The taxonomical name for the walnut is Juglans, which means “Jupiter’s testicles” in Latin. In other words, walnuts have long been considered pretty damned important. And not for nothing-they’re delicious, versatile, a potent brain tonic, and a rich source of many crucial nutrients. If, like me, you grew up surrounded by walnut trees, you might be very familiar with their many intriguing properties and uses. You might additionally know the pain of dealing with walnuts in your home landscape; the toxic ooze the roots secrete that murders the rest of your garden, the Biblical plagues of squirrels they attract, the indelible stains they leave on your hands and clothes, and the sheer overwhelm of dealing with their unnerving productivity.
Nocino is an old Italian spirit made from young, green walnuts—the preparation is essentially the same as limoncello, with the nuts sliced and macerated in a neutral spirit (vodka will do nicely if you’re making it at home) along with sugar and spices for a few weeks. Traditionally, you pick the walnuts on the summer solstice (and probably do some interpretive dancing or utter the odd oh-great-Bacchus-make-the-nocino-delicious incantation), but as long as the nuts are young enough that a hard shell has not developed, you can probably forego the pagan magicks element without suffering. The resulting brew is the color of black coffee and boasts a deep, rich bittersweet flavor that could only be more “fall” if you drank it while sitting in a pile of colorful dried leaves in the middle of a pumpkin patch. I can think of no better after-dinner Thanksgiving sip, or a more appropriate foil to a chilly evening by a fire. It’s freaking delicious. Every year when the holidays roll around I annoy myself wishing I had had the foresight to make a ton of it to decant into pretty bottles and give as holiday gifts—it is so rich and fortifying and interesting and provocative, one of the most amazing “trash into treasure” concoctions you are likely to have in your home bar.
But although nocino is one of the easier liqueurs to fashion at home, I am here to testify to the fact that it can go badly wrong—I have gotten “swamp juice” or “bongwater” or “dude, what kind of fungus can even survive in vodka?” more than once, it grieves me to report. So if you are not all that enterprising or don’t have access to juvenile nuts or just hate unpleasant surprises, commercially made nocino isn’t terribly hard to get. And although it is Italian by birth, there are smart people making it in the States, taking advantage of our great wealth of feisty feral walnut trees.
Ohio’s Watershed Distillery is playing around with the recent vogue for putting every kind of booze in barrels previously used for whatever other kind of booze—their nocino is now finished in retired bourbon barrels. It’s a good marriage; the caramelized, rich, spicy tones in the nocino are subtly and smartly enhanced by the wood toast and bourbon notes. The resulting drink is dark and brooding, sweet with a bitter edge, and features notes of raisins, dates, cinnamon, prunes, fig jam, cacao, nutmeg and dried berries. A 375 ml bottle will run you about $30 and it will last quite a while—it’s definitely not in the quaffing category; it’s intended to be sipped after dinner as a digestif. It’s also a friend in cocktails; play with it in an Old Fashioned, for example, or any number of amaro cocktails. It gets along well with brown spirits, especially bourbon, and with sherry, port and other fortified wines. But it’s well worth drinking on its own.