Nocino is a rich, dark brown Italian liqueur made from green walnuts steeped in vodka and spices. It’s earthy and spicy and takes six weeks to finish, meaning start it in the summer and it’s ready just in time for cool fall evenings and perfect for holiday gifts.

Share story

Every summer I’m reminded of the old Aesop fable involving the ant and the grasshopper. In it, the grasshopper sings and dances away summer while the ant dutifully stocks away food for the coming winter. Predictably, when winter rolls around the grasshopper is starving and begging the ant for food.

Despite the fable’s intention of teaching a lesson that involves the value of planning for the future, I always find myself identifying with the grasshopper — and how could you not? Summer is all about singing and dancing, gorging on everything from ripe, juicy tomatoes and melon to cucumbers and corn without a care in the world.

It’s not about turning those cucumbers into pickles to be eaten later; it’s about living for the now and slicing them up to top a baby lettuce salad.

However, if there’s one thing that could bring about an ant’s mentality and make one think about the future (when it comes to food at least), it’s nocino.

Also called “vin de noix,” nocino is a rich, dark brown Italian liqueur made from green (or underripe) walnuts steeped in vodka and spices, like cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise and lemon zest. It’s earthy and spicy and takes six weeks to finish, meaning it’s ready just in time for cool fall evenings and perfect for holiday gifts.

In a city like Seattle it’s surprisingly easy to procure green walnuts. There are quite a few walnut trees around the area where you might be able to forage your own. The trees have smooth bark with smooth, dull green leaves. The walnuts are a speckled light green and range in size from quite small when very immature to golf-ball size.

If rooting around alleys isn’t sounding appealing, green walnuts can be found at the University farmers market on Saturdays, sold by Mair Farm-Taki.

If all else fails, walnuts can be procured online from sites like localharvest.org.

The caveat is to get to the walnuts while they are still soft inside and can be sliced easily. Historically in Italy the harvest date was June 24 to coincide with the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but depending on location and the weather on any given year, you can usually harvest walnuts that are soft anywhere from mid-June to mid-July.

Soon after harvest they will start to blacken, so be sure to use them within two days after harvesting. If you aren’t able to get to them immediately, store them in a cool, dry place.

Once the time is right to get your nocino started, you’ll need a liter of vodka for every three dozen walnuts and a sterilized glass jar large enough to fit the walnuts and liquid while keeping the walnuts and additional ingredients submerged.

In addition to turning black after picking, the walnuts are likely to turn your cutting board and hands black as you cut. Wear gloves and use a cutting board that is fine to be stained, rinsing it as soon as you are finished cutting.

Slice the walnuts into quarters and place in the jar with granulated white sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves, lemon zest and a vanilla bean. Pour in the vodka, cover the jar and shake to combine. Write the date on the jar with a grease pencil or on a piece of tape, along with the date six weeks from now, and place in a cool spot where you won’t forget about it, as you’ll be shaking the jar daily.

The first few days the jars might look cloudy, darkening each day. Before too long, the jars will have this intense, swampy green color — which is completely normal — and after a few weeks will settle into a deep, dark brown.

Once six weeks has passed, strain out the solids and transfer into smaller bottles, if you wish. Be careful with the solids, as these will stain whatever they encounter. Once strained and corked, the nocino should last a few years if kept stored in a cool, dark place.

Pat your ant-like self on the back while sipping nocino on the rocks or even poured over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. It also pairs well with bourbon or brandy in cocktails and — if you can hold out that long — as an ingredient in eggnog.

Nocino

Makes 1 quart

36 green walnuts
2 cinnamon sticks
5 whole cloves
1 vanilla bean, sliced
Zest of one lemon
2 ½ cups sugar
1 liter vodka

  1. Wash and pat dry walnuts, slice into quarters. Place all ingredients in a large, sterilized glass jar. Pour in vodka. Stir to combine.
  2. Cover and date the jar. Shake daily to mix up ingredients.
  3. After six weeks, strain and discard solids. Pour into small bottles if desired.

— Adapted from “Room for Dessert” by David Liebovitz