Canada: Sour toes make gruesome gulp

By Robin Esrock

A Yukon hotel has struck gold with its cocktail featuring a severed digit in whisky, finds Robin Esrock.

Robin Esrock with a severed big toe, preserved by Downtown Hotel barman Captain Al (in the background). Photo / Robin Esrock
Robin Esrock with a severed big toe, preserved by Downtown Hotel barman Captain Al (in the background). Photo / Robin Esrock

There's many a grand tale to be found in Canada's frozen Yukon: Epic poems about desperate miners burning themselves to crisps rather than face freezing in the unforgiving cold; crafty ladies waiting in whisky-soaked saloons to remove the fortunes from those who struck it rich and, strangest of all, the legend of the Sourtoe cocktail - a glass of whisky with a real, severed human toe floating in it.

Except it's no legend. Visit Dawson City's Downtown Hotel and you can try the cocktail for yourself.

During the great gold rush, 40,000 people flocked to Dawson City, which grew into the largest town north of San Francisco, wealthy enough to be known as the Paris of the north. But winter temperatures that have reached -55C meant most of the population left as soon as the gold ran out. Today, only 1300 people live there.

Now the Sourtoe cocktail has sparked a new kind of rush, with more than 60,000 people flocking to the city to try this bizarre drink.

The attraction was invented in 1973 when a local eccentric named Captain Dick discovered a severed toe in an abandoned cabin. He plopped it in a glass of whisky and thus invented the Sourtoe cocktail. This drink became a hit, and soon enough Captain Dick formed the Sourtoe Club.

Rules were drawn up for these brave imbibers: the toe must touch the lips; other drinks can be substituted for whisky, but no sweet liqueurs, milk or fizzy drink.

It didn't take long for the first toe to disappear, down the throat of an over-zealous patron. More toes made their way to the Downtown Hotel, donated by generous frostbitten amputees or Yukon old-timers. The appendage which found its way into my glass was the eighth - apparently from the unfortunate victim of a lawnmower accident.

Captain Al was on duty the night I joined the club, his badge of office the key to a wooden case sitting behind the bar. Inside was a big toe, preserved in a jar of salt. I summoned up the courage and paid Al five bucks for the membership card, and another fiver to the bar for a tumbler of sweet, honey-based Yukon Gold whisky.

He pulled out the digit, the growth of toenail scraping my glass as it plopped into the yellow liquid. Brown, shrivelled, with a faint odour of pickle, there was no mistaking it for anything other than what it was.

Although the bar was relatively empty, he announced the ritual with great fanfare: "Drink it fast or drink it slow, but either way, your lips must touch this gnarly-looking toe!" I followed his instructions; the toe bumped my lips and I suppressed the retch forming in my gut.

Toe Captain confirmed I was now a card-carrying member of the club.

I'm not sure which is more disturbing; a drink with a severed human toe in it, or the fact that so many people would want to try it.

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Further information: You can join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club every evening at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City. It costs C$5 plus the price of your drink and you can usually find a Toe Captain eagerly awaiting you at the bar.

To find out about visiting Dawson City visit dawsoncity.ca.

* Robin Esrock is the co-host of Word Travels, seen on the Travel Channel. You can catch up with him at robinesrock.com.

- NZ Herald

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