The amputated toes of a British endurance athlete are to be given new life, as the centrepiece of a notorious Canadian cocktail.
As Nick Griffiths lay in a hospital bed last year after succumbing to frostbite in the Yukon Arctic race in northwest Canada, the world’s coldest ultra-marathon, his mind drifted to an advertisement he had seen earlier in a hotel in the territory.
“It said: ‘Had frostbite? We want your toes,’” Griffiths told the Guardian. “I thought it was a bit of a joke, really.”
It was not. For more than 40 years, visitors have flocked to the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City for a chance to try the country’s most infamous drink: the Sourtoe Cocktail.
The beverage consists of a mummified human toe floating in a whiskey shot; patrons must let the digit – or its blackened nail – touch their lips in order to receive a certificate and qualify for admittance to the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.
Upon returning home to Bolton, Griffiths learned he would lose three of his toes to the frostbite. He asked the surgeon to keep them.
During his recovery, he began corresponding with the Downtown Hotel about possibly donating the digits, but his physical rehabilitation and work hours complicated plans to travel to Yukon.
Months passed and Griffiths kept his toes in jars “just in my bedside drawer”. Finally, after much back and forth with the hotel, he suggested simply mailing them to Canada.
At the post office, he panicked after being asked what was in the polythene envelope.
“I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t want to just blatantly lie and say it was a candle or whatever.” He told the postal clerk he was mailing his toes – and wrote “Novelty gift” on the envelope.
He kept one of the toes as “insurance” because, he said: “I’m not sure really you should be posting toes.”
More than a month later, the toes arrived in Dawson City. “We couldn’t be happier to receive a new toe. They are very hard to come by these days,” said the hotel in a statement.
Terry Lee, the hotel’s “toe expert” will now preserve the digits in rock salt for at least six weeks before they are served in whiskey.
“The big toe is the money toe,” Lee told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“We usually don’t get frostbitten toes. Usually, they’re from gout or diabetes, or they’re lawnmowers or chainsaws or accidents … to get a frostbitten toe, that’s phenomenal.” There are currently three toes in use.
In recent years, the hotel has grappled with a spate of toe thefts, and the hotel now nails anyone who attempts to swipe a toe with a fine of C$2,500 (£1,500).
The establishment is now trying to convince Griffiths to make the trip to the Yukon to try the cocktail. He is not sure if anyone has ever sipped the whiskey with their own toe swirling around, but is keen to be the first.
“People look at you as though you’re a bit mad, he said. “But I think it’s a nice little bit of fun.”