julia dimon/for metro Toronto
Julia Dimon and her Word Travels co-host Robin Esrock, right, pose with the Sourtoe Captain in Dawson City, Yukon. The captain is holding a salt-preserved, severed human toe, which is served up in a shot of whisky. Those who drink it gain entry into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold.” This chilling line, from the Cremation Of Sam McGee, was always a bit of a mystery to me, but after my trip to Dawson City, Yukon, I finally understand what kind of strangeness poet Robert Service must have been getting at. At the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson’s Downtown Hotel, I encounter a local concoction dubbed the Sourtoe Cocktail. The drink contains something along the lines of a worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle — except this something is a human toe. That’s right. A severed human toe, preserved in salt, black and shrivelled and topped with a fat yellow nail. Truly disgusting, but an essential part of the Sourtoe experience.
The man in charge of the nasty relic is the Toe Captain, whose teeth are as stained and gnarled as the ingredient he’s serving. The captain explains the tradition was created more than 30 years ago by Captain Dick, a local entrepreneur who saw an opportunity in selling shots — complete with an amputated, frost-bitten toe from some unfortunate miner — to adventurous customers.
Amazingly enough, some 65,000 people have tried this drink, joined the club, received certificates and proven themselves to be “real Yukoners.”
I want to add my name to the growing list, but I won’t lie — I feel squeamish. I have no problem eating crickets, snakes and scorpions, but drinking a shot featuring a dehydrated human toe seems a bit too much. It’s hard to believe thirsty tourists from all over the world continue to line up for a taste.
I watch as the bartender pours an ounce of Yukon Jack whisky into my glass. The captain plunks the toe into my drink. At $10 a pop, there’s no turning back.
The captain warns me there’s a $250 fine if I eat or swallow the toe. I tell him not to worry: There’s no way I’m doing either. Apparently, the original toe (the amputated, frost-bitten one) has been swallowed, chewed, bitten in half, stolen and accidentally thrown out. The toe in my glass is actually No. 8, donated as a result of a lawnmower accident.
As I stare into my cup at that fleshy thing lying stuck to the bottom, at that toe that’s touched a thousand lips, I can’t help but think of my health. Though the toe is preserved, I wonder if it carries a host of communicable diseases.
The Captain heckles me, then assures me it’s clean. I have no choice but to put faith in my immune system and pick up my cannibalistic cocktail.
“Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe,” recites the captain.
I slug the whisky back in one shot. The alcohol burns my throat, warming my insides and filling my veins with a dose of liquid courage. The toenail crashes against my lips. I grimace in disgust and struggle to swallow the drink. I shudder but am able to crack a smile.
The Captain adds my name to the logbook and deems me the latest member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.
Freelance writer Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie and host of Word Travels, a new reality TV-series to be broadcast on OLN in 2008. Contact her at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.