When you think of bucket list items in Canada, what comes to mind? Perhaps picturesque hikes, a polar bear safari, or a cross-country road trip. Breathtaking landscapes, large wildlife encounters, maybe visiting some historic towns. Well, we’ve got another bucket list item for you that is not quite as scenic.
A Sourtoe Cocktail. “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe.” That’s the only rule when you order a Sourtoe Cocktail at Dawson City’s Sourdough Saloon in Downtown Hotel.
That’s right, the not-so-secret cocktail recipe is simply a shot of liquor with an actual mummified human toe. Your lips must touch the toe when you imbibe the beverage, but take care not to actually swallow the toe as that will result in a hefty fine.
The Sourtoe Cocktail
The Sourtoe cocktail is a tradition at Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City since 1973, drawing visitors from far and wide. In the summertime, direct flights from Europe bring a myriad of international tourists wanting to taste the cocktail.
If you want to also be a part of the club, here’s what you need to do. When you get to the Saloon, ask for Captain River Rat. Buy at least one ounce of alcohol at the bar, and the bar staff will drop the dehydrated toe into your drink. Voila! You have a Sourtoe Cocktail. Don’t forget to pledge the “Sourtoe Oath” before downing the beverage.
Now, you have to drink the shot and let your lips touch the toe to join the club. That’s it. You’re one of the 100,000 members of the club.
Yes, you read that right. 100,000 people have kissed a gnarled, desiccated human toe.
The saloon, located in the Downtown Hotel, follows every health protocol to ensure that the toe is clean. The general manager says that the chief medical officer of the Yukon has given the beverage the green light, even inspecting the dehydrated toes before they’re used. By only using mummified toes, keeping them on ice, and serving them in alcohol at least 40%, the bar keeps everything sanitary.
The saloon has gone through several toes since its inception. One man infamously swallowed the toe on purpose. The American man was staying in Dawson just for the summer. On his last day in town, the man ordered a Sourtoe Cocktail, downed the beverage toe and all and paid the $500 fine in cash before walking out. The fine for swallowing the toe has now been raised to $2500. So, you’re going to want to avoid consuming it. A total of five people have swallowed the toe, although it’s assumed most of the occurrences were accidental.
A few toes have been stolen. One man stole the toe after drinking the cocktail. He actually was hunted down by police. At the time, the estimated gross revenue that the toe had brought in was $80,000.
Because toes get lost, stolen, and swallowed, the saloon has up to 15 backup toes. People donate toes they lose to the bar. One of the digits on rotation is from a British Marine who lost his toe during the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon. Another toe comes from a man who lost his toe to gout. One man even hopes to have a Sourtoe Cocktail with his own toe after it’s mummified.
The creator of the drink, Dick Stevenson, died at the age of 89. He donated all of his toes to the hotel. It takes six months for a fresh toe to be ready for the cocktail.
So, if you ever lose a toe, you know where to send it.
Legend has it that the first toe ever used at the saloon can be traced back to the 1920s. Louie Linken and his brother Otto were rum-runners during the prohibition, when a blizzard began during one of their cross-border deliveries, Louie stepped off the dog sled to help direct them, his foot plunging into icy overflow. By the time they arrived to safety, in a cabin along their route, Louie’s big toe was frozen solid. Using a good swig of overproof rum as anesthesia, Otto sawed-off Louie’s big toe. They preserved the toe in a jar of alcohol to remember the moment.
The preserved toe was found years later when Dick Stevenson bought and was cleaning the abandoned cabin.
According to the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, the recipe is as follows:
- 1 ounce of alcohol
- 1 dehydrated toe
- Garnish with courage
Most patrons choose Yukon Jack to go with the toe. Known as the black sheep of Canadian whisky, the liquor is honey-based and 50% alcohol by volume or 100 proof. Although we’re not sure exactly how the blend was created, it’s named after the pioneer Leroy Napolean “Jack” McQuesten. Originally from the Yukon, it is now manufactured in Quebec.
How to Get There
Now that drinking a Sourtoe Cocktail is on your bucket list, here’s how you make it happen! Dawson City is no longer as remote as it used to be.
The Klondike Highway is a paved road open year-round if you choose to drive. Dawson City is about 6 hours from Whitehorse.
A bus route from late April till September drives from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
You can also fly into Whitehorse and take a connecting flight to Dawson City. Alternatively, you can find a flight from Air North from Old Crow or Inuvik.
Arrive in Dawson City the traditional way: paddling the Yukon River. You can canoe, kayak, or raft from Whitehorse, Carmack, Pelly, or Stewart downstream to Dawson City.
It’s surprisingly affordable to drink this cocktail. Club membership is $5 plus the cost of the shot. A shot of Yukon Jack is $7, so at $12, it’s a cheap experience.
If you get hungry, the saloon offers a wide variety of pub fare, or you can enjoy fine dining at the Jack London Dining Room. The Downtown Hotel is located in the city centre and offers comfortable rooms and an airport shuttle service.
What are you waiting for? A northern Sourtoe Cocktail is within reach.
Feature image by: Klondike Visitors Association / Richard Galloway