Is That a Toe in My Drink? Here’s the Story of the Mummified-Toe Cocktail!

Mummified Toe Cocktail, University Foot and Ankle Institute

The mummified human toe is the key ingredient in the Sourtoe Cocktail.

Like the movie “Fight Club”, the Sourtoe Cocktail Club has but one rule. “You can drink it fast, or you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the Toe.”

If you choose to accept that macabre challenge, the toe that touches your lips will be one in a series of a dozen or more mummified, but authentically human toes. For more than 40 years, a mummified toe has graced shot glasses at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City. It’s an old gold rush town in the Yukon, Canada’s northernmost and least tamed territory.

As the story goes, the Liken brothers, Louie and Otto, were rum runners who plied their lawless trade in the Yukon in the 1920s. While fleeing from the Mounties by dog sled, one of Louie’s big toes froze up solid. Rather than risk exposure and capture in a hospital, Otto amputated Louie’s frozen digit with an ax. The Toe was saved in a jar of alcohol, apparently to commemorate their narrow escape.

In 1973, Captain Dick Stevenson, a Dawson City resident celebrated for his eccentricity, discovered the Toe in an abandoned cabin. It was by then dehydrated and completely mummified. Through a thought process which remains obscure, Captain Dick concluded that the Toe would be the perfect garnish for a mixed drink, to be known henceforth as the Sourtoe Cocktail.

People in Frontier Towns Do Crazy Things

Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Canada put out this ad so it can keep the Sourtoe Cocktail on the menu.

Somehow, the Sourtoe Cocktail became the signature drink for the bar at Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel. When asked about the reasons for its popularity, Terry Lee, the currently serving Toe Master, could offer only that, “People in frontier towns do crazy things, especially if you stay the winter, because your brain is probably half frozen”.

The lips of 71,468 people, each with a highly suspect brain temperature, have touched the toe since 1973. We know this because that’s how many Sourtoe Cocktail Club Certificates have been officially issued by Lee and his predecessors.

The duties of the Toe Master include “administering” the toe to patrons, preparing and issuing the Certificates, and monitoring care of the Toe. Lee says:

“I make sure it’s in good shape and well-preserved. I change the salt once a week on it. Any new toes come in – there’s a procedure you have to do to get it what’s called necrotic, which is completely mummified, before you can serve it.”

Attempts by Canadian health authorities to outlaw the Sourtoe failed because the bar doesn’t actually sell the toe, and, after all, what people choose to mix with their whiskey ain’t nobody’s business but their own.

Don’t Wear Open-Toe Sandals While Mowing the Lawn

As one might imagine, maintaining an inventory of mummified human toes as drink garnishes isn’t always easy. The original Toe lasted a mere seven years, until a miner who was trying for the Sourtoe record (13) tipped his chair over backwards and accidentally swallowed the Toe. Retrieval attempts proved fruitless. Subsequent Toes have been acquired from frostbite victims, medically supervised amputations and posthumous donations. Toe #8 arrived in a jar of alcohol with the message “don’t wear open-toe sandals while mowing the lawn.”

Some of the toes just wore out from use and some were pilfered. Early on, a $500 fine was announced for swallowing the Toe. Despite the fine (or maybe because of it), in 2013 a man, known only as “Josh from New Orleans” ordered a Sourtoe Cocktail and promptly swallowed it, incumbent Toe and all. Apparently feeling that he had gotten his money’s worth, Josh paid the $500 fine and immediately fled the saloon. He escaped, and the swallowing fine was promptly increased to $2500.

In June, the Toe was brazenly stolen, and the RCMP launched a full-scale investigation. The Yukon travel agency (Travel Yukon) just as quickly launched a promotional contest, offering to trade a weeklong vacation in the Yukon, including a visit to the Sourdough Saloon and a stay at the Downtown Hotel, for the donation of a replacement Toe. The only entry requirement was a photograph of the proffered replacement Toe.

The Toe thief had a change of heart. On June 22, the Toe returned to the Sourdough Saloon by mail, apparently none the worse for its travels. It was accompanied by a handwritten note that read:

“I’m deeply sorry. I was way too drunk and lost my mind celebrating a special date. A Drunken Fool”

The Mounties announced that no charges would be filed.

Despite the return of the Toe, the Replacement Toe contest continued. The winning entrant is Kelly Green, a kayak instructor from British Columbia. Her winning photograph shows 4 feet, each with a full complement of 5 toes with no information on which toe is heading north.

In any event, you might want to wait until the new Toe is officially installed before your next visit to the Sourdough Saloon.

A personal note from the member of the UFAI Education Team who authored this article:

Many, many years ago my father worked for the White Pass and Yukon Railway, based in Vancouver, BC. He frequently travelled in the Yukon on business and sometimes my mother tagged along. So the other night I asked my 89-year-old mom if she had ever heard of the Sourtoe Cocktail. She laughed, “Oh my goodness, yes. They serve it at the hotel bar in Dawson City.”

Stunned, I asked her if my dad had ever ordered one. “Not very likely. He wouldn’t have the nerve,” she responded. When I suggested that maybe she tried a Sourtoe Cocktail, she declared, “No dead toe is ever going to touch my lips.”

“Well, did you ever see anyone drink it?”

“Oh, yes. We both watched. It’s kind of a big deal and very popular!”

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