# Countering “Arctification”: Dawson City’s “Sourtoe Cocktail”

Elizabeth Ann Cooper (Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg Universitet, Aalborg, Denmark)
Michelle Spinei (Department of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland)
Alix Varnajot (Oulun Yliopisto, Oulu, Finland)

ISSN: 2055-5911

Article publication date: 18 December 2019

Issue publication date: 26 March 2020

769

## Abstract

### Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to focus on the Sourtoe Cocktail, a custom in Dawson City, Canada’s Yukon, in which participants drink a shot of alcohol with a dehydrated human toe in it. Springing from a local legend, the thrill-inducing Sourtoe Cocktail has attracted the attention of tourists. The paper reveals insights from this particular case study in order to discuss potential future tourism trends within the Arctic, especially in regard to the development of a sustainable tourism industry. Additionally, it illustrates how local communities can avoid negative effects of “Arctification.”

### Design/methodology/approach

The case study is deconstructed through Dean MacCannell’s (1976) framework of sight sacralization. The Sourtoe Cocktail is analyzed based on the five stages of the framework, which helps to reveal the various elements at play at the local level. The framework specifically highlights linkages between society and the Sourtoe Cocktail as a product in order to understand how it became a tourist attraction.

### Findings

The use of MacCannell’s sight sacralization framework reveals the intricate relationship of the Sourtoe Cocktail to both the Arctic and the local folklore of the Klondike Gold Rush. In addition, it is argued that the activity can serve as an example of avoiding “Arctification” processes for northern communities.

### Originality/value

The originality of the study lies in the application of the sight sacralization framework to an ordinary object – a toe – instead of an object of inherent historical, aesthetic or cultural value. The paper proposes a complementary study to the recommendations provided in the Arctic Tourism in Times of Change: Seasonality report (2019) for the development of sustainable Arctic societies.

## Citation

Cooper, E.A., Spinei, M. and Varnajot, A. (2020), "Countering “Arctification”: Dawson City’s “Sourtoe Cocktail”", Journal of Tourism Futures, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 70-82. https://doi.org/10.1108/JTF-01-2019-0008

## Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

## 1. Introduction

### 2.4 Phase 4: mechanical reproduction

This fourth stage refers to “the creation of prints, photographs, models or effigies of the object which are themselves valued and displayed” (MacCannell, 1976, p. 45). In the case of the Sourtoe Cocktail, three types of mechanical reproductions can be observed.

First, the original toe was replaced several times since 1973 for different reasons. The repetitive use of the original toe for the cocktail led to its deterioration over the years and several toes have been stolen, swallowed or simply lost. The bar owners had to find new toes to continue the attraction and over the years, people have donated their toes to the Downtown Hotel for future use. As a result, the original toe has been replaced or reproduced numerous times, and a range of toes are stored at the bar at any one time – working in rotation to act as “the toe.” This process of reproduction is rather long as the toe is preserved and dehydrated in salt before being used for the cocktail, which takes around six months. This suggests that the sacralized object of this attraction is no longer a specific physical toe, but an immaterial object, or even a symbol.

Second, the Sourtoe Cocktail also exists through souvenirs. Books narrating the discovery of the toe by Captain Dick Stevenson, the man behind the cocktail, can be found in souvenir shops around the region. In addition, as proof as well as a concrete memory, a certificate and a membership card are offered to the visitor who was brave enough to take the shot. In this example, the toe is not literally reproduced, but it is the act of touching a mummified toe with your lips that is immortalized and thereby sacralized. The certificate (Plate 3) celebrates the experience rather than the toe as an object. Therefore, it can be argued that there is a shift in the sight sacralization process from the toe as a sacralized object to the toe as a sacralized experience.

Third, the experience of the Sourtoe Cocktail is preserved through a variety of digital content consisting of videos, photographs, blog posts and articles. This also evidences the close connection between tourist experiences and technology such as photography or social media (Balomenou and Garrod, 2019; Gretzel, 2017; Kim and Fesenmaier, 2017; Lo and McKercher, 2015; Urry and Larsen, 2011). Indeed, inside the bar, participants often record themselves or ask other visitors to film them while drinking the shot (Plate 4). This demonstrates how mechanical reproduction adapts to new technologies as these reproductions are not only physical (in the form of souvenirs), but also – and increasingly so – digital.

These three distinct types of mechanical reproduction suggest that the activity is well developed in terms of MacCannell’s fourth phase. In addition, its reproductions are not only highly valued but also work to motivate others to take part in the activity.

### 2.5 Phase 5: social reproduction

MacCannell defines phase 5 as when groups, cities or regions begin to name themselves after the attraction (MacCannell, 1976). In other words, when the attraction begins to be reproduced not just in the form of concrete souvenirs or merchandise, but in the form of inspiring social processes or groups in other destinations.

There are no examples of places, areas or institutions named after the Sourtoe Cocktail, which would ensure the perpetuation of the sight as a valued attraction (Fine and Speer, 1985), but there have been cases that reproduce similar experiences. Another example of a cocktail, which publicly admits to having been inspired by the Sourtoe Cocktail, is the Dog Ball Highball. This was part of an event in February 2019 which raised funds for the Humane Society Dawson animal shelter (Discover Dawson, 2019). Similarly, to the Sourtoe Cocktail, in the Dog Ball Highball a real dog’s testicle replaces the human toe in a shot of alcohol and the participant must drink the shot, letting the testicle touch their lips in order to join the “club.” This reproduction of the Sourtoe Cocktail reflects the desire to be identified with the authentic (original) cocktail that has become a symbol of Dawson City (Fine and Speer, 1985).

It is worth noting that similar practices involving alcoholic rituals take place in other locations across the Circumpolar North. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, it is customary to welcome newcomers by performing a ceremony known as Kissing the Cod, in which tourists must kiss a codfish before taking a shot of local rum (Byrne, 1997). Similarly, to the Sourtoe Cocktail, the cod kissing is accompanied by speeches and certificates are presented, recognizing the participant as an authentic Newfoundlander. In Iceland, visitors are encouraged to eat hákarl, a fermented piece of shark, chased down with a shot of local schnapps, Brennivín, also known as “black death.” Although this particular practice belongs to Icelandic culinary traditions, restaurants of Reykjavik purposefully aim it at the tourist crowd (Bachórz, 2016).

In spite of these examples, the fifth phase of the sacralization of the Sourtoe Cocktail is not as developed as the mechanical reproduction phase. Although the social reproduction is still in its infancy, future possible steps for the attraction could emerge in the form of local restaurants or boutiques being renamed after the cocktail.

## 3. Discussion

### 3.1 Sight sacralization and the Sourtoe Cocktail attraction

Historically, the theory of sight sacralization has been applied to inherently symbolic, precious or remarkable sights; MacCannell (1976) used the examples of the “true Crown of Thorns” or the “Gutenberg Bible.” Jacobsen (1997) applied the framework to North Cape, Norway, symbolizing the northernmost point of continental Europe. Löytynoja (2008) also investigated the development of North Cape as a tourist attraction, along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, the central point of Finland and the easternmost point of (continental) EU. In their article, Fine and Speer (1985) analyzed tour guides of the Lindheimer House, Texas, a historic landmark since 1936.

The originality of the Sourtoe Cocktail case stems from the intriguing fact that the sight is not an object of obvious worth or value, a rarity, or the result of notable talent, skill or creativity. On the contrary, it is one of the most common and everyday objects known to us – a part of the body of which almost everyone possesses ten. Taken out of context (i.e. detached from the body), the toe arguably gains even more pointlessness and bizarreness as almost nobody knows whose toe it was and only few participants are aware of the story behind and whose toe it is supposed to symbolize. In addition, the appeal of the toe lies in the ordinary nature of the sight, rather than being an exceptional attraction, turning this product into an absurd activity.

Tourists are far from being simply passive consumers in this case. Rather, they can be seen as essential actors (Edensor, 2000) alongside the toe, contributing to the success of the Sourtoe Cocktail as an attraction. They become performers and express feelings of disgust or fascination while curious visitors watch and take photographs and videos (Plate 4). They perform the practice and thereby confirm the sight’s sacredness for prospective participants and onlookers. Indeed, the climax of the attraction occurs at the point of contact between the participants’ lips and the toe. The toe taken separately would probably not be as emblematic as it is when it is combined with tourist engagement. In this attraction, the Toe Captain is only a mediator – a convener who emphasizes the mise-en-scène of the spectacle.

Another point emerging from this study, and revealed by the sight sacralization framework, is that the actual sacralized object is not a single toe, but several, as demonstrated by our analysis of the elevation and mechanical reproduction phases. Today, what is referred to as “the toe” could be any one of a range of toes that have reached the saloon in a variety of often uninteresting ways. In other words, the sacralization shifts from the toe as an object to the toe as a symbol. The draw is the sheer strangeness and perhaps the taboo of drinking a shot with a dehydrated mummified toe in it. The experience of interacting with the sacralized object is then more exciting and attractive than the object itself.

The application of MacCannell’s framework to the Sourtoe Cocktail reveals a shift from the sacralization of a sight (a physical object) to the sacralization of an experience, wherein the toe becomes a symbol. As demonstrated, the actual attraction is the experience of drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail, rather than the toe as a simple object. Therefore, immaterial attractions such as particular experiences and performances (Fine and Speer, 1985) become relevant to deconstruct under MacCannell’s framework.

Since the experience becomes identified to some extent with the destination, we can argue that the experience of the Sourtoe Cocktail, on a destination branding level, differentiates Dawson City. It is possible that tourists choose destinations not because of the physical characteristics of the destination but because of a particular experience that the destination offers. In many cases, the particular experience relies on physical characteristics of the destination. Although many tourists may travel to the Grand Canyon for a helicopter flightseeing tour, for example, this experience is impossible to carry out without being at the Grand Canyon. The case of the Sourtoe Cocktail, as we have argued, no longer relies heavily on its geographical Arctic context – it could be done anywhere – and this is perhaps why it is necessary that it is so bizarre and totally unique. We could argue, therefore, that experience sacralization requires the experience to be particularly unusual and unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. Although it is an interesting strategy of Dawson City to market this bizarre activity, it must be acknowledged that this one interesting experience does not brand, characterize or revitalize the entire destination.

### 3.2 Arctification and the Sourtoe Cocktail

In tourism studies, there is no sound geographical definition of where the Arctic begins; some researchers have used the Arctic Human Development Report definition (Maher et al., 2014), the tree line (Stonehouse and Snyder, 2010) or the Arctic Circle (Viken, 2013). In their book on Arctic experiences, Lee et al. (2017, p. 2) simply included as their definition all “areas and regions as per the consideration of relevant phytogeographic, climatic, geomorphological, latitudinal and geopolitical criteria.” Therefore, depending on the borders used to delimit the Arctic, Dawson City can be included within the Arctic, or, at the very least, can be considered as part of the periphery of the Arctic that could plausibly be incorporated into the image of the Arctic through Arctification.

In their report, Rantala et al. (2019) emphasize the negative impacts of Arctification, arguing that, because of the reliance on winter imagery (ice, snow and darkness, for example), tourism activities become highly landscape based and reliant on seasonal characteristics. This leaves tourism operators dependent on climatic elements that they cannot control, and locks activities into particular seasons. This restricts their potential to exist year-round, which is argued to be beneficial for the local economy. Neglecting distinct seasons in Arctic locations has arguably led to a “Disneyfication” of Arctic tourism, whereby the culture, nature and geography of the northern region is repackaged in a soft and commercial nature. In this way, Arctic tourism products arguably become shiny, “soft” adventure tourism products which are accessible to a wider segment of tourists but which do not reflect the true conditions of the Arctic and are not perceived to represent the “authentic,” the “real reality” of the Arctic, to use MacCannell’s words (1973, p. 591).

Having identified that Arctification is a trend in tourism in the North, the report on seasonality suggests some recommendations for operators, policymakers and others involved in the tourism industry. In relation to Arctification, the authors suggest that practitioners should “develop high-season tourism based on the local community perspective and with diverse images representing a variety of Arctic meanings and experiences” (Rantala et al., 2019, p. 63). Such strategy aims at “[avoiding] stereotypical production and marketing of winter tourism that reinforces the Arctification process and the image of the Arctic as cold, snowy and empty of people” (p. 63).

As revealed by the deconstruction of the Sourtoe Cocktail case according to MacCannell’s sight sacralization, the connection between the Sourtoe Cocktail and the Arctic is evident only at the first stage and from a historical perspective. Indeed, the origin of our case study lies in the rough conditions of the Arctic, in a blizzard that in the 1920s led Louie Linken to suffer from frostbite and lose his toe. The attraction gained notoriety because of this incongruous story that today is almost narrated as a legend. The harsh Arctic became the first driver of the Sourtoe Cocktail by bringing some absurdity on the one hand, as well as some credibility on the other hand. Indeed, the story had to be believed in order to generate curiosity among locals and visitors, and the Arctic, with its long history of epic adventures and tragedies, brings some reliability to this context. Nevertheless, the connection to the Arctic seems to stop here, at the origins of the story that led to the creation of the Sourtoe attraction. Indeed, as demonstrated, the enshrinement phase led to a greater connection with the Klondike gold mining folklore.

Due to its detachment from stereotypical Arctic characteristics, its focus on the very local context, and the ability of the activity to be conducted all year around, the Sourtoe Cocktail can be seen as an example that fulfills the recommendation quoted above. The Sourtoe Cocktail, through its unique quality, is certainly diverse and brings a greater variety of meanings to Arctic or potentially Arctic experiences. In this way, it combats the arguably negative trend of Arctification and contributes to a sustainable future for tourism in Dawson City, by tackling the restrictive nature of seasonality and incorporating local communities in the development of the product rather than global, homogenous perspectives of the Arctic.

The Sourtoe Cocktail is not a shiny, “Disneyfied” product. On the contrary, it is born out of a story of rough Arctic conditions, and the activity itself is raw and shocking to many. Although the story of the loss of the original toe takes place in a snowy, inhospitable and empty Arctic, the constant supply of human toes required to sustain the offering of the Sourtoe Cocktail as a tourism product reminds us that the Arctic region is very much inhabited, and that people are very much an integral part of it. In countering Arctification, Rantala et al. (2019) call for innovativeness, creativity and diversity in products, and this is something that the Sourtoe Cocktail activity offers in spades.

## 4. Conclusion

This study has explored the intricacies of one particular tourism attraction located in the Yukon, known as the Sourtoe Cocktail. MacCannell’s (1976) sight sacralization framework was applied in order to deconstruct some of the processes and relationships that permeate the activity. Analyzing the Sourtoe Cocktail according to this framework prompted an interesting discussion about the absurdity of what is being sacralized in this case – something very ordinary, and not of any obvious cultural, historical or aesthetic worth. Therefore, in this case, the making of the Sourtoe Cocktail product as an attraction started with the sacralization of the toe (an object), and as the product became more and more touristic, the sacralization shifted from the sight to the experience. We suggest that this opens the framework up to be applied to tourism experiences and performances as well as to more typical sights, and questioned whether this indicates an emerging shift in the tourism landscape, from the sacralization of objects to the sacralization of experiences.

Our analysis of the toe using MacCannell’s framework revealed the local and social connections between the activity of the Sourtoe Cocktail and its Dawson City context. We argue that the activity is only “Arctic” in the sense that the original toe was lost in Arctic conditions, and that the activity’s connection to the Arctic is therefore rather weak. This goes against the trend of Arctification which has previously been identified in northern regions. Actively counteracting Arctification becomes necessary in the contribution of a more sustainable and diverse future of Arctic tourism, where the tourism industry would become more relevant to local communities.

The Sourtoe Cocktail, of course, is only one example of a tourism activity in one northern destination that counteracts Arctification, but it nevertheless complements Rantala et al.’s report (2019) by exemplifying how products with their roots in stereotypical Arctic imagery can work to promote and increase sustainability, diversity and local relevance in Northern regions. Our case also builds on the report’s findings by expanding its scope – offering an example from northern Canada while the report focuses mainly on examples from northern Europe. This suggests that a countertrend to Arctification (which could be termed de-Arctification) can be seen to be developing not just in the European Arctic but in other Arctic or Northern locations as well. Overall, the case shines a positive light on the future of tourism in Northern and sub-Arctic areas. As argued in Rantala et al.’s report (2019), if de-Arctification contributes to the sustainability of tourism in the Arctic, then the Sourtoe Cocktail and its making into a tourism product can be seen as an example to follow for tourism practitioners in their future developments. Finally, this study calls for further research, both on the case study of the Sourtoe Cocktail and on the development of tourism in the Arctic at a more global scale. Additional research, including comprehensive and empirical ethnographic data collection would complete our conceptual approach of the Sourtoe Cocktail and benefit to its understanding and role in the tourism industry in the context of Dawson City. We also suggest that further research could focus on the examination of other emerging and peculiar or anomalous examples of tourism in the Arctic, and to further investigate the potential of de-Arctification.

## Figures

### Plate 1

The Downtown Hotel

### Plate 2

Streets of Dawson City

### Pate 3

The Sourtoe certificate

### Plate 4

Drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail

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## Corresponding author

Alix Varnajot can be contacted at: alix.varnajot@oulu.fi