The Popular Cocktail That Includes a Dehydrated Human Toe
The world of alcoholic cocktails is dizzyingly diverse, with as many potential drink combinations as there are varieties of alcohol and mixers. Some, like the Cuba Libre – rum mixed with Coca-Cola – are very simple, while others, like the Commonwealth – a monstrous, record-braking concoction boasting an astounding 71 ingredients sourced from every nation in the British Commonwealth – are more complex. Over the years, countless adventurous mixologists have attempted to put their own twist on these classic recipes, swapping in exotic ingredients and engaging in the strange alchemy of “molecular gastronomy” in the quest for the ultimate beverage experience. But when it comes to unique mixed drinks, it is hard to beat the Sourtoe Cocktail, the signature speciality of the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City, Canada. The recipe is simple: one ounce of whiskey…and a dehydrated human toe.
To understand how this bizarrely macabre drink came to be, it is important to understand the history and character of Dawson City. Located in Canada’s northern Yukon Territory on the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, the city was founded in 1897 by Joseph Ladue and named after famous Canadian Geologist George Mercer Dawson. The town came to prominence in 1896 when large gold deposits were discovered in the region, triggering the Klondike Gold Rush. The sudden influx of prospectors hoping to strike it rich turned Dawson City into the ultimate boom town. By 1898, the once-tiny settlement had become a bustling city of 17,000, with dozens of hotels, boarding houses, shops, saloons, music halls, movie theatres, brothels, and other establishments to keep the prospectors supplied and entertained. Entrepreneurs from far and wide descended upon Dawson to make their fortunes, including theatre builder Sid Grauman, Vaudeville tycoon Alexander Pantages, and future real estate mogul Fred Trump, grandfather of Donald Trump. The city soon took on a romantic reputation as the ‘Paris of the North’, immortalized in works of fiction such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang and Robert Service’s The Spell of the Yukon and The Cremation of Sam McGee. But the town’s heyday was tragically short-lived, for by 1899 the gold had all dried up and the prospectors moved on to greener pastures in Alaska. By the time Dawson was incorporated as a city in 1902, its population had fallen to barely 5,000. Dawson was dealt a further blow during the Second World War by the construction of the Alaska Highway, which both caused its population to plummet and the Territorial Capital to be moved from Dawson to Whitehorse. The town limped along, barely clinging to existence, until the 1970s, when the rising price of gold and new mechanized placer [“plah-sir”] mining techniques made the Klondike gold fields profitable once more. Increased tourism also brought new life to the city, which today boasts a population of around 1,300, eight national historic sites, a thriving local economy, and the same eccentric frontier spirit.
It was in the 1920s, at the start of Dawson City’s wilderness years, that the story of the Sourtoe Cocktail begins. According to legend, brothers Louie and Otto Linken, successful bootleggers in the region, were transporting a shipment of rum by dogsled when they became caught in a blizzard. While crossing a frozen river, Louie stepped through some thin ice and soaked his foot. By the time the brothers reached their cabin, Louie’s foot was frozen solid. To avoid the onset of gangrene, Otto used an axe to chop off Louie’s toe. He then placed the severed digit in a jar of alcohol to preserve it and kept it in the cabin as a souvenir. Five decades later in 1973, Dick Stevenson, a bartender at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel, allegedly discovered the preserved toe in a run-down cabin he had purchased. A well-known and eccentric local character, Stevenson – known to everyone in town as “Captain” – brought the toe back to the Sourdough and began plunking it into the drinks of adventurous patrons. And just like that, a bizarre local tradition was born.
Today, the Sourtoe Cocktail forms part of an elaborate ritual complete with detailed rules. To become a member of the exclusive Sourtoe Club, patrons must first order a shot of their choice – Yukon Jack Whiskey is the most popular – then pay $8 dollars to a “Toe Captain,” a specially-designated server in a sea captain’s hat who serves the cocktail and explains the rules – those being that the patron must touch the mummified toe with their lips without biting, chewing, or putting the toe in their mouth. Or, as the saloon’s catching slogan puts it:
“You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe.”
The Toe Captain then lifts the desiccated toe from the jar of salt used to preserve it, drops it in the glass, and bids the brave patron to drink up. Reviews of the taste have been mixed, to say the least, with 34-year-old Vancouver resident Lindsay Wilson describing the experience in 2018 as:
“…traumatizing … the texture of it was really disgusting, but I don’t remember a taste. The feel of it was really really gross. It was like a greasy raisin.”
Yet despite such glowing reviews, the Sourtoe Cocktail had proven a surprising hit among tourists to the area; as of this recording, over 100,000 people from all around the world have taken the plunge and joined the Sourtoe Club. Nor has the practice of imbibing alcohol laced with human body parts run afoul of the local health authorities, with Adam Gerle, general manager of the Downtown Hotel, explaining in 2019:
“We’ve had the chief medical officer of the Yukon look at it and give it a clean bill of health as long as we keep the toes mummified, which we do by keeping them on salt and serving it in 40% alcohol. That keeps everything legal.”
However, in case you are wondering: no, the toe currently in use is not the same toe “Captain” Dick Stevenson discovered in 1973. That original toe lasted only seven years before being lost in an unfortunate accident. According to the Sourtoe Club website:
“In July 1980, a miner named 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.”
Since that time, seven more toes have been donated to the saloon to keep the tradition going. The first replacement toe was amputated due to an inoperable corn, the second was a victim of frostbite, the third was donated anonymously, the fourth and fifth were donated by a nursing home resident in exchange for free drinks for his nurses, the sixth was amputated due to diabetes, and the seventh arrived anonymously with a note reading “Don’t wear open-toe sandals while mowing the lawn.” But perhaps stranger than the toes’ various origins are the number of times they have been deliberately stolen. To discourage the theft of what is understandably a scarce commodity, following the loss of the original toe the Sourdough Saloon began charging a $500 fine to anyone caught swallowing or stealing the garnish. This apparently did not discourage one unnamed man, who on August 24th, 2013, ordered a Sourtoe shot, swallowed the toe, paid the fine, and left. In June 2017, another toe was stolen from the Saloon, but later returned by mail. As a result of these incidents, the fine has since been increased to $2,500.
Over the years, the Sourdough Saloon has lost around 15 toes to a combination of theft, accidental swallowing, and regular wear and tear. But new toes are donated all the time, ensuring the continued survival of this bizarre drink tradition. Today the Saloon maintains a rotation of ten toes, which are cured in salt for six months prior to being served and periodically retired as they begin to break down. Three of these were donated by former British Royal Marine and endurance athlete Nick Griffiths, who lost them to frostbite during the 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultramarathon. But the most recent additions to the Sourdough’s collection came from a truly legendary source: “Captain” Dick Stevenson himself, who died in October 2019 at the age of 89. In his will, Stevenson requested that all ten of his toes be pickled and donated to his beloved saloon, so that they might tickle the lips of adventurous patrons for years to come. It it is a bequest wholly befitting such an eccentric and beloved local character, with Stevenson’s daughter Dixie stating:
“Dad is a publicity hound and he just said he was going to be more famous after he’s dead.”
So the next time you find yourself in Dawson City, why not stop by the Sourdough Saloon and earn your place in the vaunted Sourtoe Cocktail hall of fame? It is likely the most “full bodied” drink you will ever have.
#1: The name of the Sourtoe Cocktail and its namesake saloon is a reference to the moniker “sourdough,” long used to describe residents of Alaska and the Yukon. This curious nickname originated during the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes, when the Royal Canadian Mountain Police forbade prospective gold prospectors from crossing into the Yukon or Alaska without a year’s worth of supplies. As these supplies could only be carried over the treacherous mountain passes by sledge or on the prospectors’ backs, efficiency was key. While many bread recipes required eggs, milk, and other bulky ingredients, sourdough required only flour and a sourdough starter containing lactic acid bacteria and yeast, and could produce far more food than the equivalent weight in canned goods. Sourdough starter thus became standard equipment for prospectors. There was only one problem: sourdough starter does not react well to cold temperatures, and must be kept warm to remain potent. The Gold Rush era is thus replete with stories of prospectors building shelves for their sourdough starter above the stove before furnishing the rest of their cabins, or sleeping with the sourdough jar tucked into their clothes to keep it warm through the cold nights. Over the years, sourdough became intimately associated with the Gold Rush and of the men and women who had the tenacity and ingenuity to brave the harsh Alaskan winters year after year and scrape a living out of the rugged northern frontier.
#2: In addition to its rich mining heritage, literary legacy, and the Sourtoe Cocktail, Dawson City has yet another claim to fame: one of the world’s largest collections of previously-lost silent films. In the early 20th Century, Dawson City boasted no fewer than three movie theatres: the Palace Grand, the Orpheum, and the Family Theatre. After touring through more major North American cities, popular films and newsreels would make their way to Dawson, the end of the line for the film-distribution network. As they were too expensive to ship back to the studios, these reels simply accumulated in the basement of the town’s Carnegie Library, creating something of a storage problem. At the time, movies were projected on nitro-cellulose film, which is extremely flammable and has a tendency to spontaneously burst into flames. Wishing to avoid the kind of fires that have destroyed numerous film repositories over the years, the residents of Dawson cast about for a safe place to dispose of the reels. The solution came in 1929 when the Amateur Athletics Association became unable to continue running the local swimming pool. The film reels, along with other trash, were thrown into the abandoned pool, covered over with dirt, and the site converted into an outdoor skating rink.
There the reels remained, buried and forgotten, until 1978, when construction workers building a new recreation centre accidentally stumbled upon the cache. The discovery soon came to the attention of Michael Gates, the newly arrived curator for Parks Canada, who immediately recognized the importance of the find. The permafrost at the bottom of the old pool had preserved an astonishing 533 reels of film, including period newsreels and dozens of Hollywood films by such luminaries as D.W. Griffith and Todd Browning – many of which are the only copies known to exist anywhere in the world. In the early days of cinema, films were considered as disposable as newspapers and little effort was made to preserve them, meaning that over 90% of films made before 1929 are now considered lost. The Dawson City films very nearly joined them, for as the reels were pulled up into the hot August sun, the emulsion immediately began to melt. While the film was eventually stabilized and preserved, the melting emulsion imparted on the footage a distinctive damage known to film scholars as the “Dawson Flutter.” Due to the volatile and dangerous nature of the nitrate film, the reels were flown out of Dawson by military transport and placed into climate-controlled storage at the Library and Archives Canada and the U.S. Library of Congress. The films were then transferred onto more stable safety film for future study. Thus preserved, the Dawson City Find represents an invaluable treasure trove of early cinema and a unique window into everyday life and culture in the early 20th Century.
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