DIY liqueurs are very easy to make at home all you need is time and patience. Two of my favorites to make are Limoncello and Italian-Style Nocino Walnut Liqueur; two liqueurs that are relatively expensive to buy in a store compared to how easy and cheap it is to make at home.
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What is Nocino Liqueur?
Nocino is a liqueur made with unripe walnuts typically from an English black walnut tree, Juglans regia. But, you can also make it from North American walnuts. In Italy, it is called Nocino, but many countries have their versions of a walnut liqueur. In France, a similar liqueur is Brou de Noix, while in Croatia it is called Orahovac.
History of Nocino
The first known record of Nocino comes from the Romans in Britain around 300 AD citing the Picts as the makers of nocino. With distillation in its infancy around that time, I wonder how they made their version since you need a high proof spirit to infuse the walnuts in.
Suffice to say there were no virgins barefoot or otherwise gathering walnuts for my homemade Nocino.
How to serve & drink Nocino Liqueur
Nocino is a great after dinner digestif often served neat. It works well as a cocktail ingredient. When using it cocktails, I lean more towards using darker spirits like whiskey, brandy, and rum in addition to fortified wines sweet vermouth and sherry, for example. Classic cocktails are a great place to start riffing with nocino, such as a Manhattan.
It’s not a common liqueur to have in one’s collection and is great to treat friends with your homemade version.
How to Make Nocino
The process of making nocino is quite simple.
- First, you’ll need to pick fresh green walnuts at the right time of year.
- Then, you soak the walnuts, with the option of adding herbs and spices, in alcohol (clear grain alcohol, grappa, brandy, etc.).
- And after a long soak, you strain alcohol, add simple syrup, and bottle.
The most challenging part of the process is patience. It takes about 6 months to get to the bottling stage. And then, most nocino then rests in the bottle for at least another year before drinking. Right now I have 1.75 liters of nocino resting in bottles for next year, and I am using 550 ml of it for drinks now.
Picking Black Walnuts
Instead of an English black walnut tree, I picked from a California black walnut tree. California walnuts, Juglans Californica, are not commercially grown as food but the nuts are edible; however, they are more bitter than the usual English walnut. Timing is essential regardless of which walnut tree you use. I made one attempt at picking the walnuts on June 24th, but they had hardened and were unusable. The following year I made sure to get them while they were ripe, and picked the walnuts from a friend’s house on May 28th, but there were still quite a few that were too hard
If you or a friend have a black walnut tree in their yard, you have what you need to make this liqueur. Black walnuts trees grow all over the United States. You may be able to pick wild walnuts, but be sure to check with who owns the land and if there are any restrictions on wild foraging. If you want to order some green unripe black walnuts, you’ll have to wait ‘till May but check out Haag Family Farm or Daniels Family Farm.
How to know if the walnuts are ready
Climate has a big factor on the size and ripeness of the walnuts. One way to tell if they are perfect is to see if a sharp knife can pass easily through the whole nut. If a hard shell has formed inside the nut, then it is too old to use. My harvest was a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the walnuts were perfect while others were too far gone to use. All told, I went home with about 120 walnuts and then ended up using 90 of them.
Nocino – Italian Style Walnut Liqueur Recipe
What you’ll need
- Rubber gloves
- 2 Large sealable jars
- Vegetable peeler
- Coffee filters
- Swing top or corked bottles
- 1.75 liters Everclear
- 90 California walnuts
- 1 whole tangerine peel (no pith)
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 5 cloves
- To begin, put on your rubber gloves. Walnuts contain tannins, which when cut, secrete out and dye your hands and stay for days possibly weeks.
- Wash and dry the walnuts. Cut them into quarters and place into the jar.
- Using the vegetable peeler, peel the tangerine trying not to take too much pith with the peel. Toss into the jar.
- Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and, with the back of the knife, scrape out the beans. Toss the scrapings into the jar.
- Next, add the cinnamon stick and cloves to the jar.
- Pour in the alcohol.
- Cap or seal the jar and give it a good shake.
- Let the jar sit in a partially sunlit, warm room for a few days and up to a couple of weeks. (A good rule of thumb is that infusions left in the sunlight have a sharp flavor, while infusions kept in the dark have a soft flavor. Either way, to obtain a nice full flavor from the green walnuts its best to place it in a room with warm temperatures.)
- Wait 40 days, swirling the mixture every now and again. Then strain the liquid into another jar.
- Add 1.3 liters of a 1:1 simple syrup, you could also use maple syrup
- Give the jar a good stir to incorporate all your sugar, then cap or seal the jar.
- Let sit for another 40 days, swirling the mixture every now and again.
- Place the funnel into a bottle along with a coffee filter.
- Siphon the liquid into the funnel until the bottle is full. Continue with the other bottles until all the liquid is out of the jar.
- Seal your bottles and wait till next year or crack them open on Christmas.
My Nocino Results
For my first attempt at nocino, I think it turned out pretty good. Next year I plan on making a bigger batch and barrel-aging. The herbs and spices were good, but to get a better more balanced flavor profile I plan on adding the herbs and spices later for my next version. What I have now has a good bit of cinnamon and clove hit right away, and then it mellows to a smooth walnut flavor with just a hint of tangerine/orange.