If you’re looking for a drink with an extra kick, the Sourtoe Cocktail has just the ingredient: a human toe.
Served up at the Downtown Hotel’s Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City, Canada, the cocktail is connected to a legend that dates back to the 1920s about bootlegging brothers who placed one of their frostbitten toes in moonshine as a memen-toe. In 1973, the preserved toe was discovered and the Sourtoe Cocktail Club was born.
Nowadays, people from all over the world stop by the seemingly typical saloon in the Yukon territory to become part of its history.
Jacob Schutte, 29, from Perth, Australia, first heard about the cocktail on social media and quickly added it to his travel bucket list.
“It was just one of the things I had to go do,” Schutte, who did the Sourtoe earlier this year, told USA TODAY.
And he isn’t alone – Schutte says his certificate, which drinkers of the cocktail are gifted after completing the challenge, listed him as the 91,373rd person to drink it.
The Sourtoe Cocktail recipe is simple: “1 ounce (minimum) of alcohol, 1 dehydrated toe, garnish with courage,” according to the website.
You first pay for your shot of choice, then pay an extra $6 ($8 CAD) to one of the “Toe Captains,” the servers who administer the toe-filled drinks and go over the rules: You must let the toe hit your lips but no biting, chewing or putting the toe in your mouth is allowed. Swallowing the toe will also land you with a fine of about $1,900.
“(The Toe Captain) holds the toe in his hand and says, ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe,’ ” Schutte recalls. “He waives it in front of your nose as well, and then he just drops it in your drink and you just do the shot.”
Adam Gerle, the general manager of the Downtown Hotel, reassured USA TODAY that the cocktail meets sanitary standards.
“We’ve had the chief medical officer of the Yukon look at it and give it a clean bill of health,” he explained. “As long as we keep the toes mummified, which we do by keeping them on salt and serving it in 40% alcohol, that keeps everything legal.”
Gerle also explained that the toes are donated to the hotel – and they have about 10 in rotation as of October 2019.
One of their big toes (any toe is allowed) came from a British Marine who lost it to frostbite during the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon last winter. More recently, another man donated a toe that he lost to gout.
“So that’ll be up and running for next summer,” Gerle said of the gout toe.
And they’re always open “new toe-nations” to keep their stock up, either in person or by mail.
“We had one guy swallow one, couple of them have been stolen (and) after a certain period of time, we retire them. We retire them before they start wearing down,” he said, adding that they normally get about five years out of each toe before needing to “give it a rest.”
Even if the alcohol cleans the toe, the idea of drinking a cocktail with a mummified human toe still turns people off. Even Gerle, who has served the drink, has never drank it personally.
“I don’t know, it seems kinda of a gross thing to do,” he laughed.
But the novelty of the drink still draws large crowds, especially in the summertime, Gerle says.
“It’s a wide segment of people from all ages and backgrounds. … We have a direct flight from Frankfurt, Germany, in the summer, so we get a lot of Europeans who have heard of the toe and want to do it,” he said. “A lot of Americans, Canadians, even locals if they have family, friends visiting.”
Lindsay Wilson’s first experience with the drink was during a work banquet in the area in 2018, where she didn’t believe it was real at first.
“I started Googling it and went down this rabbit hole,” she said. “Then I called my friend actually who got me the job and was like, ‘Do I actually have to do this? I don’t want to do this at all,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, you kind of do … (or) we’re all going to say you’re a big loser.’ “
The 34-year-old from Vancouver said it took her some drinks beforehand to work up the courage to take the Sourtoe but admits “it’s not as bad as you think it would be.”
What was worse was what her Toe Captain, which she described as a “total character” and “one of the funniest people on the planet,” made her do before the shot, she recalled.
“She made me kiss it first,” she said. “That part was traumatizing, it was so gross. … The texture of it was really disgusting, but I don’t remember a taste. The feel of it was really really gross. … It was like a greasy raisin.”
Others also had a hard time with the drink. “One girl cried,” Wilson laughed. “She did not want to do it.”
For Wilson, the best part of the experience was the reactions afterward.
“Nobody could believe it, nobody in my circle had heard about it,” she said. “So it was kind of fun to tell people and hear how grossed out they were.”
Melanie Chavez, 30, of Toronto said she’ll probably not drink the Sourtoe Cocktail again – she’s already done it three times! The first time was during her first visit to Dawson City for an internship, another time was during a pub crawl in the area and another was when her parents visited.
“My first time was because I thought I wouldn’t be back to Dawson and wanted to have that story. … I never thought about doing it again until my parents came to visit me,” she explained. “My mom was completely grossed out, and my dad wasn’t understanding why it was even a thing. But they had to … so of course I said I’d do it again if they did.”
Turns out, even her parents are proud of the experience.
“They now have their Sourtoe certificates framed above their bar at home – signed by (Toe) Captain Jack himself,” she said. “It sparks great conversation about the Yukon all the time.”
If you’re still on the fence about drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail yourself, everyone USA TODAY interviewed encouraged others to try it.
“It’s one of those funny bucket list things, right? When you look back on your life and think of silly things that you’ve done, like that’s a good story to tell people,” Wilson said.
For first-timers, Schutte advises to just go for it.
“I was so nervous, but there was nothing to be worried about,” he said. “As soon as you’ve done it, the Yukon Jack (whisky) is really nice.”
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