How to Make Nocino (Green Walnut Liqueur) - Recipe with Pictures
If you've never tried nocino (no-CHEE-no), you'll wish you had the last time you had an upset stomach. This sweet, coffee-colored liqueur, with a maple/date/nutty flavor, is fantastic to enjoy on its own, but it also settles a belly ache almost like magic. It's relatively rare to find in the stores, but it's not terribly difficult to make—and a lot of fun—and you can get some satisfaction knowing you're participating in a tradition Italians have enjoyed for centuries. Croatians call it orahovica or orahovac (from the word orah, meaning walnut).
The drink is intriguing to make. You begin with immature, green walnuts (preferably black walnuts—Juglans nigra—although English walnuts can work; see Neil Robertson's comment below), harvested in June, well before the shell begins to harden. Cutting yields an unripe fruit that is white and green inside, with a clear, colorless juice. That juice and fruit quickly darkens, from amber to dark brown, almost black. This essence is drawn out using a clear, unflavored syrup, traditionally grappa, but you can use vodka, pisco, or even a neutral grain liquor like diluted Everclear, over the course of 40 days. Then it's diluted and sweetened with a simple syrup, bottled, and stored until at least December, during which time its spicy, harsh herbal notes mellow into a fragrant, nutty flavor. I've found it tastes even better as time goes on, so if you can resist the urge to tipple until past the one year mark, you'll be rewarded for your patience with a richly-flavored cordial. With flavors that remind you of maple, molasses, dates, and even pumpkin pie (especially depends on what spices you add), it's the perfect thing to imbibe on a cold winter night.
Although associated with Modena, the northern Italian town famous for another mahogany-colored liquid, balsamic vinegar, nocino traces its roots to the Celts, and was brought into Italy by monks. Tradition holds that you pick an odd number of green walnuts on San Giovanni's (St John's) day, June 24, let your walnuts steep for 40 days, and then bottle for drinking at Christmas. But keep in mind that walnut trees in different parts of the world have different maturation schedules: in California, for instance, you'll want to get your green walnuts at the beginning of June at the latest.
Step 1: Chop Up Your Green Walnuts
First, get some green walnuts. You should pick them or buy them in June sometime, well before they ripen too much and the inner hard shell starts to develop. If you can't push a needle or nail through the walnut using only your fingers, then the walnut might be too ripe. The walnuts should be a bright green color, with faint white speckles on them, and the size of a quail egg or so.
Although, when cut open, the walnut leaks out a clear, colorless liquid, and the interior is an innocuous-looking white and green, beware! That liquid will stain everything it touches with a practically indelible dark brown. Wear gloves!
Chop your walnuts into either quarters or eighths (this is the way it's traditionally done) or grind it up even smaller. Despite what tradition might tell you, there's no difference - the point is to expose the fruit innards to the alcohol so its essences can leach out. I cut them into quarters the first time I made nocino, and to a much finer dice the second time, and the only difference is that the walnut essence came out into the alcohol quicker the second time around.
Step 2: Add Alcohol and Other Flavorings, and Wait
Add alcohol - grappa, pisco, vodka, or Everclear, if you don't want the spirit's flavor to compete with the walnuts - and possibly some other flavorings, like:
- espresso beans
- lemon or orange zest (be careful to scrape away any pith, which is bitter)
- cinnamon sticks
- cardamom pods
- allspice berries
I personally prefer to not detract too much from the flavor of the walnut myself, so I've only tossed in a few espresso beans, if anything. Keep in mind, too, that since the flavor of the walnut gets more and more subdued with each passing year, then the relative power of the spices you add gets more pronounced. If you plan on keeping your nocino for years before drinking it, go easy on the spices; if you plan on drinking it within the year you bottle it, be more generous.
How much alcohol? This might require some math, and it depends on the strength of the alcohol you're starting off with, and how strong you want your resulting nocino to be. Traditional nocino is in the 30-40% alcohol range; I personally like it to be a bit more mild, so I shoot for the lower-30%s range. So, if you use 80 proof alcohols (40% alcohol; most vodkas, grappas and piscos are in this range), then you won't need to dilute any of it with water, since the addition of sugar alone will bring the alcohol content to the 30%+ range. If you use Everclear, you'll want to eventually add some water in addition to sugar.
Rough Ingredient Estimates
# of Nuts
For every 12 very large (egg-sized) or 20 small (olive-sized) walnuts:
1 liter of 40% (80 proof) liquor like vodka, pisco, or grappa
1 1/2 cups of (regular white) sugar
= roughly 4 750ml bottles
Here are some rough rules of thumb:
- about 12-20 walnuts per liter of 40% alcohol (depends on the size of the walnuts)
- 1 1/2 cups of sugar per liter of 40% alcohol will eventually be added
- 2 1/4 cups of (white) sugar is about 1 lb (will help with purchasing the right amount)
- 2 lbs of (dry white) sugar will increase the volume of your liquid by 1 pint
- I personally like to give 250 ml bottles as gifts (like in the picture at top), so that should inform you about how much of everything you'll need to get
So, for my most recent batch:
- 69 very large walnuts, so about 5l of 40% alcohol
- steeped in 2.5l of 40% alcohol (vodka and pisco), and 1.5l everclear (75.5%) alcohol, so adding 1.3l of water will bring the liquid to 40% alcohol
- will add 7.5 cups of sugar
- will have a total of 6l of finished nocino at about 35% alcohol
- 6l of nocino will give me 21 gift bottles (250ml apiece) and a 750ml reserve bottle to keep for myself
If you're not a math geek, then use these rules:
For every 12 very large (egg-sized) or 20 small (olive-sized) walnuts:
- 1 liter of 40% (80 proof) liquor like vodka, pisco, or grappa
- 1 1/2 cups of (regular white) sugar
Straining and Sweetening
After the customary 40 days, strain out the large chunks of green walnut and discard them, and then begin the (rather slow) process of filtering the liquid with paper coffee filters or several layers of cheesecloth. A very fine black sediment is formed as part of the aging of the liquor over 40 days that you'll want to get out. The problem is that the sediment is so fine that it tends to clog up paper filters, so you'll have to give it a lot of time. The two times I've done it, it's taken about 4-5 hours, so...bring a book! It's worth the effort, though. The resulting liquor should be a clear, very richly dark reddish brown, almost coffee-colored.Trust me, this stuff will taste as delicious as it looks, so take the time to make sure it's not murky.
Now's the time to add the sugar and any remaining water. To prevent crystallization, I'd combine the water and sugar you have to add and cook it into a simple syrup. I've added the sugar and water together in a large pyrex measuring cup, put it in the microwave for 4-5 minutes, and heated it up so that it fully dissolves when you mix it. When all the sugar grains are gone, pour the the syrup into the liquor, mix it well, and it will transform into a liqueur!
When you're done with that, you have a couple of choices: you can let the liqueur age in the glass jars over the next few months (in a cool, dark place this time) and then bottle it, or you can bottle it now and allow it to age in the bottles themselves. Either way should work just fine.
Small bottles of the nocino (about 250ml each) make a terrific gift, and it's not difficult to get the bottles and labels for them. If you're in the US, I've been pleased with Specialty Bottle's corked and swingtop bottles (they're the most reasonably priced), and using 4over4's small batch (as low as 25) standard labels (I get their 1.5" x 2.5" labels for both the corked and swingtop 250ml bottles).
(And if you have some green walnuts left over, you might consider making green walnut preserves (instructions here), which are delicious and yet another exotic foodstuff you can share.)