At 4 p.m. Monday, many Seattle bartenders, chefs, and restaurateurs held a collective toast to a person who made their lives brighter — but the occasion was a somber one. Earlier in the day, word spread that Rocky Yeh — an influential figure in the Pacific Northwest cocktail and restaurant scene with his vibrant personality, generosity, and in-depth knowledge of spirits — died unexpectedly at the age of 42. The cause was heart failure, according to a social media post from his brother, Ryan. Yeh is survived by his brother and their two parents.
A University of Washington graduate who studied biology and worked in IT once upon a time, Yeh found his calling more than a decade ago as a restaurant and bar professional. Most recently, Yeh was the Pacific Northwest market manager for Maison Ferrand, the well-regarded Cognac company, which has an expanding gin and rum list. But he had been a memorable Seattle nightlife fixture for many years, working his way up from barback to bartender (at the now-closed cocktail destination Vessel) to become a respected authority who traveled the world as an ambassador for various brands, making plenty of friends along the way. “He was a champion for Seattle bartenders and the restaurant community as a whole,” says his close friend Keith Waldbauer, co-owner of Liberty Bar.
Many who knew Yeh say that meals with him were epic. He would order everything on a restaurant’s menu, just to try as much as possible, then bring leftovers to feed workers at local bars. He would also propose spontaneous food and drink adventures, such as a quick dim sum trip … to China. “It’s rare these days to find someone who loves food and drink and friendship as much as he did,” says Christopher Elford, who co-owns Belltown’s No Anchor, Navy Strength, and Vinnie’s Raw Bar. “Rocky always showed up and supported us, he knew more than any of us about spirits, and most of us ran into him more in other cities than here. He impacted the people who impacted the people we idolize.”
By all accounts, Yeh was the life of the party, donning eye-catching outfits at dinners and events (or often no shirt at all), and entertaining everyone within his orbit. “Rocky was in many ways the cocktail community’s id,” says Andrew Bohrer, bartender, author, and co-founder of the advocacy and education group Washington State Bartender’s Guild, of which Yeh was also a founding member. “When we got too serious, he filled a super soaker with a perfectly chilled Negroni.”
But Yeh was more than a bon vivant — his opinions on the trends of cocktail culture and food carried serious clout. Waldbauer says that he had discussed his upcoming bar, the Doctor’s Office, with Yeh and the food menu is influenced by his late friend’s preferences. It’s also perhaps no coincidence that Yeh was an evangelist for Plantation Rum, a spirit that continues to find its way into many cocktails across the city, from the Southpaw at Life on Mars in Capitol Hill to the mai tai at Navy Strength. “He was the Seattle tastemaker,” says local mixologist Jim Romdall, who worked with Yeh at Vessel back in the day.
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In an industry full of big personalities, there are few people as impactful as Seattle-based @rockdoggydog. 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. Read the full story on our website - link in our profile.
More than anything, Yeh’s influence is difficult to condense and quantify. Those who knew Yeh best say that he has impacted their lives in immeasurable ways, whether it was as a friend, advisor, advocate, dinner companion, or co-conspirator in life. “He was like a brother to me, says Guillaume Lamy, Maison Ferrand’s vice president for the Americas. “Now that he is gone, I feel like our family needs to get together, spread even more love and be even more inclusive, to honor him and his incredible legacy to the hospitality business.”
Adds Canon owner Jamie Boudreau, “Rocky’s smile is eternal, his glass perpetually bottomless, and he will be sorely missed by anyone who had the good fortune to meet him.”
Waldbauer says there is a memorial in the works for Yeh, with details to be announced soon.
UPDATED, December 3, 2019, 5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with more information about Yeh’s death, per a social media post from his brother.