Italian walnut liqueur, or nocino, is a centuries-old treat made from unripe green walnuts infused in strong alcohol. It is available commercially, but families used to make their own concoctions, sweetened and spiced to their taste with flavors like cinnamon, cloves, and star anise, ready to be shared during the winter holidays.
In Italy, green English walnuts are harvested in late June, before the nuts form their shells. We’ve used American black walnuts that are easily harvested in Minnesota in early to mid-July. Though nut size will vary depending on the weather and your location, they are usually the ideal golf-ball size in mid-July. We collected in early July after a cold and wet spring, so they are a bit smaller here. Any size works well for this recipe.
You’ll find many nocino recipes online, but it is easy to experiment with the volume you want and sweeten and spice it to your taste. The tricky part is finding a tree with nuts within your reach (most people will happily let you pick the nuts from their trees with permission.) If you wait until the nuts fall from the tree, it is too late in the season, and the nuts will have a hard outer shell.
The American black walnut hulls contain stronger tannins, which give it a bitter, even astringent taste. Basically, you are making a strong infusion, like bitters, then sweetening it to be sipped as an digestif. As with bitters, my favorite way to really taste the flavors is to put a few drops in sparkling water and let it wash over your mouth.
Even more than farm to table, foraging is the ultimate connection to our location and season. It teaches us to keep our eyes open, observe our surroundings and the seasonal growth. Nocino can easily be flavored with any spices and herbs you collect from the land around you. And it is open for endless experimentation. My garden was full of Thai basil last year, so I used that as our herbal and spice note.
This Chef Camp version—instead of the traditional, warm flavors for winter like cinnamon, clove and anise—embodies the woods in late summer/early fall. The rosemary and lemon thyme are from my summer garden and maple syrup from the spring run adds a warmth and sweetness that is, truly “of the trees.” Can’t wait to sip this with you in the Northwoods in September!
Recipe in 1-Quart Jar (easily doubled):
15–20 unripe black walnuts,
Cut in halves or quarters (depending on size), filling the jar about ¾ full.
Rind of half an orange (or lemon)
3–4 sprigs of rosemary
3–4 sprigs of thyme (we used lemon thyme)
Peppercorns, to taste (about 1 tsp)
Allspice, to taste (about ½ tsp)
Approximately 2 cups of high proof grain alcohol (we used 100 proof vodka)—enough to fully cover the other ingredients
Sweetener: 1 cup maple syrup (or more to taste)
Pick clean, un-damaged nuts. Wash and pat dry, and then cut into halves or quarters depending on the size, so they stack loosely in your jar. They will ooze a green liquid that can stain your hands, clothes, and cutting surface if not washed off pretty quickly.
Add the herbs, spices, and orange rind to the jar. Pour the alcohol to fill jar to the bottom canning line—just under the threads for the cap. Store in a cool place and shake every few days for about six weeks. Strain out solids through a fine strainer and cheesecloth or through a coffee filter to remove small particles. Add the maple syrup and mix well.
Note: Many recipes call for adding sugar directly to the jar with the nuts, but for this recipe, I like to sweeten it to taste after.
Remember, it will be quite bitter at this point, but will mellow in the bottle with age. Typically, people age their nocino for at least four months, and even up to a year or more, to mellow out the tannins.
In a Manhattan, it will be strong enough to be noticed, yet smoothed out with the other ingredients.
Black Walnut Manhattan
1½ ounces whiskey
¾ ounce Nocino
½ ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters
- Stir gently with ice in a shaker, then strain into a coupe glass.
Kathy Yerich is a forager and mushroom enthusiast. She is the co-author of the field guide “Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest“ and Vice President of the North American Mycological Association and Minnesota Mycological Society. She’ll be bringing her expertise to Chef Camp 2017 as a forager and instructor.