Depending on whom you ask, the 125-year-old Fairmont Banff Springs hotel is either reminiscent of Hogwarts, or the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, a.k.a. the movie that makes you wonder whatever happened to Shelly Duvall. Situated on a pine-covered mountain and overlooking the little Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff, Alberta, the hotel is a landmark of its own and part of Canadian history. It was a highlight of the Canadian Pacific Railway and epitomized the glamour of rail travel in the 1920s—without even the need for a murder mystery.
Every summer, guests and non-guests alike vie for a seat on the patio of the Rundle Lounge that overlooks the mountain it's named after. It's the ritziest hotel in town, but on the patio, everyone's fair game. Even though the lounge sits hundreds of people, the bar itself seats only five. Behind it is bar manager Joe Ruhland who's been there for the last five of his 30 years bartending.
During a work break, we asked him about the elk that roam on hotel grounds, transitioning people from god-awful cocktails to the proper stuff, and what drink he'd make for the ghost of the bride that's said to wander the hotel.
MUNCHIES: Hi Joe, what's the best part about being behind the bar? Joe Ruhland: A lot of it is the social interaction. When I was a general manager at a restaurant, it was very formal and business-like, sometimes it's positive, sometimes it's negative. But as a bartender, you're on a more social level to people who are hanging out and having fun together. You tell them stories of your youth, you hear their stories. It's like having a really good friend for a really short time.
How are things different now compared to when you first started as a bartender? The cocktail culture changed a lot since I started in the 80s, when it was the sugar era and it was all strawberry margaritas and daiquiris. Now, people are going to old-school cocktails, or cocktails that are just using better ingredients like fresh juice and bitters. Here, I can create those cocktails and be creative. It's what kept me there.
Yeah, this isn't a place to get margaritas. Well, I make fruitier cocktails, but good ones like a blackberry one with Alberta Premium Dark Horse Rye. It's like the Baby Duck in the 70s and 80s. As awful as that wine is, it brought people into the wine world and developed their palates. With these fruitier drinks, they're still complex cocktails, but it'll help transition people from those sweet drinks to these old cocktails that are once again popular. I think as people mature and get into a drinking culture that's beyond just getting drunk, they're more apt to try those Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.
There are a few ghost stories floating around the hotel, but one in particular was famous enough that the Canadian mint put it on a coin last year. I don't know about the other ones, but the one we all know is a bride who apparently fell down the staircase, her dress caught fire, and she passed away. After so many years in the spiritual corporeal, you must get really dry—especially with this altitude, you lose a lot of water. She probably needs a bit of moisturizing.
Yeah, that's a rough way to go. She could really use a drink. What would you make her if she came, err, floated to your bar? Well, she'd still be in her wedding dress, so I would do something classic and formal like a French 75, but with a twist. I'd keep the lemon but muddle a couple of blackberries into it. I'd call it The Black 75. I'm really interested in blackberries right now. It's almost berry season, and I'll go out to the grocery store and pick some up to test before the hotel orders cases of them. I hope she likes it.
So you've never seen her? I have heard the tales all the time, but I haven't seen her myself. There's this young kid who comes with his parents fairly regularly and stay as guests every three to eight months. He goes back to the Cascade Ballroom, which is where the staircase is, and he sits there every day to wait for her. He says he hears things, but I haven't come across anything.
On to more tangible encounters, how about the elk? They're always walking around town during mating season. Last fall, I parked my truck near the horse stables at the hotel where they do the trail rides. It was late at night cause I was working the night shift, and there were these two giant elk with the huge racks in front of my truck. Now, these things are big, dangerous, and not scared of you. I couldn't get to my truck. I had my car keys and I blew the horn on my car. They didn't move at all, so I had to wait till they finished chewing on the leaves, got bored, and moved on. I was tired and I just wanted to go home.
Does it get boring staring at mountains all the time? People always ask me that and this is what I tell them: I came here planning on a three-month working holiday in November of 1993 and I never left, and I've travelled the world from Asia to Central America, Mexico to Hawaii.
The thing about living here is that when I wake up every morning, I see Cascade Mountain outside my bedroom window. Every hour of the day the mountain looks different because of the shadows, the sunlight, the snow cover, it's always beautiful. I think this one set of rocks reminds me of this computer generated character from the 80s called Max Headroom and he's staring right at my face when I wake up. I never get tired of it. It's Max Headroom!
We wouldn't want to wake up next to anyone else, either. Thanks for speaking with us.