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The Sweetness of Nocino

From Issue 94

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While the origin of nocino can be debated until eternity, and that it is distilled all over the world in various formulations, it’s no question and likely tough to dispute that nocino (pronounced no-chee-no) can be considered uniquely Italian. It goes back to Roman times and the ingredients are as basic as you can get: unripe walnuts, spices, natural spirits and a mix of other ingredients depending on the country.


The first time I tasted nocino was in Italy several years ago. It was a classic spur-of-the-moment adventure with Stefano, Luigi and Stefania to visit Marco at his place called Ecofattorie Sabine —an amazing deli and restaurant in Poggio Mirteto. Though it was afterhours, Stefano assured us in his raspy smoker voice that Marco would still be there. Luigi, the kingpin of this adventure and a former commercial pilot with Alitalia, also assured us that Marco was home and that we’d only be there an hour or so. If there’s one thing you should know, any type of adventure with an Italian that involves, cheese, meat and booze will not be one hour, but four. It’s Italian math that I’m well versed in. Luciana, Luigi’s partner, rolls her eyes when you mention Luigi’s promise of anything involving booze and food lasting just one hour.


Finally, hour four hits and nocino makes an appearance. It came in a rough-looking bottle with no label and frankly was intimidating at first sight. It was as dark as an espresso and, with a quick sniff, as sweet smelling as maple syrup. “What is this?” They chuckle, say the name and pour each of us a small glass. “Just-uh sip it-uh.” It’s an aperitif, not like Jägermeister, but something far sweeter and manageable. There’s no wicked anise flavor but instead cane sugar and a variety of spices. It goes down smooth and while Stefania found it not to her liking, I enjoyed it. It’s nutty and slightly bitter and can be enjoyed with a big square ice cube or neat at room temperature. You don’t get the full flavor of walnuts because of the spices, but they’re in there, accounted for and are the base of the liqueur. I had two glasses and was fulfilled and, with Luciana wondering where we were, we headed back to our place in Selci satisfied, full and warm. I was an instant fan.

Back home in Portland, Oregon, we caught up with Tom Burkleaux, the head distiller and owner of New Deal Distillery to get the intel on how and why he makes nocino.

Why nocino? One of the best parts of being a craft distiller is having a “kitchen” to play in. I mean, we’re always trying our hand at new spirits and seeing what ingredients are around. A few years ago, I discovered my friend had a bountiful walnut tree in his backyard. So we harvested green walnuts one summer and let it sit for over a year. This was just for us, and we gave it away at the holidays as gifts to our staff and friends. A few harvests later we said, “Hey, this is really good, let’s release a small batch for the holidays each year.” And we did.

For the nocino rookies out there, how would you describe the taste? Nocino is, not surprisingly, nutty, but not like ripened walnuts. Harvested green means there is a delightful bitter that has to be balanced with sugar. In traditional recipes, nocino can be spiced with clove, cinnamon, vanilla bean, lemon zest and other holiday and baking spices. We’ve played around each year with how we spice it. It has a richness that makes it a nice winter drink.

Where do you get the unripe walnuts and what’s your particular process for making nocino? Green (unripe) walnuts have to be foraged. Because they are green, you have to go up in the tree and get them! And we have to go out and find the trees. Throughout our city and nearby farmlands are trees on public land where it’s legal to urban forage. It’s this beautiful ingredient all around us that is literally going to waste if you don’t harvest it.

And they have to be harvested at a particular time, when the green walnut is still easily cut by a knife. In Italian tradition, the harvest is on St. John’s Day, which is June 24. For New Deal, we start around late June, and harvest into early July. That means, a few times a week, we go out into the city and find trees and pick walnuts. It’s a lot of work over a few weeks to make enough nocino for maybe 20 or 30 cases.

Locally, there are many English walnut trees, and some black walnuts. The English walnuts have a softer aroma, while the black walnut has a strong, almost musky smell. We harvest both and decide later how we’ll blend.

We don’t really have a particular process, since we like to play around each year and try new things. The basic process is to take the fresh-harvested green walnuts, cut in half and then cover with spirit. We’ve used both grain spirit and brandy. Depends on what we have. You can add spice immediately or after you remove the walnuts many months later. While many recipes call from a summer harvest and removing at the holidays, we like to let the nocino infuse for a year and a half. The flavor is better that way.…

Once we pull, we sugar, blend and spice to taste, depending on our mood that winter.

Drinking it on its own is great, but what would you say is the perfect cocktail that incorporates nocino? Our staff’s two favorite nocino cocktails were the Solstice Negroni or the Negroni Sour. I really like the Negroni Sour.

What type of music pairs well with Nocino? Anything that makes you want to dance!

Any new products down the pike for New Deal? We’ve been getting ready to release a selection of four- and five-year bourbons and ryes. Also, we have a single-barrel American single malt over five years old that was part of a Distillery Row project. We wanted to do a spring release on all these whiskies, but being safe is the current priority. But we hope soon!

Along with nocino, New Deal Distillery makes vodka, gin, whiskey, and other specialty liqueur.

Solstice Negroni

Tastes like the holidays in a glass.
1 oz Gin No.1 (or bourbon if you prefer a boulevardier)
1 oz nocino
1 oz Campari
Stir with ice. Strain into a chilled glass or over a large cube.
Garnish with an orange twist.

Nocino Sour

Merry and bright—the perfect pick-me-up.
1 oz bourbon
1 oz nocino
.25 oz fresh lemon juice
.5 oz simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake with ice and strain over a large cube.
Garnish with lemon twist.

From issue 94, buy it here.