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This Is What Creativity Means to Emilio Salehi

The San Francisco bartender on how videography has shaped his approach to bartending, his hack for building complex flavor profiles and the recipe for his In Bokeh cocktail.

Emilio Salehi started the Instagram account Equal Parts Cocktail with his twin brother Miguel in order to showcase their cocktails and his passion for videography. What he didn’t expect was that filming drinks would teach him something about the creative process itself.

Visual principles of foreground, background and framing have helped crystallize for him an idea that now drives his approach behind the bar: Drinks need a singular taste profile, just as a portrait brings an object into focus. “How do I get the truest essence of this flavor that I’m trying to put forward?” says Salehi. “A cocktail should have a flavor identity.”

Salehi got his start making drinks while attending the University of South Carolina, when he and his brother were hired as bartenders at a bar in the hard-partying college town of Columbia. He learned he enjoyed the fast pace, loud music and performative aspect of bartending, even if he was only serving up shots of whiskey and beer. His next gig was at the only bar in town that specialized in craft drinks, where he received a foundation in classics and house-made ingredients.

After graduation, he took a detour to China to work in the fashion industry before decamping for San Francisco, where found himself drawn to the bar again. This time, it was at a high-volume Spanish restaurant—a trial-by-fire experience that proved more fun and lucrative than the temp jobs he’d previously held. His brother joined him there, and they continued to push each other to become better.

One of their collaborations is the Equal Parts Cocktail Instagram account, which Salehi sees as showcasing the symbiotic role between bartending and creative expression. “Videography gives me a platform, visibility, and has allowed me to create a name for myself outside of just bartending,” he says. “On the other side, as a bartender and as someone in the industry, it gives my content authenticity. I’m actually behind the stick every week.”

Salehi has gone on to work at a series of high-end restaurant and craft cocktail bars, learning how to incorporate culinary influences and unexpected flavors into drinks. He’s discovered that one of the best “hacks” for developing drinks is talking with chefs—in particular, pastry chefs—about flavor matchups. “They are this massive wealth of knowledge of flavor profiles,” says Salehi. “You can be like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to make this apple cocktail. What do you recommend with that?’ And they’re pulling out all these spices you wouldn’t think to utilize.”

It was a discovery that inspired him to create ingredient-focused cocktails, especially ones that use the seasonal natural bounty of Southern California. Paired with the insights he’s gleaned from videography, these lessons have led to a more streamlined, minimalist aesthetic. “When you have a cocktail that is complicated, convoluted, and has a ton of ingredients, maybe you’re not picking up on all those small, nuanced flavors,” says Salehi. “But when you strip it down… It’s really just about simple beauty.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?

How does it inspire you?
At this point in my life, it’s a huge catalyst for … challenging myself to grow creatively behind the camera and also behind the bar. Learning about cinematic composition has also simply changed the way I view the world.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Describe your creative process in one sentence.
Conceptualize, experiment, scrutinize, refine.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
The prospect of working on a new kind of project that is bigger and better than anything else I’ve produced is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
A man with old friends.

Best thing you ever drank:
Springwater from a well on Islay.

Worst thing you ever drank:
A poorly executed seaweed-infused Martini with a hot blossoming tea flower garnish. Tasted like hot garbage.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Making a Biscoff cookie–infused bourbon with my friend Elliott Clark, aka @apartment_bartender. I wouldn’t recommend it.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Cuddling with my cat. Keeping up with politics.

If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
obZen by Meshuggah or Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by the Wu-Tang Clan.

What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had:
I did guttural vocals for my metal band in high school. I guess some people might find that weird. I think it was pretty awesome.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Stop trying to rationalize working an office job you hate. Go do what you love.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
An “Offset”? I still have no idea what the hell that is.

Best meal you’ve ever had:
An almost entirely foraged meal on Islay prepared by a world-renowned chef.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Single malt highball.

Dive bar?
Shot of tequila and a beer.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Squid ink.

The last text message you sent:
Peach emoji, heart emoji.