July 19, 2014

Sourtoe Cocktail hits the spot in Dawson City

David Ellis

WE confess to much hearty research into the skills of imbibing over our half-century or so in this writing game, and certainly it's introduced us to some pretty extraordinary liquid creations over that time.

But it was a colleague who came back from Canada's Yukon recently had us heading to the computer to drop a line to management of the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, to enquire if that colleague was having us on (and thousands of others as well) with a piece she'd written in a journal called The Saturday Paper.

Because in it, globe-trotting Karen Halabi told of parting with ten bucks to tackle the Downtown's most-celebrated drop that's served in its Sourdough Saloon.

And it's called a Sourtoe Cocktail, because it contains just that: a dehydrated, pickled human toe. (We kid you not, and if you're feeling squeamish already, read no further.)

The hotel has been serving this bizarre creation for forty-odd years since a colourful Yukon local, Captain Dick Stevenson found a bloke's wizened toe preserved in alcohol in a jar while cleaning out a remote backwoods cabin in 1973. Captain Dick took the toe along to his local bar to show drinking mates, and after one or seven drinks (no one quite remembers the number) ordered a beer glass full of Champagne – dropped the toe in and drank it… although the fizz only, not the toe.

Not to be outdone his mates followed suit, and the Sourtoe Cocktail was born, to be quickly moved – should we say transplanted? – to the Downtown Hotel as a regular attraction for those possibly heading towards the same state of pickling as the toe.

Local legend says that first toe had belonged to a miner and rum-runner named Louie Liken back in the 1920's Prohibition days. But when he got word that the Canadian Mounties were onto him, Louie fled town on foot, only to succumb to severe frostbite in the snow.

When he returned to town for medical help, doctors amputated a severely-affected toe that Louie put into the jar with alcohol, to be found 50 years later by Captain Dick.

Today visitors line-up at the Sourdough Saloon for a Sourtoe Cocktail, but rather than Champagne, most now opt for a shot of local Yukon Jack Whiskey – complete with added gnarled preserved toe pre-dipped in salt – with the reasoning that a shot's quicker to get it over and done with, than a whole glass of bubbly.

And no, they're NOT encouraged to swallow the toe… in fact there's a C$2,500 charge if they do, as toes are not easy to come by and eight have been swallowed or stolen over the past 41 years.

Those who do take the challenge have to swallow their drink, with a Toe Captain witnessing the toe touching their lips. Their reward is a Sourtoe Club Membership Certificate and Card – over 60,000 qualifying since 1973.

And what's it like joining the Sourtoe Club? As colleague Karen wrote: "A little queasy, I join the small queue of first-time toe-drinkers.

"When it's my turn someone pushes me forward. It's too late to back out. Time stands still as I raise the glass to my lips and close my eyes. There's a slight medicinal odour, I taste salt and a liquor burn, there's a bump against my mouth – then it's all over.

"I'm full of adrenalin, someone shakes my hand…"

And as the next potential Club Member steps (is pushed?) forward, other patrons are clapping and filling the bar with the ritualistic Sourtoe Cocktail Chant: "You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe…"

And medicos say there's no harm in participating as the toes have been professionally removed and preserved in medicinal alcohol – while the whiskey's own alcoholic strength would be enough to kill most infections anyway.

Toes for the cocktail have been donated by people as diverse as frost bite victims and a Yukon old-timer who gave two of his in return for his personal nurses getting free drinks at the hotel while-ever he was alive.

And one toe even arrived in a jar of alcohol with a warning note: "Don't wear open-toe sandals mowing the lawn…"

(Read Karen Halabi on theluxetraveller.com )



[] YOU can drink it fast, you can drink it slow: Aussie lady Shirley Hardy-Rix of Doncaster in Melbourne braves the Sourtoe Cocktail (aussieoverland.com.au)

[] FIRST roll your toe in salt... (aussiesoverland.com.au)

[] YOU want me to drink WHAT? This lady is not quite so sure… (lisajackson/eatdrinktravel.com)

[] EIGHT toes have been swallowed or stolen over 41 years, so the hotel needs to advertise for back-up stocks. (Wikimedia)

[] DAWSON CITY's Downtown Hotel – served over 60,000 Sourtoe Cocktails in 41 years. (Downtown Hotel)

[] SMALL town with a big reputation: Dawson City from the air. (YukonInfoCentre)

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