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The mint julep is a quintessential summer drink. Icy, fragrant, and sweet, it can help ease the stress of even the hottest of days. It’s a simple concoction, with quite a few variations. It's also famously known as the drink of the Kentucky Derby. A well-made one is a perfect cocktail that captivates the senses—visually resplendent, deliciously decadent, inspiring to the olfactory, and a frosty delight to the fingers. Even the swish of the ice is music to the ears.
It’s also a drink made even more bewitching with the right vessel. Traditionally, the mint julep is served in a silver cup, and while precious metal adds a certain je ne sais quoi, you certainly don’t have to drink yours in one.
“There’s nothing like a mint julep served in a silver cup that’s so frosted you have to wrap a napkin around it because it’s too cold—and it has the super crushed ice, with a real mint sprig in it,” says Campbell Brown, senior vice president and managing director of Old Forester. He will take the reins as Chairman of Brown-Forman’s board of directors later this summer.
There are more than a few ways to serve this classic cocktail, but here are some of the best mint julep cups to stock your bar.
Best Silver-Plated: Prince of Scots Copper Mint Julep Cups with Pure Silver Plate, Set of 4
Silver-plated barware is, of course, much cheaper than solid silver because much less of the precious metal is used to coat a cup than would be if it were entirely cast. But they still present the polished appearance of silver and generate a nice frosty texture when holding an icy drink. This set of four from Prince of Scots features a copper base beneath the silver plate so the chill radiates to the fingers as you hold it, while a beaded embellishment gives the cups both texture and a touch of sophistication.
While there is no one correct recipe, we subscribe to a version that insists you gently rub fresh mint around all areas of a cup and then fill it above the rim with crushed, or better still, pebbled ice. Pour a good amount of bourbon (at least 2 ounces) over the ice followed by a modest amount of simple syrup. Under no circumstances should you stir—let the drink mix itself as the ice melts. Garnish with another fresh mint sprig you’ve slapped in your hand to release the oils. When a frost coats the sides of the cup, it’s time to sip. Use a straw if you like.
Best Modern Silver: Elsa Peretti Sterling Silver Thumbprint Water Cup
For some, silver can present a little too old-timey and dated. For those who prefer a contemporary aesthetic, there are designs that still feel opulent but not fussy. Luxury items should be used, and we think these Elsa Peretti x Tiffany & Co. sterling silver cups are a great choice for both daily use or special occasions. While the 3.5-inch high cup is a nice size for an iced down julep, the thumbprint design, one of Peretti’s most famous, adds a touch of texture to an otherwise starkly simple creation.
Best Classic Silver: Scully & Scully Plain Sterling Silver Mint Julep Cup
Traditionally, a mint julep was served in a silver or pewter cup, and often in the south folks would use heirloom christening or baptismal cups to take their tipple. Serving any drink in a vessel made from precious metal is a decadent indulgence we can get behind. This gorgeous example from Scully & Scully holds 10 ounces and you can personalize it with an engraving. Sure, it’s quite an expensive addition to your bar, especially if you want a set, but it’s also something you can hand down to your wee ones when they’re old enough to become whiskey drinkers.
“I remember when my dad passed away, he had a solid collection of mint julep cups. One, in particular, was from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It was engraved with their names and was a wedding gift to my father. I put up a good fight to get that one and am happy to have it in my modest collection of julep cups. Sadly, securing that memento came at a cost as my brother has a mint julep cup that was given to my grandfather by his grandfather (George Garvin Brown) to commemorate his baptism. That beauty dates back to 1912.” —Campbell Brown, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Old Forester
Best Copper: Copper Mug Co. 13-ounce Tumblers, Set of 4
A cheaper, but still metallic, option is copper. More typically seen as a vessel for a Moscow mule, a copper cup is sometimes used to serve a julep. It’s also a nice option for those who don’t have a ton of storage for multiple highly specialized vessels. We prefer tumblers to mugs for mint juleps and this handmade set of four from Copper Mug Co. offers a 13-ounce capacity per cup, perfect for summer days that require a little extra ice. A textured exterior lends both a visual flourish and an additional tactile sensation that adds a little something extra to the drinking experience.
Best Kentucky Derby Glasses: Kentucky Derby Officially Licensed Mint Julep Cups, Set of 4
Of course, the julep is the signature cocktail of the Kentucky Derby, and by the first Saturday in May, fresh mint should already be widely available, heralding the arrival of summer. If you manage to get to Churchill Downs in person, you can nab a commemorative glass with every drink. But if you aren’t heading to Kentucky, you can still order the glasses online. This set commemorates the last four runnings of the iconic horse race and each one holds 12 ounces, plenty of room for a mountain of ice, and a solid pour of good straight bourbon.
Best Crystal: Marquis by Waterford Markham Highball Glasses, Set of 4
Clear glass or crystal is not traditional when it comes to mint juleps, but we only believe in keeping the traditions you want to honor. While a clear vessel doesn’t feel quite the same in the hand as silver, it does allow the drinker to drink in the visual splendor of the mint, bourbon, and sugar swirling around the ice pebbles—adding another way to enjoy the sensory experience of the mint julep. This set of four 13-ounce Markham highball glasses from Marquis by Waterford features a classic cut pattern that gives the drink a sophisticated texture, while the crystalline adds a hefty gravitas that makes the drink feel more substantial.
Best Insulated: Yeti Rambler 10-ounce Lowball Tumbler
While traditionalists might scoff at the idea of using an insulated cup, they are great for particularly hot summer days or just those times where you want to sip and savor without the melting ice watering down the flavor too much. It’s hard to find a better-insulated cup than a Yeti. The brand has become the gold standard in that arena. This Rambler’s 10-ounce size is perfect for a mint julep with a snow-cone-shaped icy top, and when the ice starts to melt and your thirst lowers the remainder of the drink below the rim, you can pop on the lid to help it stay cold a little while longer.
If you want a classic-looking mint julep cup set but don't want to shell out hundreds of dollars on actual silver, we recommend the silver-plated Prince of Scots set (view at Amazon). Throwing a Kentucky Derby party? The Kentucky Derby Officially Licensed Mint Julep Cups (view at Amazon) will have you believing you're at Churchill Downs with the first sip of your julep.
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Nicholas McClelland is a passionate whisk(e)y drinker who has written about spirits for Men’s Journal, Fatherly, and Inside Hook. His bar is deep with rare single malts, hard-to-find bourbons, and ryes, but he doesn't believe there's anything too precious to share with friends.