Kentucky Club – Ciudad Juárez, Mexico - Gastro Obscura

The Kentucky Club is your run-of-the-mill American watering hole. There’s beer on tap, hamburgers, and a dusty, taxidermy eagle mounting the bar, all illuminated by dim-green lanterns. It also, however, claims to have invented the margarita. That’s because the Kentucky Club is, in fact, in Juárez, Mexico.

It opened two years into American Prohibition, when a Kentucky distillery with few ambitions outside making liquor opened up their own club as close to home as they legally could: two blocks south of the U.S.-Mexico border, a 30-minute walk from El Paso, Texas. Instead of opening a cantina, of course, they opted to keep the “Kentucky” in the club, ordering an ornately carved wooden back bar all the way from France and filling the American outpost with all the curios you’d find in a bar back home.

The bar shows its age beneath the counter with its original, for lack of a better word, “piss trough”: a thin, raised gutter running the length of the bar where water once ran to rid boots of horse manure and keep tobacco spit, urine, and other such undesirables from dirtying the bar floor. 

Kentucky Club’s edge wasn’t enough to keep celebrities of the day from bellying up to the bar for a little legal tipple. Rumor has it Al Capone once drank here. John Wayne, after filming a Western in the surrounding desert, is said to have stopped in for a post-shoot cocktail as well. Marilyn Monroe allegedly bought the whole bar a round of drinks to toast her divorce from Arthur Miller. Bob Dylan and Ronald Reagan—separately, of course—have made appearances. 

The bar itself retains some small degree of celebrity. It claims to be the birthplace of the margarita, after a bartender named Lorenzo Hernandez, the story goes, created the drink off the top of his head for a patron named “Margarita.” Four other bars in Juárez alone, however, claim the same title. 

What is certain is that the Kentucky Club stands in a field of few as an age-old Juárez establishment that survived the dark years of 2008–2011, when an explosion of violence between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels claimed the lives of more than 10,000.

The intervening decade has seen Juárez return to a state of peace and safety. Adventurous barflies are free once again to hop the border, grab a margarita, and kick back like it’s 1920. Just don’t pee in the trough.