“You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.”
It was the last thing Dawson City’s “SourToe Captain” said to me before I hoisted my tumbler that contained a shot of vodka and a gnarly dessicated human toe – complete with toenail. With a few taps on the bottom of my glass to ensure that said toe made undisputed contact with my lips, I swallowed the vodka, left the toe in my empty glass, and was officially ushered into the infamous SourToe Cocktail Club of Dawson City, Yukon – certificate and all.
And no, I was not blind drunk, which is more than I can say for the man whose big toe first made its way into Yukon history.
Meet ‘Captain’ Dick Stevenson: the Man Behind the SourToe Cocktail
There are plenty of accounts of how the Yukon’s most celebrated cocktail came to be, but it’s always best to go straight to the source: in this case, ‘Captain’ Dick Stevenson, the originator of this bizarre tradition. Captain Dick is one of those Yukon characters that are a more than a little larger than life, the kind of personality that the Yukon – and Dawson City in particular – seems to attract. Part outdoorsman, part riverboat captain (hence the moniker), and part outlaw, Stevenson shares the SourToe story and his own au-toe-biography (his words!) in a book he self-published in 2012. It’s here that I learned about the original “owner” of the toe and how it ended up in someone’s drink…
The Linken Brothers: Prospectors and Prohibition Rum-Runners
The original ‘SourToe’ actually belonged to Louie Linken, who came to the Yukon from Denmark in the early 1930s with his brother, Otto. Their plan was to stake a gold claim and work as placer miners. But fortune only favours the few when it comes to striking it rich in gold mining, so the brothers supplemented their meagre mining spoils by running overproof rum by dogsled into Alaska during Prohibition.
It was on one of their rum runs that Louie stepped into icy water by accident, ending up with a frozen foot and a big toe that threatened to become gangrenous and needed to be amputated. With the nearest doctor 60 miles away in Dawson City, brother Otto took matters into his own hands, got Louie suitably smashed on their overproof rum, and lopped off his brother’s toe. (here, accounts differ on whether he did this with an axe, or with a large chisel, but off the toe went regardless.) The brothers decided to keep the toe, cured it in salt and returned to their cabin near Dawson.
Many years later, after Louie had died, Otto sold their cabin to Dick Stevenson and his wife, Lou, who were clearing out the cabin when they discovered the mummified toe in an old pickle jar. Dick didn’t give it much thought until he found himself at the Eldorado hotel one night drinking with a couple of reporter buddies. After telling them the story of finding the toe, they all decided they should do something with it, but what?
So, Why the Name ‘SourToe”?
There’s a Dawson City expression that someone is a Sourdough if they survive a Yukon winter in the town. Until that time, they are a Cheechako – a greenhorn who is often a target for taunts by the more ‘seasoned’ 4-season locals. There are no shortcuts to achieving the status, but some wannabes have been fooled into believing they can become Sourdoughs by other means. In fact, Robert Service, one of the Yukon’s most famous poets, wrote a poem called The Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail that has some fun with this idea at the expense of a British visitor.
Service’s ballad was likely inspired by a real-life event that happened in Dawson in 1906. In the actual story, an English financier who wanted to fast track his acceptance into the Sourdough community was told by the Dawson locals that he could do so and bring prosperity to all by swallowing an ‘ice worm’ placed in his drink.
Turns out the ‘ice worms’ were only strands of spaghetti dotted with ink ‘eyes’ and frozen in ice, but the Brit took the bait – literally – and ordered a round, securing his ‘Sourdough’ acceptance by downing the cocktail.
Captain Dick and his friends were undoubtedly inspired by the ice worm story when they devised their ‘SourToe Cocktail’: a beer glass filled with champagne into which Louie Linken’s mummified toe would be dropped. And so the SourToe was born.
46 Years of SourToes – And Other Disgusting Substitutes
It’s been almost 50 years since Dick first convinced the Eldorado Hotel owners to let him offer the SourToe Cocktail to patrons, and the toe that touched my lips last August was not the toe that Louie once called his own.
Louie’s original toe was accidentally swallowed in 1980 by a very drunk miner who fell over backwards on his chair while downing his 8th SourToe in a row. Without a toe and in a desperate attempt to keep the tradition going, Stevenson substituted the toe with a pickled bear testicle (and penis bone from the same bear that he used as a swizzle stick), that Captain Dick christened the “Better Bitter Bear Ball Highball”.
Other human toes soon replaced the ‘bear bits’, including a nasty little toe with an inoperable corn that was donated by a woman from Fort Saskatchewan, and a couple of toes preserved in alcohol that Stevenson received from a doctor. At one point, a miner even donated all 5 of his toes and Captain Dick started the Soggy Foot Club, for anyone brave enough to plop all 5 of these specimens into their drink. (not a lot of takers on that one!)
Where to Do the SourToe: Dawson’s Downtown Hotel
Over the years, the SourToe tradition has evolved so that the beer glass of champagne has become a shot of your choice, although it must be minimum 40 proof alcohol for ‘health reasons’ (Yukon Jack whisky is a favourite). The location has moved, too, and the SourToe Club now operates out of Dawson’s Downtown Hotel where it is a huge draw for daring drinkers of all ages. Silver-haired cruisers and college kids alike line up for the dubious honour of touching the Toe to their lips, and although Stevenson himself retired in 1995, other honorary ‘Captains’ preside over the ritual in his stead.
Captain Dick did return in 2010, however, to install a specially-commissioned ceramic urn in the shape of a toe over the bar. When he dies, it is Stevenson’s wish that his ashes be put in the urn so he can watch over the SourToe Club “for the next one thousand or so years”.
TIP: See the bell above? All the bars in the Yukon have a bell like it, but DON’T RING IT unless you are prepared to buy the whole bar a round of drinks. Seriously. They don’t mess around with this North of 60!
SourToe Cocktail Club Members #82,888, 82890 and counting
Whether the SourToe Club lasts another 1,000 years or not is debatable: each toe only survives about 5 years or so before it disintegrates, but there does seem to be a long waitlist of people willing to donate to the cause. And the popularity certainly doesn’t seem to be waning either, since as of August, 2018 there were close to 83,000 members including Henk and I, numbered respectively 82,888 and 82,890.
Bizarre Bragging Rights
Becoming part of the SourToe Cocktail Club has given Henk and I legitimate Yukon bragging rights, even if we still aren’t authentic Dawson City Sourdoughs ourselves. And while the SourToe was definitely one of the more revolting drinks I’ve ever ordered (certainly while sober), I can be thankful that ‘our’ toe was one of the least disgusting options Captain Dick concocted.
So…who’s up next?
TIP: The SourToe Cocktail is served up only at Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel (although it has been known to go on tour from time to time). Membership in the Club will cost you about $5 for your shot of liquor, more if you feel the need for liquid courage, and $5 for your Certificate. Come before 9pm, especially if there is a tour group in town, and don’t even think about swallowing that Toe – the fine is now $2500!
Special thanks to Travel Yukon who hosted Henk and I on our visit to Dawson City and helped usher us into this illustrious Club.