A digestif transforms any meal into a celebration. Raising a glass of dark, alluring liqueur after the dinner plates are cleared is the perfect way to savor the end of the day and ring in the night with good cheer and digestion. As with most good things, they come with traditions, opinions, and lore—barefoot virgins, dressed in white, picking 23 walnuts after dark on the 23rd night of June—you know, that kind of thing. The lore, the flavor, and the names changed little by little as the spirited traditions moved from village to village across Europe, all regionally unique, but all of them ending in good drink.
Nocino is the Italian version of this after-dinner drink that flooded the old world. The Italians make it with “green” or “wet” walnuts, meaning, underripe walnuts, picked before the hard shells develop. This happens at the end of June in Italy, but here in Maine, with our native black walnut Juglans nigra, I find the right time to be in July. I’ve also found that, while this may be blasphemous, collecting the walnuts even after the shells have begun to develop (a little), produces a fine end product, they’re just harder to cut through, but nothing a cleaver or hammer can’t handle. I’ve made quite a few batches of booze with nuts that most people would say were a little too old for nocino, and I’ve never gotten anything back but empty glasses.
Tradition is to collect the nuts when they’re still tender enough to slice through easily with a knife. Follow, or don’t, at your own risk.
While a classic nocino showcases the young walnuts as the forward flavor, the tradition welcomes the addition of other flavors. I’ve never actually followed the same recipe twice, I’m always wanting to twist and turn it with other herbs and spices. The following recipe is the base that I use as a foundation and is wonderful as-is or with additional flavors as your heart desires.
I like to keep a pint jar in the freezer for a chilled, impromptu pour after a meal. The rich, pungent tonic is perfect neat, on the rocks, splashed into sparkling water, or in cocktails. It’s my absolute favorite way to transform a dish of vanilla ice cream into a boozy sundae, and it’s a much more interesting substitute for vanilla extract in baked goods, but mostly, it’s for friends. I make a few gallons a year, and while I will sip it some nights alone, I savor it most in many glasses held high together.
- 1 gallon-sized glass jar
- 20 to 30 unripe walnuts, halved or quartered (wear gloves, they'll stain your skin)
- 1 quart 190-proof everclear
- 3 to 6 whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Peel of 1 lemon
- Optional herbs and spices to taste. I recommend trying the basic recipe first, or doing two batches, which is what I usually do, one plain and one dolled up with flavors from coffee beans, angelica stem, spicebush, juniper berries, yellow birch bark, sweet cicely, goldenrod, star anise, galium trifolium, or sweet woodruff.
- 1 to 2 cups maple syrup or a simple syrup of 2 cups granulated sugar dissolved in 3 cups water. (This isn’t needed until the first 40-day maceration is complete.)
- Place your halved walnuts and herbs (chopped, torn, or crushed) in the jar, cover with everclear, and put a lid on.
- Shake the jar to make sure everything is incorporated, but mostly for good measure, and let sit for 40 days. Some people say let it sit in the sun, some people say cool and dark, I have tried both and landed in the middle on a room temperature pantry shelf.
- After 40 days, pour through a coffee filter to strain out all of the solids.
- Add your maple syrup or simple syrup to your filtered liquid and stir.
- Add 1 to 2 cups of water to taste. I recommend leaving it quite strong, as it mellows with age and is meant to be drunk in small, potent doses.
- Stir everything well and let age a minimum of another 40 days. The flavor will continue to develop and build surprising layers of charm for many years. I am currently drinking my last 2019 bottle and I’m so sad to see it go—make a double batch.