Not familiar with nocino? You should be. It’s prime season for this Italian liqueur, which is distilled from walnuts and a great addition to many cocktails.
Nocino is made from green, unripe walnuts. The crop is steeped in an alcoholic base and ultimately mixed with simple syrup. The result is a dark-hued spirit with a bittersweet flavor that’s both earthy and nutty. In Emilia-Romagna (also the home of beloved chef Massimo Bottura) where it was born, families often make their own, adding their own special mixtures of herbs and spices.
Like so many ancient drinks, the earliest uses of nocino were often medicinal. Users believed it helped with stomach issues and fended off the plague. In its modern Italian home, the liqueur is being made earlier and in lower quantities thanks to climate change. Overall, though, you can still find the stuff in most specialty stores, and it’s a great base to play around with. There are even some domestic options, like this one from Ohio.
How should you enjoy this unique walnut liqueur? Start out having it neat after a big meal as a digestif. If you’re a mixed drink kind of person, try it out in classic whiskey cocktails like the Manhattan or old fashioned. It’s even great plugged into things like milk punch and coffee-centric cocktails. Play around — you’ll like what it can do, and a little bit can go a long way.
Jason Asher is a bartender with more than two decades of hospitality experience. The Phoenix native opened Century Grand in 2019, which houses a trio of bars under a single roof. The bartending veteran mixes with nocino now and again and loves how it works with certain spirits.
He says he first tried nocino about 20 years back, thinking it was a little weird and a bit reminiscent of a Pedro Ximenez sherry. “But the product that has been coming out in recent years is a lot more complex, and there is a lot more diversity in the category, with varying flavors and styles of Nocino,” he says.
For a liqueur built around a single ingredient, nocino is surprisingly versatile. “It plays well with everything, but it’s the modifier set—” i.e., what other ingredients are in the drink “—that is the key,” he says. “In small amounts, it can play nicely with gin cocktails. It can be a refreshing and robust ingredient.”
Here are a few nocino recipes for intriguing new cocktails to try out.
This Manhattan-like drink is a thing of beauty and really takes advantage of nocino’s unique flavor profile. “For this drink, our goal was to extract the notes of oxidation from the process of drying the green walnuts,” Asher says. “Sotolin is the chemical/molecule (maple-like flavor) that you find in oxidized wines and fruit. The green walnut plays well with the banana and the funkiness of the Jamaican Rum.”
- 2 ounces Worthy Park Jamaican Rum
- 1/4 ounce Carpano Dry Vermouth
- 1/4 ounce Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
- 1/4 ounce Vicario Nocino
- 1/8 ounce Giffard Créme de Banana
- 1/8 ounce M&R Select Bitter
- Orange peel
- Stir all ingredients over ice in a cocktail glass.
- Squeeze essence of orange peel over glass and place in drink.
“This cocktail was inspired by an early morning walk in the woods while you’re hunting,” Asher says. “Think wet morning in the forest — you’d smell the dampness, the pine (burnt rosemary), and fresh air.” He adds that the blueberry liqueur comes into play, as one would normally have wild game with wild berries.
Asher is reminded of gin when he thinks about green walnuts, as they’re both floral and earthy. “The nocino in this drink — we are using it in conjunction with really lightening ingredients. The vetiver root is similar to lemongrass, the lo-fi vermouth is light and refreshing, and blueberry liquor. Although it’s a Cognac drink, it’s really refreshing and beautiful.”
Fear not if you lack these specific tinctures like most of us; you can still make a mean cocktail with the rest of the ingredients or similar substitutes. The in-house drink at Asher’s bar uses rosemary vape (hence the cloud above the drink), but you can get away with a close second at home without a vaporizer and rosemary oil.
- 1 1/2 ounces Remy 1738 Cognac
- 1/2 ounce Mirtillo Vergnano liqueur
- 1/2 ounce Pio Cesare Barolo Chinato
- 1/4 ounce Vicario Nocino
- 1/4 ounce Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth
- 1 dash rosemary tincture
- 1 dash vetiver root tincture
- 1 lemon peel
- Rosemary sprig for garnish
- Stir all ingredients except cognac and strain into glass without ice.
- Add cognac, discard lemon peel, and garnish with rosemary sprig.
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