The Italians seem to know a thing or two about making great drinks. Whether you fancy a bitter amaro, sweet vermouth or liqueurs like maraschino—it's hard to imagine cocktails without these essential ingredients. It should come as no surprise that the same folks whose cultural traditions brought us homemade limoncello also invented a fantastic liqueur made from walnuts. We are referring to Nocino, a delicious and spicy sipper with a complex bittersweet flavor and a tantilizing aroma.
In order to make this wonderful elixir, you need to harvest black walnuts while they are still green—before they are actually nuts. Traditionally, Italians harvest them just after the summer solstice, so depending on where you live, now is probably a great time to gather your supplies. For us, that means finding a friend who has a black walnut tree, or wandering through the neighborhood and knocking on doors for permission. You will find that most folks regret owning these trees. At the end of the season, heavy, hard-shelled nuts fall from the branches and pile onto the ground. Squirrels go crazy for them, but they are usually considered a nuisance that needs to be shoveled out of the way before they attract pests. You might find a farm that sells them, but we had no luck, even at our impressive farmers market.
Although they do eventually turn into the familiar nuts we like to eat, at the beginning of summer the green fruit is tucked up in the branches of the tree and surrounded by leaves. Shaped like a small lime or a fig, they can be picked now and sliced like an apple, but in a few more weeks they will begin to harden and a shell will form. The nuts may be tasty down the road, but unripe fruit has the best flavor for making liqueur. When we first made nocino a couple years ago we waited until the middle of July to pick our walnuts which was pushing it in Portland, Oregon. Start looking now so you can pick them in the next few days or weeks.
It's best to avoid using your bare hands at this stage as the green fruit secretes a sticky residue. Walnut trees can get pretty tall, so plan ahead to make sure you can reach the branches. We found a tree at a local vineyard that was huge, but we easily picked 100 walnuts from the low branches in about 10 minutes. You should avoid fruit that has turned black. Fill a small bag or basket and start making nocino as soon as possible. The fruit won't last very long and will begin to oxidize once picked.
We use a recipe from a Portland restaurant called Nostrana. It was published in the June 2014 issue of PDXMonthly. There are plenty of recipes out there, but we figured it would be fun to follow along with a local establishment. Nostrana has a decent bar program after all, and they make some killer cocktails. The result was so delicious compared to any commercial product we have tasted that we see no reason to try anything else!
Homemade Nocino courtesy former Nostrana bar manager Douglas Derrick
(Makes 3 cups)
20 green walnuts, washed and quartered
750 mL bottle of Everclear (190 proof)
1 cup water
1 cup fine sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, hulled and scraped
2 star anise
6 allspice berries
6 pink peppercorns
Peels of 2 lemons and 2 oranges, chopped
Large glass jar with lid
1. Add walnuts to big jar and cover with Everclear. Cap jar and let rest at room temperature.
SIX MONTHS LATER ...
2. In the first week of December, strain out nuts and discard. Add vanilla bean, star anise, allspice, peppercorns, and chopped citrus peel. Cover and let liquid rest for a week, agitating occasionally.
3. Strain out spices through cheesecloth. Let liquid rest for another week in the jar, without shaking. Then, slowly pour the liquid into a mixing vessel, letting the sediment on the bottom stay in the jar. Discard sediment.
4. Whisk sugar and water into the mixture. Cover and let the flavors refine for one more week, then bottle.
You just read the recipe and got to the part that says "Six Months Later" and thought—why bother. Well, we are here to tell you that it is totally worth the effort. And actually, this isn't very difficult. In fact, all that you really need to get the process started is a bottle of neutral grain spirits (Everclear). You can worry about the rest of the stuff down the road, and you'll be glad you did. Come winter time, it is an exciting treat when you remember that you have this project going.
Definitely wear gloves when you slice the walnuts into quarters. They should be soft, but the juices begin to turn black almost instantly due to a chemical reaction with the air. This will stain your skin (and clothes), so consider yourself warned. You can also scale this recipe as big you need. We used a huge jar for making sun tea or agua fresca and it easily held 100 walnuts and 5 bottles of Everclear. We simply covered the top with plastic wrap and shoved it into a dark corner of the house.
Save the Everclear bottles and caps for a convenient way to store the final product. You can also buy specialty bottles for gifts. We like to print up labels for a professional look, but make sure your recipient knows how much love went into this process or they might think you bought it for them!
Now that you are convinced to try making this stuff, there is another bit of bad news. It may not taste good right away. In fact, it can take a year before the flavor mellows. When we first made nocino we were so disappointed with the initial result that we put the lid back on the big jar (walnuts and spices had already been filtered) and pushed it right back into the corner! A year later we had forgotten about it and realized it was still sitting patiently in the dark. To our delight, it was incredible! So, this year we are making it again. Good things will eventually come to those who are willing to wait.
Once you have homemade nocino, what can you do with it? Well, we have posted several cocktails over the years that use it. The Bradstreet Crafthouse's Black Walnut Old Fashioned is a favorite, as is the Bitter Branch and the Elixir de Amontillado, to name a few. But our favorite use by far is drizzling it over vanilla ice cream! We have also added an ounce to a cup of coffee, made a cup of black tea into an interesting take on a Hot Toddy, sipped it neat or with ice, and invited numerous riffs on classic cocktail recipes as a substitute for vermouth, liqueur or bitters. What can't you do with nocino?