I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A quaint custom in Dawson City, in the northwestern Canadian territory of Yukon, is to serve a drink that is not for the faint of heart, nor, probably, for the sober. In the Sourdough Saloon of the Downtown Hotel, the brave or foolhardy can order a drink that is accessorized with a preserved human toe. “Gimme another shot, Joe.”
The Sourtoe Tradition
You would think the sourtoe cocktail dated back to the Yukon Gold Rush of 1896. You can picture the scene.
Some grizzled old prospector, having severed a toe with a poorly aimed pickax, limps into a bar with a nugget the size of his fist and orders drinks for everyone. But, there's a catch, to claim their free shot they all have to kiss his still bloody digit. Too bad it didn’t happen that way.
The tradition goes back, waaaay back to 1973.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
— Robert Service, from "The Cremation of Sam McGee"
The first toe (there have been others, more on that later) was a vintage item. It is said to have belonged to a rum runner and miner called Louis Liken.
He was smuggling booze into Alaska with his brother Otto in the frosty cold of winter, sometime in the 1920s. Louis suffered frostbite in his big toe, so, to prevent gangrene from setting in, faithful Otto removed it with a woodcutting ax. The only anaesthetic available was overproof rum.
Louis preserved his amputated appendage in a jar of alcohol in his cabin; as you would.
Half a century later, the marinated toe turned up in the possession of Captain Dick Stevenson, a man who owned many of the attributes of someone who might be called “a character.”
Capt. Dick began to plop the toe into drinks in the Sourdough Saloon and customers were encouraged to take a swallow to prove they were “True Yukoners.” The Sourtoe Cocktail was born.
The Legend Continues
The sourtoe cocktail became more formalized and fell into the possession of the Downtown Hotel. For $5 you get a shot of your favourite liquor, whether it be whiskey, gin, or Swedish glögg, (probably not glögg), and a submersed pickled toe.
The instructions are “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.”
The successful imbiber gets bragging rights and a certificate of accomplishment. Okay, it’s not a Nobel Prize or a knighthood but for some modest achievements are enough.
A running tally is kept in the saloon and there are now about 100,000 “true Yukoners.”
Toes that Disappear
Louis Liken’s toe did excellent duty until 1980 when a miner arrived to take the challenge. Sourtoe Cocktail Club picks up the story: “… Garry Younger was trying for the Sourtoe record. On his thirteenth glass of Sourtoe champagne, his chair tipped over backwards, and he swallowed the toe. Sadly, Toe #1 was not recovered.” Back then, the champagne was served in beer glasses.
Imagine that. What explanation could there be for a chair tipping backwards like that?
Other toes have vanished into the pockets of patrons no doubt to become a cherished item in a man cave somewhere.
There used to be a fine $500 for deliberately swallowing or stealing a toe. However, in 2013, a man brazenly ingested the appendage with a beer chaser after his sourtoe cocktail and immediately slapped $500 on the counter. He then boasted about his accomplishment.
Management took a dim view of this and upped the toe fine to $2,500 to discourage future showboating boors.
This may come as a surprise, but surplus human toes are not that easy to come by. The bar may be on its fifteenth toe as of this writing although it might also be on its twelfth; accounts vary no doubt due to note-taking reporters receiving their information along with alcohol.
Toes have been donated by various well-wishers often because of frostbite. But some have come from amputation due to diabetes or an inoperable corn. One arrived in a jar of alcohol with a note warning about the danger of mowing the lawn while wearing open-toe sandals.
Fresh toes are mummified in salt before going into service in the saloon.
Sometimes, when the supply is exhausted, the bar has had to resort to using the naughty bits of black bears. But, a fresh supply has just arrived.
British ex-marine Nick Griffiths took part in the 2018 483-kilometre Yukon Arctic Ultra race. The event takes place in the depths of winter and it cost Griffiths some toes. In June 2019, his amputated digit arrived at the Sourdough Saloon to begin mummification.
In September 2019, the hotel flew Nick Griffiths out to Dawson City to be reunited with his appendage in a cocktail. He chugged his libation without hesitation; as he pointed out “You know it's your toe, you know [where] it’s been,”
- Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is another bar in Dawson City. For a while, it offered customers a glass of champagne with a molar in it. The drink proved not to be as toothsome as the saloon hoped and was withdrawn from the menu.
- In China and Korea, baby mice wine is popular as a pick-me-up. It’s rice wine infused with the bodies of—well, you guessed it. Only baby mice are used because using furry adults would be gross.
- Another treat for tourists visiting Canada comes from the other end of the country. In Newfoundland you can be “Screeched In.” It requires that you don’t mind making a fool of yourself in public. You get dressed up in oilskins and Sou’Wester. Then the—ahem—victim is given a piece of Newfie Steak (baloney) to eat and a cod to kiss, chased with a shot of Screech (rum) after stating loud and clear “Long may your big jib draw.” Having successfully completed the ritual the participant is declared an honourary Newfoundlander. And, who wouldn’t want that distinction?
- “Dawson City’s Sourtoe Cocktail at the Historic Downtown Hotel: As Bad as it Sounds.” Julie Miller, traveller.com, October 18, 2017.
- “Mysterious American Swallows Yukon Bar’s Last Human Toe, Pays $500 Fine.” Tristan Hopper, The National Post, August 27, 2013.
- “The Sourtoe Cocktail.” Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “CANADA: ‘Disgusting’ Donation Enthusiastically Received for Yukon’s Sourtoe Cocktail.” Canadian Press, June 14, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 18, 2019:
What a crazy fad or what ever you want to call it. I would not participate! It is an interesting tale.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 18, 2019:
This is a grizzly tale. Certainly not a drink for the faint of heart.