A dark, sweet liquor that tastes a little like Jaegermeister, nocino is a traditional Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts.
Before I knew a mushroom to pick, before I had ever considered clipping a leafy green to cook from a field, I knew I could pick green walnuts and make nocino.
I don’t remember at exactly what time I picked it up, but it was early in my career while I was working at the old Trattoria da Vinci. I had always been drawn to Italian food, and when I got my first “real” kitchen job in the Twin Cities working for a chef from Rome at Da Vinci's I wanted to do everything like he did.
One day working with him, I got to talking about Nocino, or black walnut liquor. The clearest thing I remember gleaning somewhere along the line was that the nuts should be picked on the day coinciding with a saint, which I put off as some strange Catholic idiosyncrasy.
I had to try and make the stuff. I asked around and found out my grandparents had a couple black walnut trees on their property. For my maiden voyage, I went out and picked walnuts off the ground, but I had no idea what I was doing--any walnut would do.
Walnut shells, walnut cores with the green shell removed, brown walnuts, half rotten looking walnuts, they all went into the bag. A couple days later after leaving them outside for lack of fridge space, I ended up with a bag full of writhing maggots, and walnuts.
I did a little more research and decided to try and pick the walnuts when they were green, like all the recipes suggested. I tried again, picked all the semi-green walnuts I could find off the ground, and tried to figure out how to break the up.
The nuts were just about the hardest thing I’d ever encountered. I brought them into the kitchen at work, thinking there would be some tool available that would work to crack the nuts open.
Fool that I was, I ended up trying to crack open the nuts by beating on them with sauté pans, which only resulted in my throwing away sauté pans I had dented so badly they were completely unusable.
A hammer turned out to be the best bet, after getting a sore thumb from a couple bum whacks I got them cracked, grabbed some vodka and made my nocino.
It turned out ok (sugar makes anything taste good) albeit thick as molasses, a contribution the powdered mature husk gives off if you pick and try to use old nuts, which I don’t recommend.
How young/old should the walnuts be?
In a nutshell, picking the black walnuts on the saint’s day has nothing to do with the saint, but the saint’s day is early in the summer, when the walnuts are soft and the inner shells haven’t developed yet, a paring knife can easily slide through each nut and cutting them is a breeze. I learned my lesson.
As long as you can cut through the green nuts clean with a knife, you will be fine. Even if the nuts have started to form a shell, but the shell is still undeveloped it will still work.
Basic method: the maceration
It couldn't be easier to make nocino, all you need is strong grain alcohol (vodka can work but is not my first choice) and mix it with some unripe nuts, a few very select spices and herbs (or even none at all) put it in a jar, and let it sit for 30 days.
After 30 days, you strain the mixture, thin it and sweeten it a bit (preferably with a tree-based sweetener like maple syrup or my green walnut honey) then bottle it and let it rest for a good 6 months to allow the tannins to soften. That's it!
As far as the drink itself, the flavor will be different depending on what you put in it, but after making this so many times over the years, I have an important piece of advice for you: DONT GET TOO CREATIVE.
The real character of nocino is in the taste of the nuts themselves, and adding too much cinnamon or strong spices will give you a Christmas-tasting drink.
There is nothing wrong with making nocino with just a few walnuts and a couple cloves, as in 3-4 cloves for a quart jar. Some people add a few coffee beans, which can also be nice.
A few leaves of Galium triflorum, or a handful of chopped angelica stem can be excellent additions though. If you're not familiar with Galium triflorum, I describe it in my book, The Forager Chef's Book of Flora. There's also a recipe for Walnut Wine in the book, which I actually prefer to Nocino.
What's it taste like?
In a nutshell it will end up tasting a bit like black jelly beans, a little bit like Jaegermeister, but milder. After you make a few batches, you will begin to notice the particular flavor green walnuts add. It’s so much more though, after aging for a while it’s delicate, and the bitter tannins of the walnuts disappear, revealing a complex flavor underneath.
It’s great drizzled over ice cream or added to mixed drinks, but most of the time I just pull a jar of it out of the freezer and have a little straight up after dinner or before I turn in.
Making it has become a ritual for me, and I’ve become an evangelist of the stuff. In the restaurant I like to have my crystal decanters full of nocino on a little pedestal in the bar, now and then when I talk to a table I like I bring out the bottle, tell them my story and we each have a few sips, it’s a great way to end a meal.
My Nocino is too sweet/too strong
The basic recipe here may be too sweet for some people. Keep in mind this is more of an idea than an exact recipe, and that you can simply add maple syrup, sugar or water to your taste.
If you find the finished product too sweet or too strong when you are mixing it before the final aging, add some more water. Commercial nocino may be thinned by up to 50% or more.
Over the past few years there's been a steady increase in the interest of Nocino, and now there are a few different distilleries that make it commercially around the United States.
I work with one of those distilleries (Ida Graves from Alexandria) and I harvest about 2-3 hundreds pounds of green walnuts a year for them. Not all nocinos are created equal though, and I've tasted some commercial ones that are too young for my taste. Remember it takes a good 6 months for those tannins to soften!
Side note, we're still looking for distribution connections in a few states in the U.S. to help with distributing our product, so if you are in the industry, please reach out to me.
Nocino, Black Walnut Liquor
- 1 gallon mason jar
- 1 latex gloves
- 3 lbs unripe, green black walnuts soft enough that they can be easily cut with a knife
- 1.75 litre (7.4 cups) vodka or substitute everclear, see note
- 10 whole cloves or a combination of allspice or spicebush berries and cloves. You could also omit these and add ¼ cup of good coffee beans instead.
Recommended Optional Additions
- Small handful of Galium triflorum leaves or sweet woodruff Optional, but highly recommended
- 1 cup chopped angelica stem or root Optional
- 2-3 cups maple syrup or to taste, (see note)
- 1.75 cups water (see note)
- Wearing gloves, cut the walnuts in half.
- Combine all the ingredients for the maceration (walnuts, alcohol, spices, and other optional additions) in a glass jar or other non-reactive container and allow to infuse for a month in a cool dark place.
- After the one month maceration, strain the liquid, discard the solids. Strain the liquid through the finest strainer you have. There will be gunk in the bottom and lots of black-mucky looking material. You may need to wash the strainer during the process if it gets gunked up.
Thinning and sweetening
- Add the maple syrup and water until it tastes good to you. I suggest starting by adding 3 cups of water, and 3 cups of maple syrup, and adjusting from there.
- You may not want all of the syrup. It should be quite strong as this is served in small amounts, but the exact sweetness is up to you. Some people prefer it candy sweet, I like mine less-so. Do not be put off by the strong, tannic taste of the nocino at this point, it will take months for the tannins to soften.
Aging to soften the tannins
- Store the nocino in air tight containers, such as mason jars and allow to mature for at least 6 months. Taste it occasionally and you will notice how the tannins soften over time. I often keep it in the freezer and enjoy it chilled.
I have recently found this website and it's incredibly inspiring! I want to try this liquor. Just to make sure about the quantities for the everclear. 750ml? I have at my disposition angelica seeds but no fresh stems, I could substitue one for the other I guess? Thank you!
Hey thanks for catching that! I went through an upgrade putting all the recipes into widget form a while back and a lot of them got decimals stripped by the software in the process. It is 1.75 litres. Angelica seeds are very different from the fresh stem. Use dried angelica root instead, or omit and add another aromatic you like. Galium triflorum or sweet woodruff are excellent too.
Thank you for this extra quick reply! I haven't tasted Angelica stems before and could only have a smell of the seeds when I sowed them a few weeks ago (Hoping for the sucess of this experiment...). Knowing I will get 2 products with different tastes from it is even more interesting! Thanks again for the advice,
If you’re late to the game and your walnuts are still green but have hardened on the inside, would you maybe score them and soak them whole? The green part still smells bright and clean. Worth a shot?
Seems like your first batch with pretty mature walnuts turned out okay, figure mine are less ripe than those were...
I only use nuts that I can cut through.
Let's just suppose someone started a batch almost three years ago but forgot to strain it . . . Any hope for salvation?
Taste it. If it is still insanely tannic, strain it and forget about it for 6 months, then sample again. If it's still insanely tannic after that time, pitch it.
So I’m not the only one. There was a Pandemic, I’m not sure if it was 1-3 years.
If it’s too tannic, strain it anyway, bottle it and come back in a year. Mine from 2017 took 2 years until it was drinkable and last year it was really good. I just found a bottle in the cellar that is so smooth but I need to decant off of a lot of sediment.
Great tip Dan.
If you’re too late on the walnuts (I have a bunch that are still green, but the shell has already formed inside) - would it be best to score them and then steep? Or attempt to crack them open... or just steep them whole? Thanks!
As long as the hull smell good and citrusy, you can probably get away with cracking them or smashing with an axe or something like that.
I have seen other recipes where the maceration stage is up to 90 days. Do you have any experience with this? Is it worth the extra time? Thanks
I don't bother. 30 days is plenty for me.
Everclear is a brand name of rectified spirit produced by the American company Luxco. It is made from grain and is bottled at 120, 151, 189, and 190 U.S. proof.
Can you please specify which proof of alcohol you use?
A good distinction to make. While it might be the name of a spirit, if someone gave me 120 proof "everclear" I would question their character. I know 190 proof as the most traditional, and it's what I used here, but know this recipe is more of a guide, you can really tweak this to your taste, especially if you don't keep sweet, strong spirits around often.
Thanks for the info!
Here in Purtian New England, the highest proof alcohol we can get off the shelf is 151.
I have to ask for 190 behind the register and fill out paper work to the effect that I am making herbal medicine and not just consuming 190 proof alcohol. Lots of rig-a-ma-roll.
And a good reminder that the recipe is a jumping off point. I spoke with an herbalist friend looking to see if she had any angelica growing but she did not. However she offered up some angelica seed and said the seed should have the same flavor.
Have you explored using any thai spices like lemongrass or galangal root? Seems like if ginger is involved these could blend in!
Absolutely. In Minnesota, I had to travel to Wisconsin since the high proof stuff is illegal in MN.
As far as angelica, do not use the seeds in this. Besides the flavor of angelica varying between species a bit, sometimes greatly especially regarding bitterness, the seeds are not going to give you the flavor I really liked here and they have a different taste entirely from the stem or root. The best thing to do if you don't have access to some plants is to go to an Asian grocer and look for dried angelica root, most of them sell it for a reasonable price if they carry a decent amount of dried goods. It's also probably available online.
Yes, take into account that the recipes a starting point for you to make your own. This is usually potent stuff, so using 151, or even just vodka will still give you something interesting to pull out as a digestif. My version here is originally quite sweet too, since we would generally mix it with other things to make drinks at the bar. It's a blank slate, but keep a light hand with the spices, since there's a long maceration they can get annoyingly strong if you get too happy with them.
When you say "3lbs small black walnuts", do you mean after husked?
When you say "cut through the walnuts" do you mean cut through the shells? Because they are young?
Thank you, I hope to ry this base recipe out.
I think I get it now.
However, from my research, Black Walnut Syrup is far better and tastier than Maple syrup. Just thought I would mention, perhaps you might want to try your next batch with this as a sweetener instead of Maple. Just a thought.
Dave, they're young green walnuts, harvest them in the Early Summer. I pick them off the tree, and my old chef from Rome would say the 30th of June or something, a day that coincides with an Italian saint, is the traditional time to harvest them. I think black walnut syrup is ok, but using it as a sweetener, taking into account the larger volume of sap it takes to make compared to maple, is....nuts. 🙂
Is there anything that you can do with the walnuts after they've steeped in the alcohol and done their job? They taste relatively bland, they're soft, but alcoholic. it just seems like such a waste to throw them away.
P.S. I've already made a 2nd batch of Nocino with the solids from the strained first batch., and so my question relates to finding some use of these solids from the second batch.
Hi Shelly, let me share a piece of wisdom here I used to turn to often mentoring my younger cooks. Once and a while on the line, cooks (myself included here) would come up with ideas for how we could stretch the most out of ingredients. Somethings could be used twice, like a very strong brine for meat. Another good example is leftover overripe fruit from making flavored vinegars. More often than not though, saving leftovers from things was often a waste of labor. What you can save to get multiple uses out of can depend on the product, but in the case of the walnuts, the extended maceration takes a lot from them, and I would discard them, after I thank them for their service. If you find you like saving them to make second infusions though, you do you!
The spent shells make a GREAT, fragrant, addition to any compost pile. I can personally vouch for the fact the earthworms LOVE them. LOL.
Black Walnuts contain an alleopathic compound known as juglone. I think it is generally not recommended to add anything from a black walnut tree to your compost pile.
You're absolutely right. I don't pretend to be a master gardener.
I poured red vinegar over my leftovers and left for 6 months and resulting flavors are magical in my view.
Good to know. Thanks for sharing.
I just cut a walnut that I picked off a low hanging branch in half with a paring knife, so I'm ready to go, and pretty excited. The dried angelica root I can find online is by weight rather than volume. How much do you think 2 cups would weigh?
Hey there. So dried angelica is stronger than the fresh product. I would start with 1/4 cup or even a little less. Not an exact science. You can skip it too.
I’m getting this together to make, one question, is it better to seal the jar completely or put an airlock on it like when I’m making wine?
No air flow needed as there is no fermentation.
Hey first off I am very excited to try this recipe! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I have a few questions. First it says "toast the spices" Is this all spices? How do you recommend toasting them? And second it says 60d macerating time up top but then also says "for your first try id start with 3 to 6 months" Do you mean macerate for 60 days then strain and let sit for an additional 1 to 4 months? Or macerate for the full 3 to 6 months strain and then let sit for longer?
Thank you for your time! Love the site. Excited to try more recipes!
Thanks Aiden, I reworded it so that it's more clear. Have fun.
I made a batch of Nocino 2 years ago that somehow went very wrong. The process was the same as yours: clean green nuts with soft white shells from late June, halved and soaked in 190 for a month, then strained. The resulting product was entirely undrinkable. Not just bitter, but actually painful. Burning and itching my mouth and throat, and upsetting my stomach. I filled six 750ml bottles and put them away to see if they would mellow out. Now two years later, it has mellowed enough to taste the other flavors, but remains undrinkably bitter. My theory after reading your post, is that my mistake was shaking it frequently during the month it was infusing (per the instructions I followed), then failing to strain it adequately. So here’s my question: have you experienced batches this tannic? Any suggestions for getting it to mellow?
Pat, I haven't. Every batch I've made, after sitting for 6 months or so, has been nice and mellow. If you have my book, the black walnut wine will be more to your liking, it uses a lower proportion of nuts to wine, and I prefer it to nocino. It's not online though, and won't be for some time.
Could possibly be a tree nut allergy developing. My friend had the same sort of symptoms when she was developing an allergy to hazelnuts.
Alan, you put so much care into responding to people’s comments, it’s amazing. The recipe does still have a header that states it’s a 60 day macerate period and then in your written directions, it says “after 30 days…” Just letting you know. Thanks for all the great recipes and ideas!
Thanks for the copy edit. I changed that. There's about 600 recipes on here and I update them with tweaks regularly to try my best to dial them in as good as I can. Gets to be a little much sometimes. 🙂
For the maceration, do you cover with a cheesecloth? Or lid? Sorry...I've never made anything like this and am unsure if it needs air or not. Thanks!
Glass or other non-reactive container with a tight fitting lid. Cheesecloth could invite ants. It does not need to breathe.
Isn’t the North American ‘Black Walnut’ juglone highly toxic to humans as well? Juglans nigra, the North American species that I often see mentioned on forager blogs co rains the highest concentration of juglone, while the European or old world Juglans species (any bud them as at least four are used in Italy in producing nocino) contain lower concentrations of juglone and perhaps contain more flavorful compounds not found in the highly bitter North American Black Walnut? In Italy at least two European species are called Black Walnut as a common name but all are distinct species. I might add caution to anyone assuming that American black walnuts are the same. Butternuts might be a more suitable substitute but I’m not certain about their shell toxicity, yet the concentration in Juglans nigra is well documented and unique in the genus. If I was making this I’d try to find English Walnuts perhaps.
Matt, I appreciate your caution but this is an alarmist comment. The amount of juglone contained in N.A. equivalents is not anything to worry about. There is widespread ethnobotical documentation of entire unripe black walnuts being used in sauces and other things where the whole nut is cooked and consumed in some form dating back past the 19th century, and those recipes call specifically for North American black walnuts (Butternuts could be a fine substitute). Before you jump to such conclusions I would study if the plant you want to condemn is actually a well-documented traditional food.
Thanks for the tips on making Nocino. I made two batches this year at the same time with unripe nuts from a couple of trees- one batch turned out as expected, dark brown/black with decent flavor. The other however stayed a lighter brown/greenish yellow color and did taste and smell a bit more tannic and more like the unripe nuts, however, still drinkable. I am curious if you have ever had the issue as with my second batch not developing the right color and flavor profiles. My hypothesis is that the majority of nuts I used were from a different tree, possibly TOO unripe? I'm just guessing as this was my first try at nocino and was hoping you might have an idea. Thank you!
It is impossible for the nuts to be "too unripe". What could be the culprit is if the green nuts were aborted by the tree or rejected somehow, meaning they would grow but would not contain nuts. Remember different trees can have different mast cycles and some dependably reject their nuts. I've seen a couple examples of nocino turning out as you describe here but have never seen it personally.
I’ve found that branch snipping shears work great in cutting the walnuts neatly in half. Makes less mess when they are harder and saves your thumbs.
I do have a question though. This is my first time making Nocino. Either in late July or the first of August I put my walnuts/spices and Titos into a gallon jar. The jar I bought turn out to not be airtight at all and can seep if I tilt it too far. It’s already been sitting out on my kitchen counter for at least a week. The season is too late to start over and I really want to save this if I can. Am I going to get sick if I drink this? And if I transfer just the liquid (since I don’t have a gallon mason jar) into airtight jars will it both taste good and be food safe?
No google searches have been helpful in answering this and I can’t quite determine if the weird brown chunks are from my citrus peels or something more sinister.
Mac, it will be completely, utterly safe. Alcohol is a preservative. Have no fear.
Hey - thanks so much for all the info! I recently made my first two batches of nocino, which are lacerating right now and about three weeks in. The batches look VERY different though and I’m wondering if you might have an idea why.
One batch was made with walnuts picked in Virginia around July 15th. They were a little difficult to cut but I was able to do it with a knife. Second batch was picked a week later in NJ. Batch 1 is just everclear, walnuts, and coffee beans. Batch 2 is everclear, walnuts, some lemon and orange peel, cinnamon, and vanilla bean.
In Both batches the everclear turned dark very quickly. As in, by day 2 or 3 they were already as dark or darker than your day 30 picture.
At this point, batch one is a dark brown, and the walnuts are dark brown, yellow, and green similar to your pic.
Batch two is blaaaaaack. A dark greenish black. And the walnuts themselves are totally black. It looks like a frightening death brew.
Only difference between the batches aside from ingredients is that for batch 2, I initially Mixed the ingredients with the everclear, but the vessel I had wasn’t quite large enough so I went and bought a bigger jar, and the next day switched the contents to the bigger jar, and then added the remaining walnuts and everclear.
Any thoughts on why they may look so different, and whether the pitch black drew will kill me?
It won't hurt you. I occasionally see variations in color.
Just getting ready to start a batch and excited to find a use forn he walnuts in our tree before the squirrels eat them all!
One thing I'm not clear on, at what point do you ad the Angelica and - in my case - coffee beans? During maceration?
I did not add any spices or citrus peel to one batch of my nocino. After 40 days of maceration, i strained the walnut solids out and added sugar. Is it too late to add some spices or citrus?
No citrus or spices needed.
I bought your book after finding you somehow! I love it! I just strained my maceration and I missed adding the spices. I already added water and sugar...is it too late to add the coffee beans during the six month softening period? I'm so sad that I missed reading that part in the recipe.
It's ok, add them and allow to soak for 30 days or so, then strain them out. You'll be fine!
I followed your recipe, although I was a bit late getting my walnuts, as they were hard (but not impossible) to slice with a knife. After soaking for a month in vodka, I recently strained and mixed with sugar and water as instructed. You mention that the liquid will be murky and thick when straining, but mine wasn't. Is that a sign that it didn't infuse long enough? I used a pretty fine mesh strainer, so I don't think that was the issue. Any thoughts?
There can occasionally be some variation in color, and I have seen some that are light brown-not necessarily bad. If your nuts had shells forming they were too old.
Somewhere in your nocino making/black walnut posts you mention nocino wine but not how you make it. How long do/would you infuse your green walnuts in wine? Another site that I visited while learning to make nocino suggests reusing/infusing the walnuts left from nocino making in wine but didn't say for how long. And after infusing do you allow to age for roughly the same amount of time? This year is my maiden voyage for both and I'm so excited about it!
Thank you for all the great info on everything black walnuts!
Hey Jeannie, yes, I do make walnut wine, and it is fantastic. I would say I prefer it to nocino, it's almost like amaro crossed with sherry or something. The recipe for it is only in my book. It may go online, but it would be in the next couple years. It's similar to nocino, but the proportion of nuts to liquid are very different.
Thanks for your quick reply. I'll buy the book!
What size jar to I started with? 1 gallon or 1/2 gallon?
I'd start with 1 gallon. Let me know if you need any pointers. The time for harvesting green walnuts in North America is long past now though. You want them in June ideally.
This stuff is fantastic!!!!
Finally cracked it open after getting the walnuts late june
Made a drink with it too that ended up being decent:
1:1:1 (ish) nocino, cointreau, and tanqueray and a dash of angostura bitters
quasi riff on a negroni
Sounds great Sean.
I made some homemade nocino for the first time this summer. I have two jars now and one is a dark brown and the other is a dark green. I’m not sure why they ended up being different colors since they were from the same batch and macerated in the same jar. It’s my understanding that it should end up being a brown color, so I’m worried that something weird happened with the green one that would make it unsafe to consume. They taste a little different, the brown one is a little smoother. Maybe the green jar was just sealed more tightly and didn’t oxidize as much?
Expect some variation. To be honest, I don't know what causes it. All of my versions have always come out black as night, and need heavy filtering, but I tried a batch from Ellen Zachos that was light brown like brandy. Some of the best nocino I've had. Sorry I can't tell you why there's color variation.
I'm a beekeeper and often make kombucha and make it with honey - I prefer it over sugar. So, have you tried Honey as a sweetener or have you had feedback from those who have? Cheers
Totally fine to use honey as a sweetener here. FWIW though, I never use it in clear infusions as honey makes a cloudy, grew finished product-not a big deal here as the finished product is black.
My supervisor recently gave me and others at our firehouse a bottle of limoncello that he made. I want to return the favor by making this recipe. We have a huge black Walnut tree on our property and usually toss them out. We used to harvest them and use a table vice to break open the extremely hard shell because our thumbs couldn't stand any more pain from the hammer method. This looks like a fantastic recipe for the black walnuts that we deal with every year and I'm sure that our captain will love it.
Hi Chef. I am making some 30 liters of nocillo for the first time, from some 100 year old black walnut trees on my property. I see references to using young leaves for it's own type of nocino. Would you suggest adding some sapling leaves to the green walnut batches? These leaves are wonderfully aromatic.
Some old recipes use leaves, but they are not at the stage you want them at right now. They must be young, bright green and tender to be aromatic.
I have some cultivated celery going to seed— could this be an OK sub for Angelica?
No. Don't worry about the angelica.
This is my second year making nocino. The batch I made last year by macerating unripe black walnuts, spices, and sugar in vodka for about a month before straining and aging smells bad! Not sure what went south. I will hang on to that regardless and see if it improves any with age. This year I used 151 proof grain alcohol, lighter spices, macerated for 40 days, and it smells amazing! I also made a batch with Manchurian walnuts, 151 proof grain alcohol, nothing else and that smells nice too. Does the sweetener have to be added before the 6 month aging? I'm thinking I could flavor small batches of simple syrup to add just before serving. That way I could easily experiment with different herb and spice combinations especially on the Manchurian walnut maceration where no herbs and spices were added.
I made nocino using three different recipes. I used green Chandler walnuts from California and vodka. All three recipes taste horribly medicinal. I’ve let them sit for three years with little improvement. Where did I go wrong?
I've never used green chandler walnuts. I've only used Juglans nigra. Are you sweetening it?