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Birthplace of the margarita in a Prohibition-era bar – two tales from Juarez
By Tom Adkinson

kentucky club & grill
The Kentucky Club marked its 100th birthday in 2020 and remains thankful for Prohibition; image by Tom Adkinson.

UAREZ, Mexico – Everyone enjoys a good story, and almost everyone enjoys a good drink.

It’s a happy convergence when a good story (in this case two stories) and a good drink join forces at the Kentucky Club and Grill, a strange name for a bar in a Mexican border town – until you know the first of its stories.

Thank the 1919 Volstead Act, which ushered in America’s failed experiment with Prohibition, for establishment of the Kentucky Club in Juarez, the city simultaneously joined at the hip with and quite separate from El Paso, Texas. The international border, marked by the rather unimpressive Rio Grande River, is the separating factor, of course.

kentucky club crowd
The Kentucky Club in Juarez in many ways looks and feels like an American bar, for good historical reasons; image by Tom Adkinson.

That imaginary line in the riverbed made Juarez very appealing to Kentucky bourbon distillers who suddenly couldn’t make their amber liquid in the Bluegrass State. So what if Juarez was almost 1,500 miles from Kentucky? Distillers needed a place to work, and a market certainly remained for their product.

A sign at the Kentucky Club explains that transplanted distilleries opened their own retail establishments, and the Kentucky Club is a surviving example of multiple “whiskeries.” A bartender there filled the first Kentucky Club shot glass in 1920.

A century later, that bartender’s successors still are pouring at the same location just a few minutes’ walk from the International Bridge. In non-pandemic times, legions of El Paso visitors take that walk to the Kentucky Club and a nearby bustling mercado, and local tourism officials are eager for access to resume.

From its earliest years, the Kentucky Club attracted notable tipplers. The club’s list begins with Al Capone and continues with John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe and George Foreman. If you imbibe here, you’re in good historical company.

kentucky club bartender
The Kentucky Club’s roots are in whiskey, but $4 margaritas and a good story mean tequila is today’s big seller; image by Tom Adkinson.

The bar’s Kentucky heritage explains why it looks so familiar and feels so comfortable to American patrons. Recent commenters have said that it would fit quite well in Louisville, Cincinnati, New York or San Francisco. It’s definitely not a dusty Mexican watering hole as depicted in so many cowboy movies.

One reason for the familiar look is a handmade wooden bar-back that was built in France in 1935, shipped to New Orleans and transferred to El Paso. It’s a beautiful piece of woodworking that creates a comfortable setting for busy bartenders in black shirts that sport the bar’s name in red and green letters.

Another reason for the comfortable feel is a modern-era menu with burritos, tacos, wings, burgers and sandwiches, but it’s doubtful anyone really comes for the food. They come for margaritas – because the margarita was invented here.

That’s the Kentucky Club’s second good story.

kentucky club bar
Kentucky Club bartender Lorenzo “Lencho” Hernandez said he named the margarita for his girlfriend in the 1930s; image by Tom Adkinson.
kentucky club patron
In non-pandemic times, Americans stream over the International Bridge from El Paso to enjoy a Kentucky Club margarita; image by Tom Adkinson.

There is some dispute whether Lorenzo “Lencho” Hernandez invented the famous tequila drink here in the 1930s and named it for his girlfriend, but it’s part of the lore of Juarez and El Paso alike. It’s accepted as gospel enough that Visit El Paso, that city’s convention and visitors bureau, prints the recipe and distributes it at various meetings and trade shows.

Regardless of historical accuracy, for about $4 U.S., you get a classic, salt-rimmed margarita and two bar stories to tell when you get home.

Don’t bother asking about happy hour prices. Happy hour at the Kentucky Club begins at 11 a.m. and continues until 2 a.m. In other words, every moment the bar is open.

kentucky club margarita recipe

Trip Planning Resources:

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published October 9, 2020

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