Up in the far north of Canada, there is a bar where you can order a shot of whiskey garnished with a real human toe. According to myth and legend, the strange tradition began nearly a century ago after a rum runner named Otto Linken amputated his brother Louie’s frostbite-stricken toe. They kept it and preserved it in alcohol, and, since the 1970s, tourists have flocked to Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel to become a part of history by sucking down these toe-laced drinks.
But a legend so grand is doomed to attract trouble. The toe was stolen on Monday, prompting a manhunt for the thief and a revival of the public’s interest in the strange tradition. One question about the toe, which kisses every drinker’s mouth, resurfaces: Why hasn’t a health authority shut this potentially bacteria-laden, cannibalistic nonsense down?
As a proud member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, I can confidently say that science — combined with a generous dose of peer pressure — turns this tradition from serious yuck to safe good fun.
Let’s start with the toes themselves (many have been donated, due to high demand). Unlike the original sour toe, the modern toes are preserved and stored in salt. As in salted pork, the sodium chloride pulls moisture out of the flesh so that the sort of water-needing pathogens that might make you sick can’t survive on the surface. Salting represents a sort of mummification process, and, indeed, the bodies of men who died in salt mines of Iran 1,700 years ago have been recovered intact.
The recently stolen toe was donated by a man who had it amputated for the purpose, presumably motivated by a dire toe shortage after the swallowing incident. His toe cured for six months on salt before it was served to the public — long enough that it would have been too salty to taste good but probably safe to eat.
And then there’s the question of germ sharing. In order to earn a membership into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, you must recite a pledge and take the drink, and the toe must touch your lips. Afterwards, the toe is returned by the Toe Captain to a bed of salt, where it’s soon rescued by the next person in the long line, which often snakes from one end of the bar to the other.
At the rate drinkers suck down Sourtoes, the salt doesn’t have time to work its anti-pathogenic magic, so, yes, it’s entirely possible you could be sharing spit with some pretty unsavory drinkers, and it’s possible that doing so could make you sick. But it hasn’t happened yet. My first Sourtoe was in the bad old days, when there was no rule against putting the whole thing in your mouth and spitting it back out, which is what I and everyone else in line did, because what’s the point of participating in a bravery challenge if you don’t take it to its limit?
The fact that the tradition hasn’t been shut down yet speaks to the idea that it is, in fact, safe. There’s promise in the idea that strong alcohol would disinfect the toe between patrons. The drink of choice for the shot is Yukon Jack, a whiskey with 40 percent alcohol by volume. Labs generally use 70 percent ethanol or more for disinfecting surfaces, but a strong liquor will do a better job than nothing.
If you’re worried about the health risks but still want to join the club, you can practice harm reduction by making sure the toe is fully covered in booze (maybe order a double?) and drawing out your oath so that it has a minute or two to soak in the liquor. Forget the ice. You can take comfort in the fact that more than 100,000 people have gone before you, and none of them, so far as we know, have died from it.