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A stiff drink : Inventor of the Sourtoe Cocktail donates his toes to grace his unique invention

Updated: May 2, 2022


Dick Stevenson, affectionately known to his customers as "Captain Dick", a bartender in Yukon territory died last week, aged 89. This does not seem to be the sort of story that would attract attention from the worldwide media, but Stevenson had invented a rather unusual cocktail that will continue after his death due to the donation of his toes.

The Sourtoe cocktail has been served at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City, Yukon territory, Canada since the early 70's. The creation myth goes back much further though.

In the 1920's, brothers Otto and Louie Liken smuggled rum to supplement their earnings as miners. On one such smuggling job, one of the brothers (it is unclear which, and the debate is a subject of heated conversation to this day in Dawson City) developed frostbite in a toe. To avoid the dangers of gangrene, the other brother either hacked or shot the toe off. It was kept in a bottle of rum as a "trophy" in their shack. 50 years later, Captain Dick, who ran a tourist riverboat on the Yukon river, bought the shack and became the owner of the toe. Not long after, he found himself drinking in Dawson, with the toe, well, in tow, and a legend was born.

An old tale told of a British major tricked into drinking a cocktail with "ice worms" in it. Hardened drinkers goaded the major into drinking to qualify as a real Yukoner, unaware the ice worms were merely spaghetti. The idea was born and Captain Dick printed up some certificates, put on his Captain's cap and challenged people to prove they were a real Yukoner by buying a drink with the toe in the glass. He had one simple, if not, hideous rule. "you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips gotta touch the toe"

In those early days in the Eldorado Bar the most common form of the toe drink was Champagne in a beer glass, yet the entrepreneurial Captain Dick kept a log book of the Sourtoe club. He registered an 84 year old woman who imbibed a 7up, or the time a Scout troop drank it with Coke. Captain Dick recounted that the novelty made the bar a destination. For every drinker, there would be two who wanted to watch. He never got paid by the bar but he received plenty of free drinks.

Disaster struck in July 1980. With 725 Sourtoe club members initiated, a local miner, trying to break a Sourtoe record, fell back on his chair attempting his thirteenth "cocktail" of the evening and accidentally swallowed the toe. Alarmingly, the toe was never recovered.

You would imagine that would be the end of the story, but the ritual had become so popular that the call went out for a replacement. An Alberta woman was prepared to donate an amputated toe but it had been mislaid. Then, a Faro trapper donated a frostbitten big toe and Captain Dick went "on the road" with his strange show.

Toes would get swallowed on occasion but rapidly were replaced, at times having multiple toes to chose from. He was invited to share a cocktail with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show but the US Government refused to allow human remains to cross the border.

Captain Dick eventually shipped out of Dawson City in 1993 and gave his latest pickled toe to a friend. The Sourtoe tradition found a home at the Downtown Hotel and the owners of the establishment bought the rights to the Sourtoe name. The tradition has an astonishing following, and this surreal tourist attraction has upto 150 people queued up to partake on any given night. The club has around 100,000 members. The "cocktail" now consists of a straight Yukon Whiskey with a mummified toe. A shot at glory will set you back C$5.

Dick Stevenson donated his ten toes to be cured in rock salt for six months before joining the current Sourtoe line up for patrons to "kiss". His ashes are to be put on display in a toe shaped urn in the hotel. There have been multiple toe thefts with a fine of C$2,500 now levied on people who attempt to swipe a toe. British endurance athlete Nick Griffiths donated three frostbitten toes that he lost on the Yukon Arctic ultramarathon.

Stevenson was known, unsurprisingly, as a popular and colourful Yukon character who had a habit of creating unusual ideas. He apparently had a plan for a "Miss Nude" contest in Dawson City. It is unclear if this was a devious plan to generate more toe donations!

The Downtown Hotel in Dawson City can offer you a bed for the night to assist in recovery from your toe curling drinking habits. If you are ever passing through Yukon territory on your way to the frozen nowhere, raise your glass to Captain Dick, but be careful not to open your mouth too wide, legend has it, once the toe goes down, it never comes out.

Dick Stevenson 1929 - 2019 R.I.P

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