In Italy, walnuts and paganism go way back. At weddings in ancient Rome, guests would throw walnuts at the bride and groom to promote fertility and good fortune. Dating to at least the 13th century, a legend about the witches of Benevento says they would convene beneath a magical walnut tree before taking flight on brooms to cast spells into the winds. And historically, on the eve of June 24th, an odd number of barefoot virgins would scale towering black walnut trees to gather their fruits for nocino, Campania and Emilia-Romagna’s deep, dark and lightly bitter liqueur.
While harvesting is no longer exclusive to barefoot virgins, June 24th—when the summer solstice coincides with San Giovanni, the feast day of St. John the Baptist—still marks the beginning of the narrow window when black walnuts remain young and soft and at their most fragrant.
Once picked, the pale green fruits are halved or quartered, and their pliable inner husks split open to reveal a slightly gooey, dark liquid that, if left unpicked, would harden into the nut. (Gloves are advised during this process; once the walnuts are sliced, the sap stains everything.) These pieces are added to demijohns and left to macerate in neutral spirit, sometimes with a touch of flavoring—vanilla, clove, cinnamon or citrus peels—for at least three months. Once it’s ready for testing, typically in November, on All Saints’ Day, the blend will have taken on its signature rich brown color, then be strained of its solids and finished with sugar and water. Shared over the Christmas season, or rested and aged up to a year or more, the finished liqueur is most often consumed neat, as a digestivo.
Unlike amaro, whose varieties are made with dozens of botanicals, nocino is meant to be austere, with a natural, subtle bitterness and a flavor that tastes singularly of raw walnuts. But while American bartenders have wholly embraced amaro, both on drink menus and in cocktails, nocino is still awaiting its big crossover break, likely because it’s traditionally been hard to come by stateside.
Lately though, American distillers have been seizing upon this limitation as an opportunity. Francesco Amodeo, a fourth-generation distiller from the Amalfi Coast and founder of Don Ciccio & Figli in Washington, D.C., makes a nocino based on his family’s recipe from 1933.
Using raw green walnuts from northern California picked in June, Don Ciccio & Figli’s nocino macerates for a total of eight months, with cinnamon and cloves added around Labor Day. On Valentine’s Day, the blend is strained and filtered, then rested for an additional two months before it’s diluted, bottled and delivered to shelves and backbars in May. “We try to keep it available through the year,” says Amodeo, “but sometimes we run out by September.” Amodeo plans to release just under 1,500 cases of the 2018 harvest this coming May.
At Forthave Spirits in Brooklyn, Daniel de la Nuez and Aaron Sing Fox launched an 80-bottle run of a nocino in October, 2018, called Black, which was sold at select New York shops and allocated to restaurants like Roman’s, Contra and Frenchette. Using walnuts foraged from a friend’s upstate New York property, Forthave broke with tradition by harvesting later, in mid-July, extending maceration time and using limited additives, including a lemon peel, Tahitian vanilla and an unnamed secret ingredient.
“Late harvest walnuts were definitely a little more laborious to cut up,” says de la Nuez. “But our theory with late harvest is that the polyphenolic compounds are going to be richer so you can extract more flavor.” Fox points out that even though the lore of San Giovanni is strong, walnut trees don’t ripen all at once: “The nutty woodiness really comes through in the ones we pick later,” he says. (Forthave’s 2019 edition of Black is estimated at 500 bottles.)
As both domestic and Italian nocinos become more readily available, American bars—including barmini in Washington, D.C., Roberta’s in Brooklyn and The ScapeGoat in Miami Beach—are beginning to use them in cocktails. At Contra and Wildair in New York, Sam Anderson swaps blackstrap rum for a mixed base of nocino and clairin for his Dark and Stormy. And At City House in Nashville, Chris Collins’ Mojo calls for nocino, Chattanooga Whiskey Reserve, Cathead Hoodoo Chicory liqueur, Braulio and lemon juice. And finally, at Starbucks Reserve Roastery, Julia Momose’s The Nocino Notte features nocino, Pine Barrens Barrel Reserve Botanical gin, Gran Classico Bitter, cold brew and black truffle salt.
“Nocino is an acquired taste, of course,” says Amodeo, “but even though it’s just a simple liqueur, the flavors are absolutely tremendous.” With American nocino being produced from Brooklyn to Napa Valley, it may be just a matter of time until it joins the legions of domestic vermouth and amaro on the country’s backbars.
Aggazzotti Nocino Riserva
Where it’s made: Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
ABV: 40 percent
Based on a recipe from the early 1800s from a family best known for their balsamic vinegar, this is the most familiar bottle of nocino you’ll likely encounter. After the walnuts macerate for a year in glass demijohns exposed to sunlight, they’re aged in stainless-steel tanks for a minimum of four years, resulting in a viscous, coffee-like texture with a pronounced level of alcohol. $44| Buy
Where it’s made: Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
ABV: 38 percent
With organic farms in Tuscany and South Carolina, Italian-born Renato Vicario produces and imports an extensive range of Old World-inspired Italian liqueurs, ranging in flavor from olive leaf to mirto, or myrtle. His take on a classic nocino is fragrant and fruit-forward with a slightly bitter, nutty taste. $40| Buy
Don Ciccio & Figli Nocino
Where it’s made: Washington, D.C.
ABV: 29 percent
Francesco Amodeo turned to a 1933 family recipe for his take on nocino, which debuted in 2013. Made from hand-harvested green walnuts sourced from northern California, the cocktail-friendly blend has a long, rich finish of aromatic baking spice and a pronounced nuttiness. $30 | Buy
Forthave Spirits Black Nocino
Where it’s made: Brooklyn, New York
ABV: 24 percent
This limited-edition release from the Bed-Stuy distillery co-founders, Aaron Sing Fox and Daniel de la Nuez, is made from walnuts foraged in upstate New York with added flavors of Tahitian vanilla and lemon peel. Well-balanced and a bit dry, with a pronounced green walnut presence, it’s an ideal digestivo served chilled, or over a couple of ice cubes.
Watershed Distillery Nocino
Where it’s made: Columbus, Ohio
ABV: 21.7 to 24.3 percent (varies by batch)
First launched in 2014, this small-batch nocino is made with walnuts harvested from nearby Marysville, Ohio, and rounded out with cinnamon, vanilla, and a bit of clove. It’s on the drier side and owners Dave Rigo and Greg Lehman like to serve it neat or affogato-style over a bowl of Columbus’ own Jeni’s ice cream. $33| Buy
Cardinal Spirits Nocino
Where it’s made: Bloomington, Indiana
ABV: 39 percent
This Midwestern nocino is made from walnuts harvested from a family property in Fort Wayne, Indiana. After they’re macerated in a grape-based vodka the blend is flavored with vanilla beans, allspice berries, orange peel and star anise and sweetened with maple syrup from nearby Burton’s Maplewood Farm. $38 | Buy