The Day a Dead Toe Touched My Face
Sour Toe Cocktails in Yukon Territory
I’m not sure if I have the gumption to do it.
Peering through the crowd at the Downtown Hotel, I get my first glimpse of the celebrated Sour Toe Cocktail. The appendage sits on a bed of salt, shriveled and brown, looking like a gnawed-off piece of beef jerky. Except for the jagged yellow nail; that’s a dead giveaway that this is indeed an actual human toe. As the Toe Captain plunks the limb into someone’s whiskey glass, I recoil in horror and back away.
“You’ve travelled this far to Dawson,” says an elderly woman, clucking her tongue. “Why not do it?”
A few retorts come to my mind—such as mouth herpes—but I get in line instead. She’s right: when in Dawson City, you’ve gotta do the toe.
In this tiny gold-rush town in Canada’s Yukon Territory, it’s a tradition to place a mummified human toe in a glass of whiskey, and drink it according to one rule: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow—but your lips must touch the toe.”
The kooky tradition started in 1973, when a local resident, Captain Dick Stevenson, discovered a severed toe in an abandoned cabin. According to the legend, it belonged to Louie Liken, a rum smuggler in the 1920s who got frostbite on his big toe during a grueling dog sledding trip. Fearing the onset of gangrene, Louie decided the toe must go. He got rip-roaring drunk, stuck out his frozen toe and waited for his brother to strike it with an axe. The amputated limb was preserved in a jar of alcohol as a keepsake, until it was unearthed by Captain Dick several decades later.
Naturally, the Captain did what any person would do in this situation: he put the toe in a beer glass of champagne and served it as drink. Forty years later, approximately 100,000 people have joined the “Sour Toe Cocktail Club” and visitors still flock to Dawson City to sling back a shot of human toe. Any liquor can be used, but it’s usually a shot of Yukon Jack whiskey.
The ritual attracts all types to the town: from grey-haired seniors fresh off the Holland America bus tours to rowdy hipsters in town for the annual musical festival to “Sourdoughs” (the nickname for locals, stemming from the bread prospectors kept in the cabins). And then there’s the unforgettable “Josh from New Orleans.” Video footage shows this man—rumored to be a Hurricane Katrina survivor—guzzling down the giant toe along with a beer and slamming $500 onto the table to pay the fine. The Toe Captain appears understandably stunned.
In some ways, such special challenges are expected when harboring human body parts for tourism. Since “the club” began, more than eight Sour Toes have been accidentally swallowed, stolen or gone missing from the bar. But this was the first time that someone deliberately ingested it. Today, swallowing the toe carries a hefty fine of $2500 to prevent future mishaps.
After waiting in a queue of people “applying” for membership, it’s my turn to join the club. I pay the $5 fee, get my drink from the bar, and record my name in the official log book. As the Toe Captain recites the “Sourtoe Oath,” I focus on his wispy Gandalf-like beard and silently repeat my mantra, keep your mouth closed. I have no intention on repeating the “Josh from New Orleans” incident.
Finally, the Toe Captain picks up the gnarled appendage from the bed of salt, dusts it off and drops it into my drink. The toe floats in the whiskey like a chunky turd.
Before I lose my nerve, I grab the drink and take a swig. As the toe tumbles toward me, I pray the nail won’t slice my face. I feel the leathery skin against my lips and slam down my glass. Cheers erupt from the crowd, and the Toe Captain hands me a certificate and a membership card.
“Welcome to the club.”