It’s black walnut nocino season, as Sara Bir told us in last Friday’s Midwesterner.
A few of you have reached out in the past week to express your interest in making black walnut nocino—and your concern about inviting the wild unknown into your liquor cabinet. Can the pungent green orbs that stain your driveway each fall actually make something worth drinking?
The answer is yes, but I understand the hesitation. The first time I cracked a black walnut, when I was young enough to be amazed and terrified by our suburban backyard, I was so alarmed by the hull’s oxygen-induced transformation from green to black, and by the ammonia-sharp aroma of the underdeveloped nut, that, after a couple of reluctant bites, I sat in the grass waiting to die. The first time I made black walnut nocino, a decade and a half later, I felt almost the same way. I would have dumped that first batch on the spot if the walnuts hadn’t come from a late friend’s tree, which gave them sentimental value. So, because I didn’t want the nocino but I couldn’t throw it away, it lived in a purgatory above our kitchen cabinets until I tasted it out of morbid curiosity about a year later and found that, with time, it had transformed from nature’s meanest brew into a bitter but promising amaro. If you can be patient with your green walnuts, they will reward you with flavors that are complex, unique, and evocative for anyone else who grew up under a walnut canopy.
It lived in a purgatory above our kitchen cabinets until I tasted it out of morbid curiosity about a year later and found that, with time, it had transformed from nature’s meanest brew into a bitter but promising amaro.
This year, I plan to follow Sara’s all-Ohio recipe, using a few tricks I’ve learned since I made my first batch of nocino in 2015—tricks that explain why my 2019 nocino tastes better and smoother at about twelve months than my 2015 does at about sixty. Here are three experiments you might want to consider for your Ohio River Valley Nocino.
Look beyond granulated sugar.
Without granulated sugar, purists might tell you, it isn’t really nocino. That’s okay with me. If it’s okay with you, too, consider using real maple syrup. This year, I strained my nocino just in time to mix in wood-cooked syrup fresh off our cinderblock evaporator, which added a hint of smoke and even more woodsy flavor and rich mouthfeel. It amplified everything that’s good about nocino. I’ll never go back to granulated sugar.
Almost any other local sweetener should outperform granulated sugar, though of course it won’t be as neutral or as affordable. Consider honey or sorghum syrup. For even more black walnut flavor, tap walnut trees early next spring and use that syrup, sweetening this summer’s infusion next spring, after eight or nine months of aging.
Just don’t skimp on sugar. Maybe that doesn’t need to be said when we’ve already sent out a recipe, but I want to be clear that nocino doesn’t offer much wiggle room on sweetener for people like me, who try to get away with leaving the sugar out of cobbler filling when summer’s berries are tasting extra-sweet. If you’re one of us, get over your sugar aversion and stick with at least one part sweetener to two parts vodka.
Infuse your nocino in glass jars in the summer sun.
I first saw nocino aging outside when I visited Wood Hat Spirits in New Florence, Missouri, in 2017. Since then, I’ve come across a few examples of nocino and other walnut products aged in the sun, including D.C. chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s Black Walnut Bay Sauce, a walnut leaf condiment from nineteenth-century Virginia.
Last summer, I decided to split my nocino into two identical batches, both in half-gallon jars. One went outside, where it baked without relief in the summer sun and eighty- and ninety-degree temperatures for about three months. Bringing it inside felt like a formal goodbye to the season. The other stayed in a dark cabinet. When I tasted the nocinos later, at about the seven-month mark, the difference was undeniable. “The inside nocino is tannic, throat-burning, and overwhelmingly bitter,” I wrote in my notes. “The outside nocino is clearly smoother.” Almost exactly one year in, the inside nocino is beginning to evolve into something drinkable. I would serve the outside batch to company right now.
Someday, we’ll ask a scientist to explain what happened, but the light and heat likely accelerate a necessary mellowing process that would otherwise progress over a period of years. (Based on what I’ve read, I’d like to try just sunlight and just heat, which might be preferable.) Any lost complexity is a fair trade for a year-old nocino that drinks like Fernet.
Leave the walnuts in the spirit for longer than traditional recipes recommend.
This trick came from a tour guide at Watershed Distillery in Columbus, which makes an Ohio nocino, after I badgered him for inside information on their recipe, gifted to the distillery by a local hobbyist—a physician—named Charlie Tweel.
I had to know how they were getting a tasty, commercial-grade native nocino to market in just a year or two. Our tour guide, who had experience on the distilling side, wouldn’t share anything about the recipe except what’s available to the public: that it’s black walnuts, sugar, and “spices.” As I was about to leave, after I bought a bottle, he offered one tip. “You should try leaving the walnuts in the liquor for longer than you think,” he said. “I mean, a lot longer. Five, six months.”
The only way to tolerate that kind of wait is to learn how to forget. So last year, I intentionally forgot. I ignored tradition, which holds that nocino should infuse for just a month or two before straining and long-term aging. After three months of sun infusion, I just moved the jars to the back of a cabinet, where they continued to infuse until I came across them while looking for a bottle of wine four months later. I didn’t set up a side-by-side for this experiment, but the long infusion period didn’t hurt. I’ll tell you that my 2019 nocino bears some resemblance to Watershed’s.
Take these tips or leave them, but if you want to make nocino, don’t wait long—and take this harvesting advice from Chicago chef Paul Fehribach: