Mimosas and mojitos are for the feint-hearted: sourtoes are for the sourdoughs. Steve Madgwick finds out how a cocktail garnished with a human toe has become the cocktail of choice in Dawson City. No, we’re not joking.
It’s not too often that someone swallows a mummified human toe. Especially when there’s a stiff fine imposed on the offending swallower.
But it happens. In fact, strangely enough, it’s happened quite a few times in the same Canadian bar: the Downtown Hotel in downtown Dawson City, on the banks of the Yukon’s famous Gold Rush-sparking Klondike River.
Even stranger still, if that’s possible, is that tourists line up in said establishment every summer night and shell out five bucks for the chance to kiss a mummified toe. How? Why? When? What? Who? (But mostly why!?), I hear you scream.
Officially, according to a local legend strongly stoked by the Downtown Hotel’s proprietors, it comes down to one simple maxim: “To become a sourdough you must kiss the sour toe.”
Which will make sense to you, if you’ve spent a summer under the Midnight Sun. But for those who haven’t, let me break it down for you.
A ‘sourdough’ is mining-town-ese for a true local. In the Klondike, that usually refers to someone who has braved at least one punishing winter, from ‘freeze up’ to ‘break up’. If you are not a sourdough then, by default, you are a ‘cheechako’ (outsider), which obviously is not so cool. So, put simply, you kiss the toe to accelerate your Dawson City street cred.
Every night, between the hours of 9pm and 11pm, the toe is brought into the bar’s Sourdough Saloon (yes, you can walk through the swingy doors) and laid in a tray of salt by one of the authorised Toe Captains.
It is then plopped into a tumbler full of hard liquor; traditionally Yukon Jack rum, but the toe can swim in anything at or over 80 proof (40 per cent) alcohol. And, besides a little courage, that’s the ingredients list for the Sourtoe cocktail.
Watch the Sour Toe in action.
“Yukon health regulations say we have to do certain things: keep it on salt; it must be out of circulation for six weeks; and it’s got to be kept and served in 80 proof,” says Terry the Toe Captain from behind a wiry grey beard and underneath his captain’s cap.
Thank goodness the captain wipes the toe with a tissue between each round, too. So how does one become a Toe Captain?
“Anybody can be one,” says Terry, who used to work on the local ferry. “Well, I do have a nautical background, too. You do go through some training, but basically you’ve got to be a natural entertainer. I took drama in high school and college so it’s just natural.”
Terry certainly doesn’t take his captaincy with just a grain of salt. He has renamed his 1990s Ford pick-up the ‘Toe Truck’ and has labelled it appropriately. Highest on Terry’s list of digital sins is the swallowing of the toe, which he insists has occurred five times: accidentally four times and intentionally once. (No, not the same toe, as you’ll read below).
“Toe number-one was swallowed in 1980 by a miner,” says Terry. “Then in 2013, this asshole from New Orleans tips the glass up and the toe goes missing. He was choking on it, shaking, so he took a slug of beer. Then he slammed the glass down, paraded around and sat down. I think it was intentional.”
“I have six black belts and I held him at the bar until the manager got there. If he did anything, I would have put him in a body cast. I was in that kind of mood. I said ‘you’ve stole the toe and that’s a criminal offence’.
“He bolted out the door and took off, but he came back and paid the $500 fine [which is now $2500]. If he hadn’t paid the fine that could have been grand theft, cannibalism or desecration of a corpse.”
Terry estimates that the toe brings in between $80,000 and $100,000 in (gross) revenues in a good year.
The original toe was formerly attached to 1920s moonshiner (and gold miner) Louie Linken who, along with his brother Otto, used to run rum from Dawson City to Alaska during Prohibition using a dog sled. The brothers preferred to move their lucrative overproof (so it wouldn’t freeze) during blizzards so the fresh snow would cover their tracks.
As the story goes, during one particularly miserable blizzardy run, Louie accidently stepped off his sled and into icy water while trying to control his dog team. Unwilling to stop the mission for fear of capture, he continued, and one of the toes on his soggy foot froze solid.
Fearing his bro’s toe would turn gangrenous, Otto decided it had to come off. Unfortunately, the brothers didn’t trust doctors (or authority in general) and were about 100 kilometres from Dawson City in any case. So Otto simply lopped off his brother’s toe with an axe (feeding Louie only rum as pain relief).
For another strange reason, they decided to preserve the toe in a mason jar (in rum, naturally). And so it sat on a shelf in their shack for posterity.
“Who knows why?” says Terry. “People do strange things in the winter when they are hypothermic and most of the miners back then were probably hypothermic in winter.”
Almost half a century later, the toe was found in the brothers’ abandoned shack by Lou Wallace (Stevenson), wife of Captain Dick Stephenson, local tour boat operator of good repute.
Initially, he didn’t think much of it, but Captain Dick brought it into town regardless. The genesis for the cocktail idea happened where many great ideas do; bantering with mates over a bevy of beverages at the bar.
The toe founds its new home in 1971 and was first served in a cocktail in 1972. The story went the equivalent of pre-internet viral in 1973, as the legend spread to Big City papers via a couple of journalists who frequented Dawson in summer every year.
“It’s as though the toe said, ‘this guy’s kicked off, let’s go and have some fun’,” says Terry. “Originally, Captain Dick did this just for beer money, five bucks a go, which hasn’t changed since 1973.”
In the first year, he managed to talk eight people into doing it. Now the line in Downtown Hotel can wind all the way to those swinging saloon doors.
With Louie’s toe now since trotted off, they’re up to digit number 10. But where do they source these mummified human toes? Mostly they are bequeathed anonymously to the hotel in wills.
“The current one is what’s called a hammer toe, which had to be removed from someone,” says Terry.
“If anyone swallows one of those, it’s not going to go down and it’s not going come back up – it’s going to hook into them. They are probably going to need surgery to remove it from their throat.”
Yes, Captain Dick’s folly certainly left an indelible toe-print on this city’s identity.