There are a lot of gross cocktails out there: There’s Chica, made from corn and human spit; there’s the Gilpin Family Whisky, made from the urine of elderly diabetics; and let’s not forget Baby Mice Wine, which is rice wine with — you guessed it — drowned baby mice in it. But there’s nothing quite like the Sourtoe Special, which is pretty much straight whiskey with a mummified human toe in it.
“I found the original toe in 1972 in a log cabin,” explains Captain Dick Stevenson, an 89-year-old former ship captain in the Canadian Yukon. “It was in a pickle jar. The legend I heard was that it belonged to a miner from the 1920s named Louie Liken, who lost it due to frostbite. Then me and a few friends were BS-ing one night, and we invented the Sourtoe Cocktail. There was just 10 or 12 of us in the Sourtoe Club at first, and now it’s over 100,000 or so. I tell you, I had a lot of ideas over my life that have seemed pretty good, but I had one stupid one and it seems like that’s the one that worked.”
The drink has become something of a legend in the Yukon. Officially speaking, it can only be drunk in the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, a small Canadian town of just 1,400 people. It was in the hotel bar — named the Sourdough Saloon — that Captain Dick arrived one night in 1972 (or possibly 1973) and began plopping a severed toe into people’s drinks as a play on the name of the saloon.
The origins of the drink are part fact and part folklore, which is appropriate, since this could also be said of Captain Dick himself (Stevenson wrote an autobiography a few years back that explains the origins of the drink, but which also includes stories of illegally tapping into an oil pipeline, as well as the nine months he spent in a Fort Saskatchewan jail following his misconduct discharge from the Royal Canadian Air Force). As for the Sourtoe Club, it originally consisted of eight to twelve members, and on that first night, everyone drank a beer glass full of champagne along with that toe.
From there, the drink has continued on as a tradition in the saloon. Since the champagne got pricey, it was soon replaced with whiskey — usually Yukon Jack, but as Terry Lee, the saloon’s official “Toe Master” explains, anything will work so long as it’s at least 80 proof. It also can’t have any flavoring, ice or anything else in it, as Lee warns that this could affect the purity of the toe, which is intended to last for years at a time, despite being put in drink after drink nearly every night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the Sourdough Saloon. (Eventually, of course, toes do wear out — when they start to fall apart they become officially retired and Lee personally cremates them.)
“We serve anywhere from 50 to 90 toes a night,” Lee explains. “Officially, the number is just over 88,000 — at least, that’s what’s in the record started by Captain Dick, but the problem is Captain Dick was quite an imbiber himself, so his bookkeeping wasn’t exactly up-to-par. The actual number is probably over 100,000.”
Each night, there’s something of a celebration led by Lee himself, where the rules are explained, then each person downs the drink and the toe (or toes, depending on how many the bar has in circulation) is moved from drink to drink by Lee. “I remember the Captain kicked off the proceedings with a run through of the rules, which included no swallowing of the toe and that, whatever drink you chose, the toe had to touch your lips!” recounts Frazer Rhodes, who joined the Sourtoe Club in 2008. “I remember quite a crowd had gathered by the time I’d readied myself. The toe did indeed touch my lips, and of course I lived to tell the tale. A round of applause from the other bar patrons and a certificate to prove I was a member of the club soon followed!”
As the nightly Sourtoe slogan goes, to be an official member of the club, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow — but the lips have gotta touch the toe.” But there are a few other rules that need to be laid out, too. “The toe cannot enter the mouth, or be bitten, chewed or swallowed,” Lee explains. “If it’s swallowed, there’s a $2,500 fine paid in cash, and if you don’t pay the cash, there’s federal prosecution, which includes destruction of private property, cannibalism and desecration of a human corpse, which is a federal offense.”
These rules are laid out with good reason since, over the years, toes have been swallowed and even stolen (fortunately, the latter was returned via mail, along with an apology), and if there’s no toe in circulation, there’s no Sourtoe.
At this point, you’re probably wondering where all these toes come from. Lee explains that they’re generally received via anonymous donation, oftentimes from people’s estates, although there was one somewhat more high-profile toe donated more recently: British Royal Marine and endurance athlete Nick Griffiths lost three toes in the Yukon in February 2018 due to frostbite he contracted during a marathon. Having seen a sign asking for frostbitten toes in his hotel, and encouraged by more than a few locals familiar with the drink, he gave them to the Sourdough (yes, you’re absolutely allowed to keep your surgically removed body parts). As Griffiths tells me, “Once I knew I was going to lose my three toes, I no longer had any use for them, and I thought it was fun to donate them. It’s the kind of story you can tell your grandkids one day.”
Toes are generally mailed to the bar (Griffiths’ toes were mailed from the U.K., as they weren’t amputated until he returned home). Once Lee — in his official Toe Master duties — receives a toe, he cleans it in medical alcohol, then preserves it in rock salt for six weeks, which mummifies the toe. After that, it’s good for drinking. Since Griffiths’ toes are now ready to imbibe, in September, Griffiths will travel to the Yukon to join the Sourtoe club, being only the second person to join with one’s own toe and the first with a big toe. “The big toe is the money toe,” Lee explains.
While all that is great to know, however, it doesn’t answer the obvious big question: Is drinking the Sourtoe technically cannibalism? Now, if someone eats the toe, they’re clearly a cannibal. But is simply drinking the drink — and of course, letting the toe touch your lips — considered cannibalism?
For Griffiths, it’s a no. “It’s just a bit of fun,” he explains. As for club members, Rhodes says, “I guess if I swallowed the toe it might be considered cannibalistic, but I have to say, it didn’t cross my mind!” Instagrammer Off the Leash Adventures, who joined the club in 2018, also told me no, and Heather Crawford, who joined in 2017, agrees: “I’d say no since you aren’t actually eating it.” Captain Dick and Lee likewise believe it’s not technically a cannibalistic act. “You can call it fetishism, but I don’t think you can call it cannibalism,” says Lee.
Okay, I get it: No club member, or anyone associated with the Sourtoe, wants to be considered a cannibal. But what about someone who’s a bit more accepting of feasting upon human flesh? While I couldn’t find an actual cannibal to talk to — though I did try contacting one — Lee’s line about “fetishism” inspired me to reach out to some “vore” fetishistists, who fantasize about cannibalism. Sadly, after posting the query on a vore forum, the only reply I got was this: “I’ve been to the bar and saw it in action. Definitely don’t see anything remotely cannibalistic.”
What about the law, though? In an effort to determine Canada’s legal definition of cannibalism, I called a prominent Canadian defense attorney who’d been a part of a case where cannibalism was involved. She explained to me that there was no legal definition of cannibalism, before stating, “I’m not going to continue this discussion any further,” and promptly hung up on me. I’m pretty sure she thought I was a cannibal.
Since there is no legal definition of cannibalism, I wondered if the Sourtoe could be scientifically cannibalistic, so I turned to Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro, author of The Germ Files and host of the Super Awesome Science Show, who confirmed that it doesn’t really count if you’re not actually eating the toe. “Will you possibly ingest some cells that are human in nature? Perhaps,” he says. “But the amount would be much smaller than what you would ingest during a passionate kiss.”
Even those who study cannibalism for a living agree that the Sourtoe is safe from such accusations. “Gross, that’s what I call it,” says K. Kris Hirst, an archaeologist and science writer. “[The Sourtoe is] also part of a long, weird tradition of using ground-up mummy parts as everything from medical treatments to fish bait. If you consume it, I suppose it would count, but touching it, even with your lips, doesn’t sound like consumption.” Richard Sugg, author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians and the forthcoming Talking Dirty: The History of Disgust, says, “Some perhaps would see it as playing with the notion of cannibalism and perhaps Canada is therefore significant, given its tribal history, but I’d say it fits better with the topic of disgust entertainment, which often features wagers involving emphatically disgusting feats, like eating a live rat.”
Despite all these naysayers, I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that the Sourtoe was surely cannibalistic in some way, until I spoke to anthropologist Michael Pickering, an honorary associate professor at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University. As Pickering explains, the “the main qualifiers for cannibalism are ‘intent’ and ‘belief.’ Does the person intend to consume human flesh, or do they believe they are consuming human flesh? For example, if I offer you a meat pie and tell you it’s beef, when it’s actually human flesh, and you eat it, are you a cannibal? I’d say no, because you had no intention to eat human tissue, and you didn’t believe you were eating human tissue. The same would apply to the toe: By drinking the spirit in which the toe sits, a consumer will intake some cells, but it’s unlikely that this is their intention. If the toe makes contact with the lips, cells may be transferred, but not with the intention of consumption.”
So don’t worry, adventurous drinkers: Chucking back a slug of Canadian whiskey with a severed human toe in it might make you throw up; it might make you drunk; it might even make you some new friends. But one thing it definitely won’t make you is a cannibal.