Discover the Weird but True Story of the Sourtoe Cocktail
Hook & Barrel, January 19, 2022
I’ve traveled to Dawson City, a tiny town in Canada’s Yukon territory, to try the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail at the Sourdough Saloon inside the Downtown Hotel. The man they call the Toe Captain theatrically waves a severed human toe, hygienically held by a pair of tongs, in my face.
“You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe,” Terry Lee intones.
With that, he plunks the blackened digit into my shot of Yukon Jack.
I’m now staring at someone’s shriveled-up hammertoe bobbing at the bottom of my glass. I’m supposed to drink the whisky and in the process touch the mummified toe to my lips. If I manage that, I’ll receive a Sourtoe Certificate initiating me into an exclusive cocktail club. Before raising a toast, I conclude that Yukon poet Robert W. Service was right—there are indeed “strange things done in the midnight sun.”
Dawson City found its place on the world map when gold was discovered at nearby Bonanza Creek in 1896, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush that for years shaped the town. The easy money from the many gold claims led to gambling, prostitution, and general debauchery, and Dawson became known as Canada’s good-time town.
The party vibe has endured for more than a century—there are regular cancan shows all summer at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest gambling hall; and you can join the ‘breakfast club’ inside the bar at the Westminster Hotel at 9 a.m. for some hair of the dog. In the past few decades, though, Dawson has become almost more famous for its Sourtoe Cocktail.
Prior to serving the drink, Lee imparts the story of the toe, a tale that began during prohibition with two brothers, Louie and Otto Liken. In summer they mined for gold on their claim at Miller Creek where they shared a cabin, about 60 miles from Dawson City. During the winter they ran overproof rum up to Alaska, a side gig that proved more lucrative than prospecting.
On his fateful run, Louie accidentally stepped through thin ice and soaked his right foot, freezing the big toe solid. When he returned to the cabin his brother chopped it off before gangrene set in. Otto then put the toe in a mason jar, topped it with overproof rum, and stuck it on a shelf.
Forty years later, a man named Dick Stevenson found the preserved toe at the bootlegging brothers’ old cabin and brought it back to town with a notion to do something with it.
“He came up with the idea that in order to become an honorary sourdough, you have to kiss the sour toe,” says Lee. (In Dawson, residents who have survived a long, dark Yukon winter are called ‘sourdoughs’ after the bread that was a staple among early prospectors).
Stevenson started serving the Sourtoe Cocktail in 1973 and by the end of the season there were eight members in the club.
I’ll be the 95,046th member. I was gunning for 100,000, but the pandemic seriously slowed the number of intrepid drinkers journeying north to partake in the ritual. The Downtown Hotel expects to hit the milestone some time this coming summer.
Prior to 2020, people came from as far away as Mongolia to drink 80-proof booze garnished with a human toe. All 50 states are represented in Lee’s meticulous log of Sourtoe Cocktail Club members. In fact, some people travel almost all the way to the Arctic Circle just to do the $8 CAD ($6.35 US) toe, says Downtown Hotel manager Adam Gerle.
Their reasons range from bragging rights to the ‘when in Rome’ phenomenon. Like getting screeched in with rum and then kissing a cod in Newfoundland, or swallowing the Mezcal worm in Mexico, drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail has become inextricably tied to the Yukon. “It’s great to partake in a northern tradition,” says Caroline ‘Peaches’ Cox prior to putting her name on the toe list. “You get swept up in the party atmosphere.”
Lyle Wood’s reason has to do with legacy. “It will be something to tell my kids about,” says Wood, who vowed to do the drink at the end of a 10-day guided trip to hunt Yukon moose and dall sheep.
There’s a nervous energy in the bar: stilted laughter from those waiting their turn on red velvet banquets; claps and cheers for those with certificates in hand. Officiating the proceedings and enforcing the rules is Lee, who takes his job seriously. The build-up to the shot has been known to make people cry and lose their nerve, or clamp their lips so tight they wear the drink.
Calgary resident Tim Vandegriend sums it up nicely: “It’s not just a shot—it’s the experience.”
The Sourtoe Cocktail is now steeped in an aura of myth, its infamy enriched by stories of scandal that have turned it from an oddity into a bucket list exploit.
In 2013, a guy from New Orleans swallowed the toe on purpose. He apologized to the hotel, but his name is still on the ‘Shit List’ that Lee keeps next to the official Sourtoe Rules (the fine for swallowing the toe is $2,500).
Perhaps more bizarre is the story of English marathoner Nick Griffiths, who lost two toes to frostbite while running the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2018. He mailed them to the Downtown Hotel and then traveled to Dawson later that year to drink his own sour toe. “We think that’s the first time somebody’s done their own toe,” says Gerle.
Needless to say, the original sourtoe has long been out of rotation, replaced with a parade of toe hopefuls donated from diabetics, gout sufferers, lawn mower accidents, and those with hammertoes like the one in my glass. Dick Stevenson, the cocktail’s inventor, even willed all 10 of his tootsies to the Downtown Hotel when he died in 2019.
It takes six weeks for a toe to go through what Lee calls “the mummification process,” which is essentially drying it out in pickling salt like you would beef jerky. The toe is also Covid-safe, Lee assures me. Fittingly, he sterilizes it in overproof rum between drinkers.
And so I raise the glass, close my eyes, and down the strangest drink of my life. There’s a fleeting moment when I feel a tickle on my lips—the whisper of history from a cold Arctic trail—but then I taste the honeyed warmth of whisky across my palate, and it’s over.
It rankles some Yukoners that the Sourtoe Cocktail is many travelers' main takeaway from Dawson City. “People just think we’re a bunch of weirdos,” one confides.
No, it’s more like we’re in awe of this remote outpost that embraces its eccentricities. In a shrinking world where many destinations have wilderness and hiking trails, there’s only one place that serves up history and lore, and bottles a true taste of the country’s grit. Like the Yukon back when it was Canada’s frontier, the Sourtoe Cocktail captures people’s imagination. They want to be part of the club.
It’s so much more than a toe in a glass and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.