The citizens of Canada’s Yukon region enjoy a reputation for wild, eccentric behavior as untamed as the surrounding wilderness. No example showcases this tendency better than the Dawson City tradition of the sourtoe cocktail.
Sourtoe cocktail tradition
The practice was established in 1973 when local Captain Dick Stevenson unearthed an alcohol-preserved toe dating back to the ‘1920s mining days, in an old cabin. He and his friends thought it was a favourable idea to serve the toe in a cocktail.
The name is a take on Sourdough, the nickname for Yukon residents who have survived at least one winter. The fact that 40 years later, the chance to sip the sourtoe cocktail continues to attract thousands of visitors from all over the globe speaks to the fascinating lure of the Yukon and the craziness of tourists. These days, you can join the throngs of tourists who line up to be part of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City.
Things people do for a toe
I moseyed over to the Downtown Hotel an hour before the official sourtoe cocktail kickoff of 9pm.
Inductees into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club begin to lineup early but I was there to learn the history of the tradition from the “Toe Captain,” Terry Lee.
Adorned in a long white beard, mountaineer hat and black clothes, he looked the part of the bizarre Dawson City historian. Terry’s position requires that he knows the history and condition of each toe. So far, there have been 11.
“I’m a toe captain, I make sure the toe is in good shape I look up the person’s (toe owner) name and date,” he says. “The toes have been stolen and swallowed and we’ve had anonymous donations. We get most of them though wills.”
The current toe
According to Terry, the current toe is a female specimen that was severed while she was mowing the lawn in sandals. Its mangled condition makes for a less sturdy toe. Terry has willed his own toes for later use but he’s worried about how long this one will last. Most toes last about four years. Anyone like to donate a toe?
Although there was a $500 fine for swallowing the toe, that hasn’t prevented a few jerks from downing the entire appendage. The fine has recently been increased to $2,500 to discourage the behaviour. Gazing at the blackened, slimy toe, I can’t imagine how any sane person would let it near their lips, let alone down their throats, but Captain Terry assures me that it’s purely an exercise in mental fortitude.
“Don’t worry, the toe has been mummified,” he says. “There’s no taste and no odour. All you have to do is get past the appearance.” Right.
In the Downtown Hotel bar, the line of willing participants snakes from the table (where the sourtoe ritual commences) to outside the door of the hotel. There’s no shortage of volunteers.
A bearded, flaxen-haired bartender organizes a stack of certificates that proclaims the owner as part of the elite Sourtoe Cocktail Club (100,000 members and counting).
A battered log book to record members names sits next to the certificates. He places the shriveled toe in the center of the table, on a silver platter filled with salt.
The inductees can select their cocktail but it must contain hard liquor, with Captain Dick’s favourite Yukon Jack being the traditional choice.
I grab a chair and watch as potential club members partake of the strange ritual. Plopping down the $5 fee, Marcus from Berlin smiles as he cradles his shot of vodka. The bartender solemnly recites the sourtoe rules.
“No swallowing, not past the lips, no tongue action and nothing freaky,” he explains. “You can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but your lips have to touch the toe.” The bartender plops the toe in the shot glass.
Kissing the toe
My stomach turns as Marcus gulps down his drink with the toe waving eerily in the glass. But that’s not the worst part. For me, what makes the spectacle unbearable is when the bartender grabs the toe out of the empty glass and squeezes out the last drops of alcohol so that the inductee can drink the “toe jam.” I nearly retch at the sight. But I seem to be one of the few that’s turned off by the sourtoe cocktail.
Men and women, from Japan, from France, from the U.S. and not surprisingly, quite a few Aussies, slurp the drink with glee. Perhaps it’s because kissing the toe “brings good luck and karma” according to Captain Terry.
Regardless of this, I do not feel compelled to join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. The Yukon captured me with its unconventional charm and natural beauty but I managed to survive Dawson City with my lips untouched by the grotesque sourtoe.
Rosalind Cummings-Yeates was a guest of Travel Yukon
The entry point to the Yukon Territory is Whitehorse, a city with plenty of nature-based activities on offer. The drive between Whitehorse and Dawson City is about six hours through scenic countryside. The Yukon is famous for stunning mountainous landscape, outdoor activities and it’s one of the best places in Canada to see the Northern Lights.
Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous is another fun festival to put on your list.