The Day a Dead Toe Touched My Face: The Yukon’s Sour Toe Cocktail

1. The Sour ToeIf you’re travelling to the Yukon in Canada, take my advice: don’t eat the dead toe.

In Dawson City, a patron at the Downtown Hotel deliberately swallowed a human toe while drinking the celebrated “Sour Toe Cocktail.” Yes, this happened. The video footage shows a man guzzling down the giant toe with a beer and slamming $500 onto the table to pay the fine. The Toe Captain appears understandably stunned.

In case you haven’t heard, the Sour Toe is an actual human toe that has been dehydrated and preserved in salt. The toe is placed in a drink with one rule for participants: “You can drink it fast, or you can drink it slow—but your lips must touch the toe.”

The tradition started in 1973, when a local resident, Captain Dick Stevenson, discovered a severed toe in a cabin. According to the legend, it belonged to Louie Liken—a rum smuggler in the 1920s who got frostbite on his big toe during a gruelling trip by dog sled. Fearing the onset of gangrene, Louie decided the toe must go. He got rip-roaring drunk, stuck out his frozen toe and waited for his brother to strike it with an axe. The amputated limb was preserved in a jar of alcohol as a keepsake—until it was found by Captain Dick several decades later.

4. Toe Captain and Kate PalbomNaturally, the Captain did what any person would do in this situation; he put the toe in a beer glass of champagne and served it as drink. Forty years later, approximately 52,000 people have joined the “Sour Toe Cocktail Club” and visitors still flock to Dawson City to sling back a shot of human toe.

Since the ritual began, more than eight Sour Toes have been accidentally swallowed, stolen or gone missing from the bar. But this appears to be the first one that was intentionally ingested. The Downtown Hotel has since issued a call for toe donations on its website (any takers?). 

“Rumour has it that two individuals may will their toes to us,” Terry Lee, the Toe Captain, said. “But no news yet.”

In the meantime, aspiring “Sour Toers” can still partake in the famous Dawson City tradition. The bar is using a back-up toe and has increased the swallowing fine to $2,500.

So what’s it like to “apply” for membership in the Sour Toe Cocktail Club? I decided to find out during my recent visit to Dawson City.

2. Toe Captain reads the rules to Lisa I got my drink from the bar and peered through the crowd to get my first glimpse of the Sour Toe. It looked like a gnawed-off piece of beef jerky—except for its jagged yellow nail. I recoiled in horror.

“You’ve travelled this far to Dawson,” an elderly woman said. “Why not do it?”

A few retorts came to my mind—such as mouth herpes—but I got in line instead. She was right. When in Dawson City, you gotta do the toe. I paid the $5 fee and recorded my name in the official log book. The Toe Captain picked up the gnarled appendage from a bed of salt, dusted it off and dropped it into my drink. The toe floated in my whiskey like a chunky turd.

3. Lisa slings back the toeBefore I lost my nerve, I grabbed the drink and took a swig. As the toe tumbled toward me, I prayed the nail wouldn’t slice my face. I felt the leathery skin against my lips and slammed down my glass. Cheers erupted from the crowd, and the Toe Captain handed me a certificate and a membership card.

“Welcome to the club.”

Check out the Travel Yukon website to plan your visit to the Yukon.

The writer was a guest of Travel Yukon. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.

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