Travel

Preserving the world’s most memorable cocktail

When it comes to the Sourtoe Cocktail, only the drinker is shaken and stirred

  • Jun 09, 2022
  • 832 words
  • 4 minutes
Credit: The Downtown Hotel
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Let’s discuss your most memorable drink. Perhaps it was expensive Dom Perignon toasted on your wedding day? Maybe a shot of soju procured in a dark Korean tavern?  Was it the peaty single malt that made your tongue grow hair in Scotland or that perfect mint-infused mojito in Cuba? A Pisco Sour, a Singapore Sling? Bellini’s in Italy, screech in St. John’s, caipirinha’s in Brazil, absinthe in Scandinavia…any bucket list of global cocktails travels long and far, but all roads lead to the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel. Here you’ll find a cocktail that forgoes olives, ice, citrus, mixers, and umbrella sticks. Welcome to the home of the world’s most memorable cocktail, and the only drink served with a severed human toe. Nothing is shaken or stirred, except the drinker.  

In 1973, an eccentric Dawson City local named Captain Dick Stevenson wanted to capitalize on summer tourist traffic heading through town along the Top of the World Highway. Once the largest city north of San Francisco, Dawson City had long since shrunk from the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush into a northern outpost with abandoned wooden storefronts. Captain Dick had recently found a severed toe in an old log cabin and got thinking in a manner that would have made poet Robert W. Service proud.  Think of the opening stanza to Service’s iconic The Cremation of Sam McGee as inspiration:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold

Toe Captain Terry Lee and a toe. Photo: Downtown Hotel
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Captain Dick dropped the toe into a glass of champagne and called it the Sourtoe Cocktail, a riff on the popular term a Yukon local: sourdough. Crowning himself the Toe Captain, he headed to the saloon to share his unique beverage idea with anyone crazy enough to join him. Not long after, a reporter from Vancouver was in town and wrote about this unique Dawson City cocktail. Word spread, travellers showed up, and a legend was born.   

Half a century later, you can roll up to Sourdough Saloon in the evenings – 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. in summer months – and find the Toe Captain at the end of the bar. With a well-rehearsed ceremony, a toe is presented and dropped into a 40 per cent alcoholic beverage (usually Yukon Jack honey-whisky), which you must wash back until the lopped-off appendage touches your lips. Congratulations: you are now in the company of nearly one hundred thousand other lunatics who joined your pursuit of the world’s most memorable cocktail. 

Terry Lee has been the Toe Captain since 2013.  He confirms that toes are still being donated by anonymous donors – what else are you going to do with it? –  and that the price for swallowing, damaging or losing a toe is now a hefty $2500.  This fee used to be lower, until a particularly enthusiastic patron swallowed one, the subject of a particularly bizarre CBC short documentary: The Story of the Sorry Cannibal. Since my first big gnarly Sourtoe Cocktail on a freezing November evening in 2007, there have been some modifications.  Instead of being stored in jars of salt, toes are now coated in a polymer that seals in the goodness and, according to Terry, preserves them for eternity. Another innovation: Coast Hotels have taken over the Downtown Hotel, mining the gold with a new line of merchandise to glorify your cocktail challenge. The Sourtoe socks, I’m told, are particularly nice. Sourdough Saloon patrons are currently served two smaller hammer toes, although a big toe will shortly be available too. 

Got her digits at the bar. Photo: Jeff Topham
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Having renewed my Sourtoe Cocktail Club membership several times, I can confirm that the toe is very much a human body part. It is not a carefully carved piece of wood, or a carrot masquerading as a practical joke.  My first big toe had the nail on, discoloured with age and wrinkled skin. I’ve also enjoyed some of the smaller digits, which often go on tour at Travel Yukon promotional events. Like a bungee jump countdown, all lingering doubts are dispelled when the Toe Captain implores you to: “Drink it fast or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe!”  I’m always tripping over my words, so I found it quite refreshing to finally put somebody else’s foot in my mouth.

The Sourtoe Cocktail is available for curious consumption at the Downtown Hotel seven nights a week. If Terry isn’t at the bar, you will find his relief Toe Captain Sue. It currently costs $8 for the toe ceremony, and about $8 for the strong alcoholic beverage of your choice (most stick with the sweet, 50% alcohol Yukon Jack). As for the dinner party story about that time you visited the Yukon and drank the world’s most memorable cocktail?  That story is priceless.

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