Pure sensory overload. These are the words that Rocky Yeh, brand ambassador for Cognac house Maison Ferrand, uses to describe the first time he set foot inside the New Orleans festival that is Tales of the Cocktail more than 12 years ago. Everywhere he looked, there were drinks: drinks at the conference’s many informal networking sessions, drinks at the myriad educational seminars, and, naturally, drinks at the endlessly revelrous after parties. But more than the ever-flowing libations, it was the people who stirred something powerful inside Yeh.
“It was just one of those moments, like in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ when they first get to Rivendell, and Sam goes to Frodo, ‘Elves, Mr. Baggins!’” Yeh recalled. These were his people, he realized. He belonged here. “It was hugely eye-opening and definitely solidified being bitten by the bug.”
That bug, of course, was the the drinks industry. At the time, Yeh was about as far from the field as could be, toiling away in a lackluster IT job following his graduation from the University of Washington. But after his first Tales, Yeh made a hard left turn — he wanted to learn as much about the drinks business as possible.
Without knowing where else to start, Yeh took an unpaid internship, collecting empty glasses and restocking ice as a barback in Seattle watering holes. It wasn’t glamorous, but the knowledge he gained — from Cracker Jack cocktail recipes to the flavor profiles of obscure liquors — was priceless. Yeh revealed himself to be a quick learner, before long working his way up to a handful of bartender positions. In no time, Yeh had made his way to the brand side of the business, ultimately landing at Maison Ferrand, where his job is to educate drinkers about the house’s varied portfolio of spirits, which includes Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Citadelle Gin, and— much to Yeh’s pleasure — Plantation Rum.
“Rum can do anything that almost any other spirit can do,” Yeh explained, describing the spirit as his first love. “You can have very light, crisp, and almost neutral rum that can be used as an analogue to vodka,” he said. “But it runs the entire gamut, to complex, aged rums that are comparable to whiskey or Cognac. And then there are things that only rum does that are just unique to its flavor profile.”
Also fueling Yeh’s love of rum? Tiki, the Polynesian-inflected art form that encompasses, among other things, vibrant and theatrically styled cocktails and punches. Yeh is a fan, to put it mildly.
“I love tiki,” Yeh said emphatically, revealing that it’s significantly affected his wardrobe. Aside from his finely tailored collection of more than 30 different suits, Yeh owns a dizzying array of tiki shirts splashed in bright floral prints and jungle scenes. “It’s a lot of palm trees and orchids and what have you,” Yeh said with a laugh. “I’ve also got some Star Wars-themed tiki shirts, and I actually just ordered one [with a] design for the University of Washington. I’m like, ‘Fine! Just take my money!’ But there’s so many different flavors to it — I’ve seen Elvis tiki and space tiki, and that so awesome to see.”
At Tales of the Cocktail, Yeh is always excited to meet fellow tiki aficionados, not to mention the broader booze community, each fueled by their own individual drink-related obsessions. “We’re all nerds in one way or another,” Yeh said. “We love geeking out about things. It’s that level of passion and that level of enthusiasm that really helps to define the industry and the community.”
At this year’s event, set to take place July 17 through 22, Yeh will be on hand to help Maison Ferrand unveil its new Jamaican rum, Xaymaca Special Dry, a 100-percent pot still rum redolent with flavors of black banana and flambéed pineapple. He’ll also step into a new role as a member of the conference’s new Grants Committee, which aims to dole out $250,000 in grants to benefit the industry. It’s a task Yeh takes seriously because the committee’s mission —to support promising folks trying to make it in the industry — is also a personal one.
“For everyone attending Tales for the first time, I hope they really get to see how big and diverse and welcoming our community is,” Yeh said. “There are definitely plenty of events, there’s lots of partying, there’s obviously drinks everywhere,” he continued. “But it’s not just a party. There is an opportunity to learn, but more than everything else, you have an opportunity to really connect with your peers from so many places.”
Best of all, though? The inclusive atmosphere, Yeh stressed. “No one is unapproachable,” he said. “And that’s really important.”