'You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe.' - An Ode to the Initiated, anon.

The Canadian is generally perceived as a friendly type, mellow and measured in that well-worn cliché of a head-to-head (or toe-to-toe, if you will) with the unrulier neighbours to the south. Feathers remain unruffled and manners intact. Yet in the spirit of the largely silent and demure Japanese, who then belt out Z. Z. Top and Shalamar for twelve hours straight at the karaoke or the polite English who speak not of the unmentionables and then give the world a potty-mouthed Johnny Rotten, five decades of revolutionary music to send parents quite insane and the nose-dildo murders of A Clockwork Orange, I guess that we all have our alter egos. If so, perhaps the obsidian soul of the loveable Canuck is to be found in salt in the Yukon; behind the bar at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City.

For here is served the Sourtoe, a whiskey cocktail that contained an amputated phalange from the foot of an old gold-digger. Until, that is, a bawdy American swallowed it and was chased out of town. There is more of this naughty lad to come.

I spoke with the general manager at the Downtown Hotel, Adam Gerle.

Question: What is the history of the Sourtoe? How does something like this end up on the menu?

Answer: Back in the 1920s, a pair of rum-runners, Louie Linken and his brother, Otto got stranded in a huge snowstorm while on a cross border mission. Louie fell through the ice while trying to aid their dog sled on its way. Sensing the cops were right behind them, they continued to flee.  The prolonged exposure froze Louie’s big toe. His brother amputated it with a woodcutting axe, with Louie necking some of their industrial strength rum to ease the pain. They preserved the toe in a jar of grog in their hideaway cabin.

Decades later (in 1973),  Captain Dick Stevenson found the toe during an overdue spring clean. He took it to the Downtown Hotel, where the Sourtoe Cocktail Club was established and founded.  Since that day, at least ten blackened toes have been used.

Q: How popular has it been?

A: The Sourtoe cocktail is legendary in Dawson City.  The club has over 100,000 members. Members receive a certificate and sign a book. This book contains a signature of one Pierre Trudeau.

Q: How does one become a member?

A: Easy.

Step 1 – Come down to the Sourdough Saloon
Step 2 – Purchase a shot (most club members prefer Yukon Jack)
Step 3 – Pledge the ‘Sourtoe Oath’
Step 4 – Watch as a (genuine) dehydrated toe is dropped in your drink
Step 5 – Drink your Sourtoe Cocktail

Q: What is it precisely?

A: Sourtoe Cocktail Recipe:
1 ounce (minimum) of alcohol
1 dehydrated toe
garnish with courage

Q: How is the toe kept?

A: The toe is stored in salt to keep it desiccated, mummified.

Q: How do you get new ones?

A: We are advertising for toes…we need new ones bad!

Q: Is it unhygienic to drink?

A: No, the Chief Medical Officer of the Yukon has examined it and says it is safe as long as we serve in 40% alcohol.

Q: Is it tasty?

A: NO!

Q: Are you looking to extend the range to other body parts?

A: NO!

Q: Are there may repeat customers?  Is there a regular who drinks it all the time?

A: Yes, we have has people do it multiple times. Our old Toe Captain Terry, who usually serves the shots, has done it over a hundred times.

Q: What are the craziest stories you have heard about it?

A: Joshua Clark, a writer from the U.S. swallowed the toe. He enraged the town, was charged with cannibalism and desecrating a corpse, fined $500 and chased out of town. One local declared, “If we find him, we will get ourselves ten new toes.”

However, it turned out to be the best marketing stunt the hotel could have imagined, for the publicity that followed was immense.

An apologetic Clark returned four years later to beg for forgiveness. He read this poem to a packed and still miffed Downtown Hotel.

Sonnet of the Sourtoe – An Apology

Many came to Dawson, to find their pan of gold,
But I came and left a cannibal.
I swallowed the ghastly black thing itself, the toe,
Paid the fine, five hundred bucks of my hard earned dough.
Then said, ‘Goodbye’ to this town I loved so.
You may forgive me fast, you may forgive me slow,
That my stomach once touched your toe.
But under the spell of the Yukon, where we mine for pay dirt.
I’m incredibly saddened by any my actions have hurt.
And to the great toe master Terry Lee,
If only you got to know the real me.
You may think I’m a big egotistical American,
But I’m truly an honest, humble man.
I wanted to let you know,
That upon my death, you shall have my big right toe.
To prove I’m not trying to fake it,
Here are the sheers, with which I hope you take it.

Wordsworth and Byron it is not. But the unforgiving Toe Captain, Terry is a tough crowd. He remarks that, “Living in the Yukon, there’s no room to be sentimental.”

But then he added with typical Canadian tolerance and with the antithesis of the lesser-spotted Canucklehead, “That was good poem. He admitted he was a cannibal, I’ll give him that.”

Bravo, Terry. I like your style. Cheers.

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Ian Thornton

Ian Thornton

Ian Thornton is an English novelist, living in Toronto. His critically-acclaimed debut, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, was published by Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. His follow-up, The Deaths and Afterlife of Aleister Crowley, will be out on Penguin later this year. Ian is currently producing a documentary on the head of Anonymous.