June 19, 2020

Sara Bir

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How to Make Black Walnut Nocino

A liqueur that tastes like the Midwest in June

Growing up, I always thought of black walnuts as garbage trees. We had one in our yard that dropped monstrous, mottled green-brown spheres on the lawn every fall. They drove my mother crazy. My position has softened over time, but I’m still flummoxed by black walnuts. They’re a headache to shell and taste funky as all get-out. If you love them, I think, chances are you’re either an old-timer or a chef. Young black walnuts are totally different. They look like petite tennis balls, bright with a rough surface. Go pick one up and smell your hand. You’ll get a wallop of citronella.

After the spring we had, with its psychic miasma of wintry gloom, summer is not only welcome, but desperately needed. I suggest you celebrate the season by making nocino with the young fruit of Juglans nigra, growing all over the Midwest.

Yes, I’m talking about nocino, a dark, syrupy liqueur recently de rigueur in cocktail bars that hails from Italy. (Pronounce it no-CHEE-no. I blithely said it wrong for years.) The Italian nocino tradition was, for ages, a family DIY thing wherein a barefoot virgin collected an odd number of green walnuts on the night of San Giovanni, June 24.

I suggest you wear shoes, collect any number of walnuts you like, and proceed at your convenience. Midwestern traditions tend toward understatement and practicality. There is some logic to the traditional timing. You need to gather your walnuts while they’re still soft enough to slice and the aromatic oils in their hulls are peaking. June 24 is the right time for that in Emilia-Romagna, where almost all nocino-makers use Juglans regina—English or Persian walnuts. Here, with our Juglans nigra, just eyeball it and collect them before they get bigger than golf balls, likely sometime in June.

How to Make Black Walnut Nocino - Quote

It’s at once cloyingly sweet and daringly bitter. In the glass, it resembles motor oil, but with a pretty green tinge. You’ll taste notes of citrus and spice over a rich, dark backbone that evokes a syrupy cola or an assertive amaro.

It’s tricky to describe the flavor of finished nocino. It’s at once cloyingly sweet and daringly bitter. In the glass, it resembles motor oil, but with a pretty green tinge. You’ll taste notes of citrus and spice over a rich, dark backbone that evokes a syrupy cola or an assertive amaro. It’s a fine aperitif or digestif. I like it best drizzled over sweet cream gelato or vanilla ice cream. My friend makes foo-foo gummy bears with it.

You should also know that nocino’s first six months are its worst. After tasting a young bottle of my first batch, I dumped it down the toilet. Luckily, I had a few more bottles stashed away, because after two years, the stuff transformed from vile to beguiling. Be patient with yours. For, like, years. It’ll pay off. If you make enough, you’ll have a bottle or two sitting around half a decade from now, a drinkable snapshot of where you went that day, what was growing in your herb garden, and how subversive you felt scrabbling around in the sun, seeking what no one else cares about.

Southern California forager and author Pascal Baudar makes a “local mountain nocino,” adding white fir and California juniper to a base of native walnuts, and that inspired this Midwestern spin, which I’m calling Ohio River Valley Nocino. The sugar came from Kroger and the vodka from the state store, but I gathered everything else—toasted hickory bark, spicebush berries and twigs, and other native foraged goodies—on foot near my hometown of Marietta, Ohio.

Ohio River Valley Nocino

Ohio River Valley Nocino

I’m not sure how much this makes. I forgot to measure my yield. It’s a lot—enough to last you half a lifetime, or to make many gift-sized bottles. Don’t feel bound to the aromatics here. Omit them or switch them with more easily obtainable things like lemon peel, a cinnamon stick, or a modest spoonful of whole coffee beans. In keeping with the local theme, you should consider seeking out vodka from a regional distiller. I use Buckeye Vodka.

This nocino recipe is more traditional, and perhaps more suitable for people who are not foraging for every single ingredient. I’ve made it and added one whole star anise, too. This recipe is even more traditional, coming from Italy’s Ordine del Nocino Modense. Also, you don’t have to make your own Midwestern nocino. Columbus, Ohio’s Watershed Distillery sells one made with Ohio-grown walnuts.

And you can probably get me to give you a small bottle of mine. I have tons.


One 8” strip bark from a shagbark hickory tree
20 (or 21 or 23, if you want to be traditional) young green black walnuts, cut in half
One 6” sprig lemon verbena, with stem
Small handful dried mint leaves, or 2 handfuls fresh mint leaves
6 12” segments spicebush twig
6 dried spicebush berries, smashed with the flat side of a knife
4 thin strips dried black cherry bark
1-2 tbsp. dried sassafras root
2½ cups granulated sugar
1 liter vodka


Hold the hickory bark with long metal tongs and char it lightly with a blowtorch, as if it were the inside of a bourbon barrel. Aim for a campfire smell, not pure carbon. You can also toast it in the oven (350 degrees, 30-45 minutes, or until lightly browned and aromatic), but the blowtorch is faster and more fun.

With a sharp knife, cut clean through the walnuts. It’s fun, and it sounds harder than it is, I promise. Their cross-sections look like little brains. Walnuts can stain work surfaces black (ah, so that’s why they are called black walnuts). If you’re concerned about stains, wear gloves and use a junky cutting board.

Drop the walnuts into a large, clean glass jar. I use an old one-gallon jar that previously held fruit salad. Add the herbs and twigs. It’s totally fine to bend or mangle them to get them to fit. In fact, it’s probably a good idea, because you’ll bruise them and release more of their flavor. Then drop in the remaining aromatics, plus the sugar. Pour the vodka over the top. Cover the mixture with a clean kitchen towel or cheesecloth, secured with a rubber band. A lot of the sugar will just sit on top and not dissolve, but that’s okay. It will dissolve eventually.

Stir once a day for 7 days. By the end, more of the sugar will have dissolved, and the mixture will have taken a frightful brown cast. Switch to a tight-fitting lid and continue aging for 2 months (I keep track of all this on a calendar, but it’s a good idea to label the jar with the date you began). A few times a week, give the jar a stir or a good jostle. Eventually, the liquid in the jar will turn almost black. It’s what you want.

Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and pour into bottles for storage. Age for at least 6 months. At that point, it will probably taste horrible, and you will feel sad. Do not dump it out! Hide the bottles in a cool, dark place and forget about them for at least another 6 months. After that, the nocino will be at least palatable.

Forget about the bottles for another few years and the nocino will be a whole new deal—mellowed yet complex. Give the bottles away, enjoy small glasses as digestifs, pour a little over very good vanilla ice cream. You can even make cocktails with it.


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