How to Make Nocino: Green Walnut Liqueur Recipe With Pictures
If you've never tried nocino (no-CHEE-no), you're missing out. This sweet, coffee-colored liqueur, with a maple/date/nutty flavor, is fantastic to enjoy on its own, but it also settles a bellyache almost like magic. It's relatively hard to find in stores, but it's not terribly difficult to make—not to mention 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).
How Do You Make Nocino?
The drink is intriguing to make. You begin with immature, green walnuts (preferably from 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 darken, going 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 depending on what spices you add), it's the perfect thing to imbibe on a cold winter night.
Where Is Nocino From?
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 should 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.
How to Make Nocino (Walnut Liqueur)
Here are the ingredients I used for my most recent batch, which yielded 6 liters of nocino.
- 69 very large walnuts, so about 5 liters of 40% alcohol
- steeped in 2.5 liters of 40% alcohol (vodka and pisco), and 1.5 liters everclear (75.5%) alcohol, so adding 1.3 liter of water will bring the liquid to 40% alcohol
- 7.5 cups of sugar
This will yield a total of 6 liters of finished nocino at about 35% alcohol. 6 liters 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 granulated sugar
Here are some rough rules of thumb for making nocino:
- about 12–20 walnuts per liter of 40% alcohol (depends on the size of the walnuts)
- 1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar per liter of 40% alcohol will eventually be added (2 1/4 cups of granulated sugar is about 1 pound)
- 2 pounds of granulated 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
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 granulated sugar
= roughly four 750ml bottles
Step 1: Chop Up Your Green Walnuts
First, get some green walnuts. You should pick them or buy them sometime in June, well before they ripen too much and the hard inner 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.
Before you start to cut into the walnuts, be sure to put on a pair of gloves. When cut open, the walnut leaks out a clear, colorless liquid, and the interior is an innocuous-looking white and green, but beware! That liquid will stain everything it touches with a practically indelible dark brown.
Chop your walnuts into either quarters or eighths (this is the way it's traditionally done) or grind them 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
How much spice should you add?
I personally prefer to not detract too much from the flavor of the walnut, so I've only ever 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, 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 should you add?
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 milder, so I shoot for the lower-30% range.
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 eventually want to add some water in addition to sugar.
Step 3: Steep and Sweeten
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 rich, 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 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 swing-top 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 swing-top 250ml bottles).
(If you have some green walnuts left over, you might consider making green walnut preserves, which are delicious and yet another exotic foodstuff you can share.)
© 2011 Jason Menayan