OK, so first off, what’s nocino? From wikipedia:
Nocino is a sticky dark brown liqueur from the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy. It is made from unripe green walnuts. After steeping in spirit, the walnuts are removed and the now-black alcohol is mixed with simple syrup. Nocino has an aromatic, but bittersweet, flavor. It may be homemade; villages and even individual families often have their own recipes, including different additions like cinnamon or clove. Nocino is also available commercially in bottled form. Commercially available Nocino is typically 40% alcohol by volume, or 80 proof.
Sounds simple enough and you can google “how to make nocino” and get a bunch of different variations, mostly confusing and wildly inconsistent. This was my first year making it, inspired by the efforts of friends in the news nerd community and also the excellent commercially available nocino from Watershed Distillery here in Columbus.
I’m pretty happy with how it turned out! And I’ve been getting rave reviews (thanks for humoring me, friends!) So, in the hopes of demystifying things a bit, here’s how I made this year’s batch. Obviously, your mileage may vary.
It all starts with walnuts.
You have to collect them when they are still green and soft. Traditionally, this would be done on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist. Yes, really.
You probably have a little leeway but I wasn’t willing to roll the dice so I did collect mine and started the nocino on June 24. The most important thing is that you need to be able to cut them into quarters with a sharp knife. If you wait too long, the outer shell of the nut hardens and this becomes very difficult, if not impossible. Also the flavor will be too intensely bitter (according to the internet).
Speaking of the internet…there are some recipes that will tell you that you *must* use English walnuts and that black walnuts will not work because they are too bitter. Well, English walnuts are very uncommon in Ohio, and also these recipes are wrong. I totally buy that black walnuts will give you a different flavor than their English cousins but I didn’t find this to be a problem with all the spices, sugar, etc. that you wind up adding. You can always adjust the amount of sugar you add to compensate if you do wind up with a base that is too bitter.
How many do you need? It depends. I made two batches, each with 1.75 liters of vodka (more on that in a moment) and each batch used about 60 walnuts. That seemed about right to me, but depending on the size of your walnuts and their age you may find that a bit more or fewer will work better for you. If anything, it would probably affect how long you need to age your nocino, so I’d start with that as a baseline and taste and adjust as needed.
Ideally, pick the walnuts just before you use them. If you don’t, you may notice they start to develop black spots. I waited a day to make mine and that happened. It still turned out ok, but you probably don’t want to wait a week or something.
Also, hopefully this goes without saying, but as with any other foraged food, make sure your walnuts come from a tree that hasn’t been sprayed or exposed to a bunch of other environmental pollution (next to a highway, etc.).
You also need some booze.
Specifically, you need some variety of high-proof flavorless spirit. I used 100 proof vodka, but some people use grappa or even grain alcohol. Vodka is easiest for me to obtain here in Ohio, so that’s what I used.
As with anything you’re going to add a lot of flavor to (other liqueurs, bitters, homemade vanilla extract, etc.) you typically want something as close to flavorless as possible so it’s just a carrier for the flavors you’re going to add.
In general, don’t buy the very cheap stuff but also don’t spend a ton of money. New Amsterdam was on sale, so I bought two 1.75 liter bottles.
And a few other things.
To start your nocino, you’ll also need:
- One or more jars large enough to hold all of the ingredients. I have some nice swing-top jars (like these) but you don’t need anything fancy. They just need to be large enough to hold everything and also be air-tight. Some gallon fermentation jars would work well if you happen to have those around.
- Some citrus fruits (and a good sharp peeler). You’re only going to use the peel so try to get organic citrus if possible and make sure you clean any surface wax, etc. off of it before using. I used one lemon and one orange for each batch but this is one area where you could experiment as you develop your own recipe.
- A variety of spices. (we’ll cover that in a moment)
In 40 days or so, you’ll be filtering and blending your nocino with simple syrup and then transferring it to bottles. At that point, you’ll need:
- Sugar (regular white sugar is fine, and probably best, but maybe you could experiment? I wouldn’t.)
- A large saucepan to make the simple syrup.
- One or more funnels.
- Cheesecloth and/or filter paper. I found a fine-mesh strainer to not be sufficient here, so you’ll want something finer to get all the gunk out and make sure you wind up with a clear final product.
- The bottles you want your nocino to wind up in. There are some decent ones on Amazon but otherwise shipping can get pretty expensive. I was able to find 375 ml bottles at my like beer and winemaking shop. I guess you could also save and re-use bottles. Don’t forget to also buy stoppers/lids if the bottles don’t come with them.
- Labels, if you’re fancy. I got some paper ones but they kind of faded so you might want to invest in some better quality ones that will hold up better.
If you look at different nocino recipes, you’ll find widely varying advice about which spices to use, how much of each, etc.
That’s ok because it’s really a personal decision and you can and should experiment. Just remember that like most food, spices are best when they’re fresh, so try to not use spices that are over a year old.
I decided to make two batches that were the same except for the spices I added. That way I was able to compare the results and get a sense of what I might want to do next time. #Science.
When I blended and bottled the nocino, I also took a bit of each batch and made a third batch that was a 50/50 blend. So that’s another thing you could try.
Enough already, how do I make it?
Yield: Each batch should make about 3 liters of liqueur. After blending, I got a total of about 17 – 375 ml bottles between my two batches.
Ingredients (for each batch):
- 60 green black walnuts, rinsed and quartered (they should still be easy to cut, but you will need a sharp knife)
- Zest of one orange (use a Y-shaped peeler to remove the peel in strips, leaving as much of the white part of the skin behind as possible)
- Zest of one lemon (again, remove the peel in strips, etc.)
- 1 cinnamon stick, about 4 inches, broken into pieces
- 5 cloves
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
- 1.75 L bottle of 100 proof vodka (or other neutral spirit)
- Simple syrup (see notes below)
Additional spices for Batch #1:
- 15 coffee beans
- 3 white cardamom pods, lightly crushed
Additional spices for Batch #2:
- 5 whole allspice berries
- 1 star anise
- ½ of a whole nutmeg, crushed
Wash and quarter the walnuts and place them in a large airtight glass jar. Add the citrus, spices and your base spirit. Close the jar and give it a good shake.
Leave the jar on the counter for 40 days. Some people say to leave it in the sun (or not). I just left it on my kitchen counter which is neither in direct sunlight nor dark at room temperature.
Every day or so give the jar a little shake just to keep things moving along. You’ll notice the nocino start to turn dark almost immediately.
If you open the jar, you’ll speed along this darkening (here’s the science behind why that happens for you fellow nerds). Try not to do this too much but if you want to sneak a taste that won’t hurt anything (I certainly did).
In 40 days, your nocino will be very dark in color and should taste quite bitter. That’s ok, you’re about to add a lot of sugar to it. If the flavor is not strong enough you may want to leave it a bit longer, mine seemed fine right around 40 days.
Now it’s time to blend and bottle your nocino.
Start by making simple syrup. You’ll need to enough to bring your spirit down the desired final proof and also to adjust the sweetness. I found that about a 1:1 ratio was good for my nocino but you might want to make a bit extra just in case. So, if each batch of your nocino is 1.75 liters, you’ll want maybe make 2 liters of simple syrup (per batch). Simple syrup is just a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water, so for ~2 liters (a little over 4 cups) add to a saucepan over medium high heat: 4 cups of white sugar and 4 cups of water. Heat until just starting to boil and the sugar is fully dissolved. Turn the heat off and cool thoroughly before using.
While the simple syrup is cooling, strain your nocino. Set a fine mesh strainer or large funnel over a large bowl or another clean, empty jar large enough to hold your nocino (and ideally the roughly equal quantity of simple syrup you’ll be adding to it). Line the strainer or funnel with several layers of cheesecloth or a fine filter pad and slowly pour your nocino through to strain it. You want the end result to be clear and free of sediment so you might want to pass it through the filter multiple times, if necessary, and/or use a finer filter paper, more layers of cheesecloth, etc.
Once your nocino is filtered and your simple syrup is cooled, you’re now ready to blend and bottle it. Add the simple syrup the nocino bit by bit, stirring to fully combine. Be careful to not overshoot and make your finished liqueur too sweet! I recommend doing this by taste instead of shooting for a set ratio or finished proof. If you do want to calculate the proof (or % alcohol by volume), here’s a handy calculator.
My final ratios, for reference, were:
Batch #1 – 1200 ml liquor + 1200 ml simple syrup to yield 6 x 375 ml bottles at 50 proof (25% alcohol)
Batch #2 – 1200 ml liquor + 1200 ml simple syrup to yield 5 x 375 ml bottles at 54.5 proof (~27.27% alcohol)
Batch #3 (a blend of batches #1 and #2) – 600 ml #1 + 600 ml #2 + 1250 ml simple syrup to yield 6 x 375 ml bottles at 48.98 proof (~24.49% alcohol)
Once you’re satisfied with the taste of your liqueur, carefully pour it into bottles, leaving a little space at the top and put the stoppers in/lids on.
Now comes the really hard part. Put the bottles in a cool, dark place for a couple of months. I know.
You can distract yourself by making labels or something.
If you were a good Italian and started your Nocino on June 24, it will be ready to drink on November 1st (All Saints’ Day). It’s perfect for drinking through the holidays but you can also age it for up to a couple years in a cool, dark place (if it somehow lasts that long).
Which one is my favorite? What will I do differently next time?
I think #2 is my favorite but I like them all. #1 turned out borderline too sweet because I aimed for a 1:1 ratio of liquor to simple syrup instead of blending by taste. It’s still good, but that’s why you shouldn’t do that.
Next year I may just tinker with different spices, maybe a differ base liquor, etc. but really I was pretty happy with this year’s batches and think this should be a good base recipe for any of you who want to give this a shot next year (just make sure to share with me).
That’s it! Questions, comments, etc.? Drop me a line.