In Dawson City, a town on the Yukon River in northwest Canada, one hotel bar serves up a truly unique drink. It’s called the Sourtoe Cocktail, and it contains Yukon Gold Whiskey and a dehydrated human toe. This mixological tradition has been happening at the Downtown Hotel since 1973. Over almost five decades the hotel has served a whopping 86,000 Sourtoe Cocktails, and counting. Recently, a former British Marine sent his big toe, tragically lost to frostbite, to the world-famous hotel by Royal Mail in the hopes of becoming the next in the storied lineage of this unique garnish.
In winter 2018, Nick Griffiths competed in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, an extreme multiday marathon comprised of 100-, 300-, and 430-mile races along Yukon’s dogsled trail. After his left foot succumbed to temperatures that reached 40 below, Griffiths’s big toe was amputated and preserved in a vial of alcohol by the U.K. hospital that treated him. There was only one place it belonged, he figured. He promptly shipped it to the Downtown Hotel’s bar, known as the Sourdough Saloon, where it has joined the hotel’s floating toe collection.
“We have only had two toes arrive on our doorstep since 2013 when we took over the hotel—one of which was a big toe,” says Adam Gerle, general manager of the hotel. The hotel’s “Toe Master,” Terry Lee, is in charge of determining whether donated toes can become part of the tradition. “Unless they are preserved properly in medical grade alcohol right after [the] toe is removed, they aren’t much use to us. And we can’t use them if they have been stored in formaldehyde,” says Gerle. Griffiths’s toe passed this preliminary examination, so Lee is now in the process of mummifying the toe by storing it in rock salt for six weeks, before it’s ready to be submerged in a different type of alcohol. While Yukon Gold Whiskey is the gold standard, “any 40 percent alcohol will work for the Toe,” says Gerle. “We are just partial to local spirits.”
The Downtown Hotel is the only place in the world serving up this wild, gross, historic, daring drink. “This drink has sentimental value in Dawson City as its been here since 1973 and reflects the quirky nature of the town,” says Gerle. The tradition has its origin in the 1920s, when miner and rumrunner Louie Liken stowed his severed toe (lost, like Griffiths’s, to frostbite) in a cabin. Some 50 years later, local riverboat captain Dick Stevenson was rummaging through the abandoned cabin and found the jar. The rest is Dawson City history. The original toe was swallowed, but the have been a number of successors over the years. Once Griffiths’s is ready, it will join the four or five they have on hand.
Those brave enough to order this quirky cocktail must touch the Toe to their lips; it’s the only way to earn a certificate from the hotel. In the busy summer season, the bar serves an astonishing 50 to 100 Sourtoe Cocktails a night. “Most people’s initial reaction is disgust, disbelief, and astonishment,” says Gerle. “[But] the Toe is also very fascinating and we have had people come up to Dawson just to do the Toe.” Later this summer, the hotel plans to fly Griffiths and his wife to the Yukon so that he can take part in the tradition with his very own donated appendage.
Asked if there’s any health hazard associated with toe-tainted alcohol (or swallowing the toe), Gerle says there’s nothing to worry about. “As long as its preserved and stored properly on rock salt and people use 40 percent alcohol to drink it,” he says, “the Chief Medical Officer of the Yukon has given it a green light.
“We would like to receive more to keep the tradition going,” says Gerle. “Big toes are the best.”
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