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Dawson City Welcome Sign
Dawson City Welcome Sign (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

The Sourtoe Cocktail: Trying Dawson City's Toe-Tally Bizarre Drink

Dawson City Welcome Sign
Dawson City Welcome Sign (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Jun 28, 2023

Read time
8 min read

If you've ever walked into a bar and thought, "This drink would be so much better if it were garnished with a severed toe," then you'll certainly want to consider trying the Sourtoe Cocktail at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon.

The hotel is reachable on Holland America Line's Alaska cruise tours that include Canada's Yukon and is a unique spot that serves up real human toes in one of their drinks.

Walk into the hotel's Sourdough Saloon, reminiscent of something out of the Old West, and order yourself a shot from the bar. Then find the captain (they'll be wearing a captain's hat) and tell them that you want to try the Sourtoe Cocktail.

And then start mentally preparing yourself for an experience you'll be sharing with loved ones and strangers alike for years to come.

We took an Alaska cruise tour with Holland America that included the Yukon in its itinerary and yes, we gave the Sourtoe Cocktail a try for ourselves. Here's everything you need to know about the strange beverage and our experience with it.

What Is the Sourtoe Cocktail?

Step inside for the Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
Step inside for the Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

The Sourtoe Cocktail is a double shot of alcohol that is garnished with a pickled human toe instead of the usual lime wedge or olive. Not to worry: patrons who choose to indulge in this cocktail simply drink the alcohol and leave the toe -- but the toe must touch their lips. But how did the famous -- or, really, infamous -- Sourtoe Cocktail start in the first place?

The History of the Sourtoe Cocktail

The toe-urn of Captain Dick Stevenson in Dawson City, Yukon (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
The toe-urn of Captain Dick Stevenson in Dawson City, Yukon (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

According to employees at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City, a rum runner lost his toe to frostbite in the 1920s and his brother, who doubled as his colleague, preserved it in a jar of alcohol. About five decades later, Captain Dick Stevenson found the jar in an abandoned cabin and, like anyone would do, drank the mystery alcohol without a second thought.

It wasn't until after he finished the booze that he looked down and realized what the floating object was: a human toe. The Captain then swiftly started a business around this pickled toe; he used it in drinks to initiate "sourdoughs" -- those who have experienced at least one winter in the Yukon -- leading to the establishment of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club in 1973.

About 10 sourdoughs joined the Sourtoe Cocktail Club in the first year, then after a reporter wrote an article on it, the cocktail's popularity skyrocketed and far more have joined since. The tradition has been going on for 50 years now, and there are nearly 105,000 Sourtoe Cocktail Club members today.

Where Do They Get the Toes for the Sourtoe Cocktail?

The original toe was replaced after a drunken patron fell off his chair while taking the shot, accidentally swallowing it. Now, people donate their toes to the Sourdough Saloon. These "toe-nations" have trickled in over the years as the result of everything from frostbite to inoperable corns and diabetic complications.

The saloon is currently serving up two toes in rotation, both sent in by a woman with hammer toes that required amputation. Naturally, she donated them to the Sourdough Saloon to be used as garnishes in their flagship cocktail.

The Sourtoe Cocktail: Our Experience

The infamous Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
The infamous Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

A few daredevils from our Alaska cruise tour group walked into the Sourdough Saloon, a dimly-lit spot with moose and caribou antlers adorning the walls and quaint tables, chairs and bar up a short flight of stairs.

We bellied up to the bar in the early afternoon, where we had to individually choose our preferred liquor then pay for our Sourtoe Cocktail. We paid for the alcohol, the experience and the shot glass (the latter we got to keep as a souvenir after the fact).

The bartender informed us that we'd have to use something with a high alcohol content (to ensure the toe stays preserved). They explained that the most popular choice is Yukon Jack Whisky, given its name and origin. We chose the classic Yukon Jack Whisky considering how fitting it was -- and we don't even like whisky.

Having someone else's years-old severed toe touch your lips sounds a bit unsanitary, so we asked the bartender about the toe preparation process. To ready a new nub for its Sourtoe drink debut, the local hospital removes the bone and veins and uses dry salt to make the remaining flesh and nail "food safe." A layer of lacquer is also applied to the toe's exterior for further preservation.

The whole process takes about a month. In order to avoid rehydrating the toe (which would cause it to rot), shots can only be done using straight alcohol that's 40 proof or higher. When not in use, the toe is stored in dry salt to keep it petrified.

Our group gathered around a small square table in a corner beside the bar, which has been dedicated to the Sourtoe Cocktail experience. A chalkboard hangs on the wall behind "the captain" (who serves the Sourtoe Cocktail), which portrays the number of those who have joined the Sourtoe Cocktail Club thus far. Souvenir T-shirts and hats line the wall to the side.

Before our turn, we watched a couple of hesitant hopefuls sit at the table, knock back their shots and we nodded with resolve as they downed them with surprising ease. Fascinated (and disgusted) visitors snapped photos while a handful of locals, unfazed by the hubbub, carried on quiet conversations over bottles of beer in the background.

When it was our turn, we examined the toe as the captain waved it by our face with tongs (it looks like a shriveled yet long, oily olive) and recited his spiel: "You can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe. No tongue, no teeth, no tonsils."

Then, the captain dropped the toe into our glass and silence fell-- and we knew the time had finally come. We swished it around a couple of times in the glass, said "cheers" to the room, tilted the glass and swallowed, pausing a few seconds for dramatic effect, of course.

Editor Marilyn Borth Trying the Sourtoe Cocktail
Editor Marilyn Borth Trying the Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

The verdict? It wasn't that bad. The whisky was smoother than we had imagined and the toe didn't have a "taste" or aroma of any kind. Really, it felt like an olive hit our lips while taking a normal shot of alcohol.

We proudly gave the captain our name, and they handed us a certificate of completion, verifying that we had been officially initiated into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.

The Sourtoe Cocktail: Is It Worth a "Shot?"

If you're adventurous and want to become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, yes. If you're squeamish and/or don't drink alcohol, no. But if you can muster up the courage, it's a great conversation starter, and you'll feel like a celebrity as complete strangers snap photos of your exploits (it's a must for selfie-seekers).

Plus, you'll only find Sourtoe shots in Dawson City, so unless you plan to return to the Yukon, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

If you're still apprehensive, remember that more than 105,000 others have gone before you, and not a single one has been adversely affected.

The Sourtoe Cocktail: Other Things to Note

Dawson City is not short of quirky attractions (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
Dawson City is not short of quirky attractions (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Don't chew, suck, bite or swallow the toe. The fine for doing so was originally set at $500, but when customers began slamming $500 down on the counter and purposefully swallowing the digit, the bar's owners increased the penalty to $2,500.

Although the steep fine has protected the toe for now, the bar does keep an extra on reserve, just in case. In addition to the penalty fee, your Sourtoe Cocktail Club membership is null and void if you swallow the toe.

And, if you do eat the toe, not only can you be charged by the bar, but you could also be charged for cannibalism. Simply put: don't do it.

The toe must touch your lips. Don't think you can just take your shot of booze and strategically leave the toe at the bottom of the glass. The toe must touch your lips at some point during the shot.

You must choose from the selection of alcohols listed. Sorry, but you can't just put the toe in any alcohol, like a mixed drink or in a bottle of beer; it must have a high enough alcohol content, such as tequila or whisky.

If you're on a HAL cruise tour, ask your guide to book a separate "toe" session. "Toe time" is usually held in the evening at the Sourdough Saloon, but the number of other tourists waiting for their toe shot can be large. Going at an earlier time for your group to have your Sourtoe Cocktails is best to avoid the rush hour and have a more intimate outing.

Publish date January 08, 2020
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