Sourtoe Cocktail: The drink as disgusting as it sounds

We sometimes do questionable things in the name of travel - I've nibbled at fried tarantulas, drunk muddy dishwater masquerading as kava, and eaten eggs so rotten they have turned to black, gelatinous goo. When in Rome, right?

But as I stand in a 50-deep queue waiting to join Dawson City's infamous Sourtoe Club, I can't help but wonder why - why would anyone want or need to drink a beverage containing a mummified human toe, particularly when this so-called 'tradition' dates back only to (in small print) 1973?

Because it's gross. Because people are weird. And because it creates a damn good story to tell the folks back home.

The gold rush outpost of Dawson City, in the north-western Canadian territory of Yukon, is an odd town at the best of times, with one of the harshest climates on earth and either perpetual daylight or endless nights, depending on the season. It's the type of place that attracts adventurers, eccentrics and misfits, characters who - as the Yukon's slogan states - are larger than life.

So it's quite fitting that one of the 'must do' activities in Dawson is to visit the historic Downtown Hotel and partake of the Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot of your spirit of choice containing a black, shrivelled big toe. To date, more than 72,000 people have imbibed in this strange initiation; the hotel is currently on its 13th toe, with its predecessors either swallowed (once deliberately), stolen (with the most recent theft taking place just weeks before my June 2017 visit) or disintegrated (don't even!) To protect its investment, the hotel imposes a $2500 fine for anyone brazen enough to ingest the toe, raised from $500 in 2013 after a punter swallowed the digit, slapped down the fine in cash and exited the saloon. During the most recent toe crime, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued an arrest warrant before the stolen treasure was contritely and anonymously returned, with an apology signed by "a drunken fool".

And now it's my turn to bear that title. "You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe," Toe Captain Sue Taylor grins as she drops the prune-like slug - apparently the "back-up" for the still-in-custody stolen appendage - into my 80-proof tequila shot (toe-quila, get it?)

I shudder, my inner-voice once again shouting "whyyyyyy?" ??? before knocking it back, tapping on the glass to force the gruesome object to reach my lips. I've done it - and for my bravery I receive a certificate, stating I am victim 71961 and a bone fide member of the "elite Sourtoe Cocktail Club".

Perturbed by what appears to me a flimsy backstory - I mean, 1973 is hardly the annals of time - I seek out the hotel's other Toe Captain, Terry Lee, who oversees the ceremony four nights a week, to ask about the origins of this Yukon institution. With his grizzled white beard and wiry Einstein locks, Lee is one of Yukon's "colourful five percent", as well as an accomplished storyteller - he's clearly told the legend of the toe many, many times, with the story plausible in its recounting.

According to Lee, the Sourtoe dates back to Prohibition, when two Norwegian brothers, Otto and Louie Liken, ran a lucrative rum-running business in the winter months. During a dog-sledding trip to Alaska in an extreme blizzard, Louie put his foot through some ice, but continued his mission regardless. But when he returned and took his boot off, his big toe was frozen solid.

"His brother said, 'If that gets gangrenous, you're dead. We're 60 miles from Dawson, the toe has to come off,'" Lee tells me.

"So he goes and gets an axe, comes back in and whacks off his brother's toe. And for some strange reason, he took a mason jar and put the toe in it, filled it up with OP rum, sealed it and put it on the shelf. And there it sat for at least 40 years."

In 1972, the toe was discovered in this remote cabin by a Yukon riverboat captain, Dick Stevenson, who was encouraged to put it on display as a gold-mining relic. But the entrepreneurial Captain Dick went one step further, placing the mummified appendage into a stein of champagne and charging "cheechakos" - greenhorns visiting during the summer months - to drink up as a dare of sorts.

"In order to become a Sourdough (the local name for long-term residents), you have to stay from freeze-up to break-up," Lee explains. "Captain Dick came up with the idea, in order to become an honorary Sourdough, you have to kiss the Sour Toe. The rest is history."

The original toe, Lee tells me, was swallowed in 1980 when a gold miner fell back in his chair, comatose, during the ritual, subsequently inhaling the digit. "There he was, semi-blotto, laying on the floor; Captain Dick gets up, straddles him, grabs him by the shoulders and bangs his head against the floor, shouting, 'You just ruined the best thing I had going!'"

Since then, there has been no shortage of toe donors. After the most recent theft, Yukon Tourism even started an Instagram contest, asking participants to upload images of their offerings (with the hashtag #makeatoenation). To date, 317 Canadians (the contest is restricted to locals, perhaps to ensure freshness) have offered to donate their toes after death.

Toe Captain Terry Lee himself is also a proud donor, willing all 10 of his digits to the starring role. "Plus another part of my anatomy that gives new meaning to the word 'cocktail'," he chuckles with a cheeky glint in his eye. Now that's dedication to the job!

The writer was a guest of Tourism Yukon.

TRIP NOTES

Fly: Air Canada flies to Vancouver from Sydney and Melbourne daily, with onward flights to Whitehorse. See aircanada.com Dawson City is a five-hour drive north of Whitehorse or a one-hour flight on Air North, flyairnorth.com

Stay: The Downtown Hotel in Dawson City has rooms from $192 + tax per night. See downtownhotel.ca

More: The Sourtoe Cocktail ritual takes place every evening in the Sourdough Saloon from June to September between 9 and 11pm. It costs the price of the alcoholic beverage, plus a $5 tip.

See also: The tourist attractions that make no sense

See also: Eight weird laws you might break overseas

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