Captain Dick, left, and Nick Griffiths, the British marine who lost his toe to frostbite in the Yukon Arctic Ultra and donated it to The Downtown for the cocktail, sit together for a photo in September. Captain Dick died on Nov. 14 at the age of 89. (Submitted)

Remembering Capt. Dick Stevenson, the inventor of the sourtoe cocktail

The Captain, who created the drink that in turn created countless honourary Yukoners and was famous the world over, has died.

Capt. Dick Stevenson, creator of the sourtoe cocktail, died Nov. 14 at the age of 89.

“You could drink it fast, you could drink it slow, but the lips have got to touch the toe.”

Those were the words of Stevenson about his creation, which has been served in Dawson City since 1973.

The cocktail features a a preserved toe in a shot of alcohol.

While the cocktail is now served at the Downtown Hotel, for the first few years it was offered wherever Stevenson was working — first at the El Dorado Hotel and then at the Westmark before Stevenson settled in at the Downtown. He retired years ago and the drink stayed at the hotel, though Stevenson continued to bring his ideas for the sourtoe to the hotel, said general manager Adam Gerle.

“He was a really, really colourful guy,” Gerle said.

The more than 93,000 brave enough to ingest the drink and allow the toe to touch their lips received a certificate and were declared honourary Yukoners.

Word of Stevenson’s death has made it’s way around town and around the world for that matter, Gerle said. Dawsonites have been gathering at the Downtown’s bar to remember the colourful character behind the cocktail.

Legend has it that the sourtoe history actually goes back to the 1920s during prohibition when a couple brothers were running moonshine across the border via dogsled.

One of the brothers fell through the ice and survived, but was suffering from frostbite to at least one toe. Given the risk of gangrene, his brother chopped off the frostbitten toe (or toes) and put the digit in a jar filled with whiskey.

It was in the early 1970s Stevenson purchased the cabin north of Dawson where the pickled toe was found and the sourtoe cocktail was born.

Over the years, those who join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club as it’s known have touched their lips to countless toes donated to the cause.

While Gerle said hotel owners are still waiting to speak with Stevenson’s family, there is word that Stevenson willed his toes to the cocktail. Gerle said that’s something Stevenson said he would do, but it was never clear whether he was serious about it or if it might be a joke, given Stevenson’s sense of humour.

In fact, Gerle said there’s a toe-shaped urn with Stevenson’s picture “right above the bar” at the Downtown that states his year of birth with space presumably for the year of his death.

Again, Gerle said the owners are waiting to speak with the family about it.

In the meantime, the community is celebrating the life of Stevenson and his drink that continued to draw tourists to Dawson City.

It’s not too often that a purchase agreement includes a specific clause around a drink, but that was just the case for the sourtoe cocktail when Northern Vision Development (NVD) bought the hotel in 2013.

It was not long after NVD purchased the hotel that the toe was swallowed by a visitor. After that the fine for swallowing the toe rose to $2,500 from $500.

Events like that in recent years have increased interest in the toe with lineups out the door during toe-season. Gerle said he’s learned of some tourists who travel to Dawson specifically to partake in the sourtoe cocktail.

Stevenson continued to stay involved in the toe business long after moving from behind the bar of the Downtown in Dawson to Whitehorse.

He would provide NVD with copies of his book to promote the toe shot at events and at one time there was talk around creating a sourtoe whiskey.

While the logistics weren’t there for it to happen at that time, Gerle said it’s not something that was entirely ruled out for the future.

Gerle was also always happy to share the history of the toe with visitors.

“He was a charmer right to the end,” he said. In mid-March 2018 that a woman staying at the Gold Rush and making plans to visit Dawson was introduced to Stevenson by his friend Jim Robb.

Stevenson invited her to visit him at home where he had plenty of sour toe memorabilia to share, including a few pickled toes he always kept on hand, Gerle said.

In September, Nick Griffiths, who had donated his toes to the cause after he lost them in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, came to the territory to become of a member of the club, putting his lips to his own toes and visited with Stevenson in Whitehorse.

“Dick got a kick out of that,” Gerle said.

The bar is planning a tribute to Stevenson in the future.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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