JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – As El Paso vaccinates most of its residents and the U.S. and Mexico begin talks to relax border travel restrictions, many El Pasoans are looking forward to visiting Juarez again soon.
One of this city’s tourism staples is a bar just south of the Paso del Norte International Bridge called the Kentucky Club. Its claim to fame is being the birthplace of a drink called the margarita.
But several establishments in Mexico and in the United States dispute the claim. And each origin story ups the ante.
A jewel buried by time
Juarez Avenue today is a mix-match of pharmacies, doctors’ offices and money exchange houses. Motorists waiting to cross into the United States and vendors peddling candy, chips and all kinds of trinkets line the street at any time.
Historian Jose Luis Hernandez says this drab routine wasn’t always so.
He paints a picture of upscale restaurants and fancy cabarets where the top Mexican entertainers of their time came to Juarez to perform for wealthy Americans traveling hundreds of miles to have a good drink and a great time.
“U.S. Prohibition transformed Juarez Avenue in the 1920s. People on the other side were looking for places of entertainment and you saw a lot of bars and nightclubs move from (Downtown) to Juarez Avenue,” said Hernandez, who runs a history buffs club called Juarez de Ayer (The Juarez of Yesterday).
Investors bought off homeowners near the border crossing. Old adobe homes became spacious two-story buildings with terraces and indoor tiled patios to accommodate professional dancers and big bands. Hernandez says some places charged up to $100 admission based on the performer.
“That was a year’s wages for many Mexicans at the time,” he said.
Prohibition went away in 1933, but American GIs flocked to Juarez for a last fling during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Liberal divorce laws also attracted millionaires and Hollywood stars like Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
That’s when the Kentucky Club burst into the scene with a new drink that would soon become synonymous with Mexico: the margarita.
“The strip was like the Las Vegas strip. People went back and forth to bars and cabarets. But there was something unique at the Kentucky Club,” said new owner Sergio Peña Jr.
He said bartender Lorenzo Hernandez mixed a drink for a friend’s date from Albuquerque who liked tequila with lime juice but wanted something a little different. The bartender added orange Cointreau and put a salt rim on a flat champagne glass.
“She tasted it and said, ‘Wow!’ Her friends tasted it as well. She asked what’s the name of it and the boyfriend said, ‘like you.’ ‘Like me? Margarita?’ ‘Yes.’ And that’s the way it started,” Peña said.
The Kentucky’s reputation swelled. To this day, its walls are covered by autographed photos of some of celebrities who stopped inside to try the drink – from Monroe to iconic Mexican comic Cantinflas to former Los Angeles Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda.
The story sells, but is it true?
Most internet sources credit a restaurant called Rancho La Gloria near Tijuana for the invention. Owner Danny Herrera is said to have crafted it for former Ziegfeld dancer Marjorie King in 1938.
The Tequila Cuervo company says a Los Angeles bartender mixed the first one in 1938. Some credit Dallas socialite Margarita Sames for inventing the drink.
Historian Hernandez said nobody invented the margarita.
Margarita means “daisy,” and the brandy or rum daisy that includes lime juice and flavored liquor has been around since the 19th century. Hernandez said prohibition brought U.S.-trained bartenders and a slew of new drinks to a part of the world not known to have a “cocktail culture.”
Bartenders in a multitude of Mexican border establishments probably substituted the rum or brandy for the local tequila and added the salt rim. “People were drinking it before anybody came up with a name,” Hernandez said. “All kinds of drinks were prepared in the United States, then they get hit by Prohibition. Bartenders likely brought to Mexico (the formula) minus the name.”
But the Kentucky stands by its claim. Americans still drop by despite the travel restrictions and Juarez residents have grown fond – and proud – of the little bar a few blocks from the U.S. border.
“Since I was young, I liked to spend time here. I like the place and the history,” said music teacher Angelica Cruz. “It’s a tradition to come here to drink a margarita at the place where it was born.”
Historians point out locals all over the world like to sell tourists on a dream. In the case of the Kentucky Club, the locals say it’s a good dream.