In recent years, Hamilton’s downtown core has changed rapidly, with many businesses closing down and new ones popping up, just as fast. While some may welcome these changes, many others point to a loss for the LGBTQA2S+ community, with many popular gay bars closing down as the city evolved.
In the early 2000s, there were five major gay bars people could go to: The Werx, the Rainbow Lounge, The Embassy, M Bar and The Windsor, all of which were located in Hamilton’s downtown core. Since then, all of these bars have shut their doors.
For James Dee, a McMaster alum and Hamilton resident since 2004, bars such as the Embassy were an important aspect of their experience with Hamilton’s queer community as a place where they could go without threat of violence.
“We maybe have a little bit of drama and be kind of mean to each other….But when the lights came on at the end of the night you know everyone was checking in with each other like 'text when you get home and so I know you're safe,'” Dee said.
While Hamilton’s queer scene thrived in 2004, it was not without violence. In that same year, Hamilton Police Services, among other municipal agencies, raided the Warehouse Spa and Bath and arrested two men for indecent acts. That raid was followed by protests from Hamilton’s LGBTQA2S+ community.
“It felt a lot more dangerous to be visibly queer in 2004,” Dee said. “I think it's easy to kind of romanticize the time when we had brick and mortar spaces but it's also easy to forget why we needed those spaces so much.”
Dee believes that, to some degree, places closed down due to a decline in need, but also points to the gentrification of Hamilton as another key reason these spaces disappeared.
“It's not just the story of queer Hamilton, it's the story of Hamilton in general… a lot of the places I used to enjoy hanging out [at] are now bougie coffee shops,” Dee said.
For example, following the shuttering of the Werx’s door, the building was converted into the Spice Factory, a popular wedding venue.
“All across the board, [the gay bars] catered to people with less money,” Dee said. “They don't survive downtown anymore.”
For Sophie Geffros, another long-time Hamilton resident and McMaster graduate student, the loss of brick-and-mortar spaces has meant a segregation within the community.
Geffros, who spent their teen years in Hamilton, had many of their formative experiences at bars such as the Embassy, where they met older members of the LGBTA2S+ community in addition to those their own age.
“There is still an isolation that I think that can only be combated by in-person interaction,” Geffros said.
“We're a little more fragmented. Like if I'm going out… I'm going to be going out with people I already know who are members of the community,” they added.
For Geffros, the loss of Hamilton’s queer spaces is especially harmful, as these spaces were often the most accessible hangouts for queer people living in rural communities that lack direct bus service to Toronto.
“Those are people who are particularly isolated, who are often closeted throughout the week and would come to Hamilton on the weekend to blow off steam and be amongst themselves. That's a real loss,” Geffros said.
While there are no longer any physical LGBTQA2S+ spaces, there are opportunities for Hamilton’s queer community to converge. Dee is one of the founders of Queer Outta Hamilton, a collective that runs monthly queer pub nights, typically at Gallagher’s Pub.
There are also many LGBTQA2S+-friendly bars and clubs, such as Sous Bas, which offers queer events, typically in partnership with Queer Outta Hamilton.
While Hamilton may have lost its major physical queer spaces, the community continues to support each other the best they can.
By: Hess Sahlollbey
At Bar Sazerac, cocktail culture and seafood reign supreme. Even if you know nothing about artisan mixed drinks, co-owner Kyle Ferreira and Nick Incretolli, who run the bar program, will tailor a custom drink just for you.
The James Street North bar was opened last month by Ferreira and co-owner Shane McCartney, who owns the neighbouring restaurants Saltlick Smokehouse and Knead Pizza. Sazerac’s seafood, cheese and charcuterie are sourced from the nearby Hamilton Farmers’ Market and the Niagara Falls Tide & Vine Oyster House.
Sazerac is a standout addition into the local food scene. Its Gatsbyesque sign and unique Art Deco vibe harkens back to the Roaring Twenties and the diverse food and drink culture of New Orleans.
“New Orleans was the best place to start with food. It contains French, Créole, Canadian and Spanish influence amongst many others,” Ferreira explained.
The name Sazerac comes from the oldest known American cocktail, a pre-Civil War New Orleans style Cognac drink that has become ubiquitous with Cajun culture.
But Ferreira was quick to add that his own culture also influences him.
“Trinidad comes out in my drinks and the food… you can’t give up who you are. Whether or not you’re completely aware of it, you’re going to be going back to something you love.”
Ferreira and Incretolli both developed dozens of rinses and bitters that were inspired by the Trinidadian Angostura bitters, and use Trinidadian bitters for the first drink of the afternoon, a barrel-aged rum Negroni.
“It takes several days to make some of the ingredients, then it’s an additional seven day process where we age it in a cask,” explained Ferreira while Incretolli made the cocktail.
The beverage is based in Incretolli’s favorite spirit, campari.
Incretolli has won multiple national bartending competitions, including the 2015 Made with Love cocktail competition in Toronto, and the 2015 Hamilton Cocktail Showcase. He can make any cocktail based on your favorite fruit, candy or breakfast cereal.
“Our gateway cocktail is the gin and tonic. We make the tonic syrup in-house but about 30 per cent of our guests every night simply tell us what flavours they like and we go from there. One preparation that we’re really happy about is the Fruit Loops milk punch,” explained Ferreira as Incretolli prepared the next drink.
“Cocktails are getting better and better in Hamilton. There’s a passion in Hamilton to be the best or to get out.”
Sazerac’s unrelenting desire for top quality can be seen in the execution that goes into making every drink. Making cocktails is an art form that Ferreira and Incretolli hold with the same regard top chefs do their food.
The process is reminiscent of Walter White on Breaking Bad, as Incretolli placed a multitude of mixing glasses and tools on the bar while Kyle narrated each step.
“[Incretolli] is consistently telling me about ideas and creative spurs that he’s experiencing. Working with someone that won’t stop pushing the envelope… fuels me as well.”
Our second cocktail, and the one that Ferreira and Incretolli were the most proud of was the S’mores milk punch.
“The milk punch dates back to Benjamin Franklin in the 1860s who had his own recipe, but we set out to make this our own and more interesting and that’s where we got the idea to use Golden Grahams cereal,” said Ferreira.
Imbibing the cocktail, the Golden Grahams are the first notes you experience on your palate followed by the unique smooth smoky roasted marshmallow taste of bygone camping trips.
Incretolli used a blowtorch to roast a campfire marshmallow for a s’mores cocktail while Ferreira polished a tool set. Even the ice in the various cocktails is made crystal clear and hand carved with ice sculpture tools.
That uniqueness and attention to detail is what elevates Bar Sazarac from the rest of the locales on James Street North. With New Orleans-style cocktails and seafood now available alongside downtown’s other eateries, James Street North too continues to become its own the melting pot of cultures and traditions.
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