The Sourtoe Cocktail is a time-honoured Canadian tradition dating back a hundred years in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. This cocktail has a very simple recipe – a shot of 40-proof whiskey and a human toe.
The tradition started in the early 1900’s when a bootlegger in the Yukon lost his toe to frostbite. His brother amputated it and dropped it into a glass of Canadian whiskey, and a tradition was born.
You can order this cocktail at the Sourdough Bar in The Downtown Hotel, on Second Avenue in Dawson City. My son and I stayed at the Downtown last summer while on a road trip to the Arctic Ocean, and having one of these cocktails was just something we had to do.
Ordering a Sourtoe Whiskey comes with a few rules
We went into the hotel’s bar, sat down at the counter and ordered a Sourtoe Cocktail. The cocktail is served up by the “Toe Captain” who pours you a shot of whiskey, and then holds the mummified toe in front of you while reciting the rules: you must not bite, chew or swallow the toe, but it must touch your lips. Then he repeats the time-honoured rhyme: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe”, and drops it into your glass of whiskey.
The rest is all up to you.
The Toe Captain also has another very important job. He certifies that the toe did, indeed, touch your lips and watches carefully while you down your shot of whiskey to make sure it does. Once you’ve successfully completed the challenge and the Toe Captain is duly satisfied that the toe touched your lips, he presents you with a “Sourtoe Certificate” with your name, date and member number.
Joining the elite Sourtoe Cocktail Club
I’m now an elite member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. It’s okay to be jealous, dear reader. Many of my friends and family are. It’s an exclusive club and you have to travel all the way to the Yukon to earn it. It’s not something you can just do online over a Zoom call, and it’s way more interesting than one of those boring business skill certificates that corporate drones love to accumulate.
According to my certificate, I am the 98,411th person to drink it. My son, Zach, is the 98,412th. As the Dad, I felt it my fatherly duty to set a good example for my son and go first.
The human toe used in the cocktail needs to be replaced from time to time and several different ones have been used over the years. One toe was swallowed, others have been stolen. Sometimes toes need to be ‘retired’ when they get too worn out. The Downtown Hotel replenishes their stock from people donating their toes for the cause, usually amputated as a result of frostbite.
The Toe Captain is always on the lookout for a “toe-nation” to maintain their stock and keep the tradition alive. And the toe doesn’t have to be Canadian. Foreign toes are welcome.
“Toe-donations” are welcome
Recently a British Marine lost his toe to frostbite while training in the Yukon, and he donated it to the Sourtoe Cocktail club.
Apparently there is no shortage of frostbitten toes available in the Yukon.
Dawson City was at the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890’s, and is still very rustic with a distinct frontier feel. Many of the original buildings from the Gold Rush days are still there and unchanged.
The frontier town in the heart of the Klondike
There are no paved roads, street lights or traffic lights. Even the main road through the downtown (shown above), is dirt. All the sidewalks are wood boards.
Dawson City is not only famous as the home of the Gold Rush and the Sourtoe Cocktail, it is also the entrance to the Dempster Hiway.
The Dempster is an epic road trip hundreds of miles north that crosses the Arctic Circle and terminates at the fishing village of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
But that will be the subject of a future blog.