To live anywhere as frigid and remote as the Yukon takes a special type of person. A little wild, a lot adventurous, and a touch crazy comes to mind. Despite visiting a place filled with these characters, experiencing the Sourtoe Cocktail in Dawson City still came as a surprise. Really though, no amount of crazy can prepare you for a black and gnarly human toe swimming in a shot of whisky.
The Sourtoe Cocktail is truly one of those things you have to see to believe. It’s also one of those things you have to do when in town. You know, like getting screeched in while visiting Newfoundland, except instead of kissing a puffin or cod, you kiss a severed toe.
Our first night in Dawson kicked off with beers and old-timey piano at the Downtown Hotel bar and saloon, the very spot the Sourtoe Cocktail is served. At 9:00 PM sharp people began lining up, shots of whisky in hand. One-by-one we, each tourist cringed while a pickled human toe was dropped in their drink.
Watching this show did little to make me want to experience the Sourtoe Cocktail myself. Clearly, we needed more liquid courage so we put it off till to the next day. Turns out, it was for the best as longtime Sourtoe Cocktail Captian Terry was working the following night.
The extra day of courage-building allowed me to better understand what I was getting into. Every local and tourist I met that night asked the same question, “have you done the Sourtoe cocktail yet?!” This allowed me to ask them, simply, “why?” Turns out there is no real rhyme or reason to the Sourtoe Cocktail. Again, it’s just one of those things you do when visiting somewhere as quirky as Dawson city. Really though, 77,000 people can’t be wrong. At the time of my visit, that is how many people have joined the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.
That’s a lot of Yukon Jack.
How the Sourtoe Cocktail Became a Thing
During the prohibition in the 1920’s, rum runner Louis Lincoln suffered severe frostbite resulting in an amputated toe. To preserve it, the toe went into a jar of alcohol and was left forgotten in an old cabin. That is until 1973 when Captain Dick Stevenson came upon the jar and brought it to the Sourdough Saloon. There he began dipping it in peoples drinks as a laugh and to test the bravery of those who could finish their drink with the toe in it. Thus the Sourtoe Cocktail was born.
Since that original toe, there have been several donated to the cause/craziness. The last anonymously with a note attached that simply said: “don’t wear open-toed sandals while mowing the lawn.” Sound advice.
Then there was the wildly covered stolen toe in the summer of 2017. Thankfully it was returned in time for my visit.
Experiencing the Sourtoe Cocktail
So how does one join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club? Between 9:00 and 11:00 PM each night you can purchase a shot of alcohol (40-proof minimum for obvious reasons – vodka, gin, whisky although Yukon Gold is the preference) and sit with the Captain. He (or she depending on the night) records your name and address, all while a black toe stares at you from on top of a pile of coarse salt. The Captain then swears you in and reminds you that:
you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow but your lips have got to touch the toe!
The Captain also points out the sign saying it is a $2500 fine if you swallow the toe. Seems odd (and disturbing) that anyone would swallow a human toe, but it has happened in the past thus the sign. Also, as Erin would later find, swallowing the toe is not as hard as it sounds.
“It went a little in my mouth!”
With a better understanding of what the Sourtoe cocktail is all about we got in line with our shot. While waiting for our turn I noticed the toe getting lodged in the tumbler glass of other guests, requiring the drinker to give a gentle tap for it to dislodge and touch their lip. Erin went first and clearly missed this observation. The toe got stuck so she gave the glass a firm pound, freeing it to fall directly into her open trap.
“It went a little in my mouth!” Screamed Erin.
“It went A LOT in your mouth,” replied Terry a-matter-of-factly.
After seeing this disturbing feast I took caution when dislodging the toe and survived without taking it down my throat. Surprisingly though, it was a lot of hype for nothing. It could have been the sweetness of the Yukon Jack, or the fact that I had spent 2 days prepping for the moment. Either way, the toe touched my lips and I joined the club without engaging my easily tripped gag reflex.
A Dawson Must Do
Again, experiencing the sourdough cocktail is just one of those things you have to see to believe and have to do when in town. It’s weird, it’s gross and it’s silly.
Yup. But it’s the Yukon. A little wild, a lot adventurous, and a touch crazy. That’s something we can all drink to.
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Thoughts on the Sourtoe Cocktail in Dawson, Yukon?
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the experience, opinions, and gags are my own.