something” and speaking to a place.
BA: So you are happy to help someone so long as they mean it?
BA: In the last 6 years, I have seen you dressed as a pineapple, a dictator, in a toga and barely dressed at all. Is there any weird event or promotion that you have been a part of that didn’t really work?
RY: Uh…no? Well, the first time they painted me…Alexandre Gabrielle from Ferrand asked Guillaume “Do you think Rocky would be mad if we just, you know, paint him?” and Guillaume answered “You’ve met him, right?” So that wasn’t a problem.
I have had a lot of fun with all these things and one of the fun aspects of what I do, is that there doesn’t seem to be a level of ridiculosity – to make up a word – that is too far over the top…yet. At least I haven’t found it yet.
BA: What would you say is your favourite project that you have been involved with?
RY: Probably being painted for Tales of The Cocktail was one of my favourite things. Just because it’s a bajillion degrees in New Orleans and it’s humid and my job was to walk around without a shirt, so that was great. I was the most comfortable person at the event.
BA: If I can work something like that out for Tales, that would be great. I have to talk to your agent.
RY: Hahaha – I’ll put you in touch.
BA: Do you ever see yourself settling back in behind a bar, or desk?
RY: For me I think that’s a ways out. My idea for retirement, I guess that’s the way to put it…every brand person goes back and opens their own place. I would really like to open a sports bar at some point. I have this ambition about that though. The thing is that most of the time you “end up” at a sports bar. It’s never like “Guess what? There’s this really great bar and they happen to play sports! Let’s hang out there all the time.” Often when you are looking for sports bar you thinking “Uh, I guess we can go here.” So you kind of end up there, you aren’t actively seeking to go find that bar. I kinda want to reverse that.
BA: If people want to find out more about what you do, or have you walk around with your shirt off and painted how do they get in touch with you?
RY: I am on Twitter and Instagram. And via email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
BA: Wait…Branddepletion.com? What’s that?
RY: Hahaha! It started out kind of as a joke with Erik Trickett and I. Basically we thought “ How do we get brands to pay for our drinks?”…we were wandering around Vegas. We started talking and thinking “Well what are we really good at?” Depletion! And it grew from there. It has become an events-based platform. We’ve done some one-offs and some medium term contracts for various brands. More than anything else, it’s a reminder that there are a lot things to remember about this business and one of them is to never take yourself too seriously because that’s just boring. Also, sometimes random ideas really do work out.
BA: It’s a great name for a company and I’d love to volunteer some time. You have a new role that you have just stepped into as well?
RY: Yes, I have a defined title and territory. The territory is everywhere and the title is Guardian of Cellars. The obvious question is who is going to guard the cellars from me.
Thanks again to Rocky for taking the time.