Free Pour Joe's in Whitehorse has been shut down.
In honour of a bar that somehow encapsulated all the flavours, smells and yes, the vices of the Yukon, here's a profile of Joe I wrote for The Beaver magazine in 2005.
Order a rye and Coke at Joe English’s bar in Whitehorse and two things become clear. Joe pours the demon drinks your mother warned you about. And those nursing cocktails at the bar like it that way.
“We have good drinks, free pour drinks. Anybody who wants a drink with something in it, they come here,” brags 67-year-old Joe, cocking his head to the left to favour his one good eye.
It isn’t correct to say Joe is the only bartender in North America allowed to free pour, but he’s probably the last doing it. “The law is you gotta give an ounce,” he says. “You can give more, but you can’t give less. They don’t really specify how you go about it, so we give a lot more.”
Liquor laws in the Yukon are relatively new, having arrived long after Europeans entered the area as trappers from both the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Russian American Company in the 1700s. Later, missionaries tried to limit the impact the loose morals and liquor habits of miners were having on the natives. In 1894, the land of gold got a commissioner. In 1896, Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie and George Carmack found gold on Bonanza Creek, sparking the rush. And in 1897, the Yukon judicial district was created. The RCMP enforced Canadian liquor laws on a largely American population, which swelled from about 5,000 to 30,000 during the rush. The Yukon commissioner remained basically in charge of liquor until the 1970s, when partisan politics arrived. Today’s Yukon Liquor Corporation was born in 1977.
Old ways die hard in the land of the midnight sun, and nowhere is that more true than at Joe’s. He makes drinks for his grey-haired regulars in a small 7-oz glass, filling it three-quarters with spirits and adding a splash of pop or juice. Ask for more mix and Joe says he’ll give you a bigger 10-oz glass that he calls a “bucket,” but word on the street is he’ll kick you out. Don’t ask for a pint of draught: Joe carries only two brands of bottled beer. And if you’re a regular, the first drink is always free.
A joke sign on wall is disturbingly accurate: “Don’t order doubles. They won’t fit in the glass.”
Joe’s is a living museum of forgotten Klondike junk. Lights covered in 1900s-era lampshades cast a dark yellow glow. The walls are choked with donated stuff: eight old rifles (none work, says Joe), six knives and/or swords, two antique bullet displays, shovels, pickaxes, machetes, handcuffs, a bronze spittoon, magazine adverts, an old iron stove, and Joe’s favourite, a black and white picture of a topless woman in bloomers. He calls the picture gold rush soft-core porn. In a way, Joe’s bar is gold rush porn.
Because the Yukon remains somewhat locked in another era, it contains some of North America’s last gasps of true saloon culture. To sell booze, the law says you must also have rooms available to sleep in. In Dawson City, the RCMP is hoping to get a bylaw enacted to make it illegal to urinate on the street after bars close. And the Caribou Hotel in Carcross, first built in 1903, and famous for its liquor drenched floors, and its parrot, Polly, who (legend has it) came up the trail in 1898, sang opera and cussed, and then died at 125-years old, just lost its owner in a grisly murder -- somehow fitting for a place that looks out of the Wild West.
Joe knows times are changing and southern sensibilities are creeping in. On everyone's lips at Joe’s is the city’s new smoking ban in bars. Joe says he’ll go down fighting, but figures he’ll lose. “There’s not many places like this left, with the owner behind the bar,” he says, pouring a drink without measuring. “Eventually, we’ll probably go out the way of the dinosaurs.”