Toward the end of last summer, in attempt to find relief from the unrelenting Virginia sun, I was resting in the shade of one of my tall black walnut trees when a strong breeze knocked about 20,000 walnuts out of the tree.
As I ran for cover, I dodged projectiles as they shot by me like hail stones. Once out of the danger zone, I turned around and surveyed the lawn of my very old Virginia farm, realizing, slowly, that the thousands of nuts that had just fallen around me were but a fraction of the total that would drop. The seven black walnut trees, each taller than my home, spewed forth their bitter fruit at an alarming rate.
A black walnut actually starts out green, covered in a fleshy husk about the color of an unripe orange. In size and heft, they resemble squash balls made out of stucco. Cut into one or squash it open by driving over it, and you reveal a nicotine khaki flesh, with a distinctive bitter smell. (Even a cursory fooling with them will leave your fingers stained like those of a forlorn French soldier chain-smoking in a World War I trench.) The nut gets its name because it turns black on the ground after falling from the tree.
Black walnuts are not, in other words, inviting.
Faced with a bounty, however questionable, I try to look for a creative solution. If my family had, say, moved to Italy instead of Virginia when we left New York’s Hudson Valley, one of the yearly rituals we would have surely embraced was gathering walnuts and making the warming, aromatic liqueur, nocino. Stay with me here.
So, faced with the prospect of bushels and bushels of black walnuts, I texted my resourceful friend Toby Cecchini, owner of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar and author of bartending memoir, Cosmopolitan. (He’s also famously made a version of the traditional British sloe gin with wild plums he harvested himself in Cape Cod.) I asked him: “Do you know if I could make nocino out of American black walnuts, of which I have approximately six tons?”
Moments later his response came: “My father made amazing nocino out of American black walnuts every year. I even have his recipe somewhere, though you can basically figure it out yourself: Everclear, sugar, citrus peels, lots of black walnuts when they’re green in the late summer or autumn.”
If you haven’t read Cosmopolitan, shame on you. If you have, you know that Toby’s dad did not mess around. He took the pedestrian Gin & Tonic, for instance, and elevated it to an art form. I was inspired, to say the least. Perhaps there was some hope for this endeavor after all.
I filled a gallon-mason jar with walnuts, which I had hacked up with a cleaver. Then I added cinnamon sticks, sugar, cloves, vanilla beans, orange zest, and the strongest vodka I could get my hands on. I let this infusion sit for several months. I was hoping it would be ready in time for the holidays, but a small taste of the stuff told me that it wasn’t.
It was palate stripping. It was as bitter as a DMV clerk the summer before retirement.
If one was looking for a prop to use in a play about poisoning people, my nocino would have been perfect. In the glass it was mostly black, with a chlorophyll tinge around the edge. It did not look like something you should drink, nor was the nose or taste encouraging. If you were brave enough to taste it a second time, you might find something alluring. Some vegetal depth hidden behind the shock of a dust-dry tannic assault.
But like any good home tinkerer, I didn’t pour it down the drain. Instead, I put it back on the shelf.
I also got a sample of craft nocino brand, Don Ciccio and Figli, which is made in Washington, D.C. The fantastic liqueur is sweet and subtle. It’s the pleasant color of an amaro, and has a lot of vanilla and cinnamon on the nose, balanced out by an undercurrent of walnuts. The mouthfeel is smooth and slick. It’s gorgeous.
I realized straightaway that my own experiment wasn’t anywhere near sweet enough. It also triggered a memory of my first attempt at making jam from scratch. I had pounds of apricots off of a tree that grew in my yard and was amazed by how much sugar I needed to add to the fruit. (One pound of apricots? Use a pound of sugar.)
I strained one of my gallon jars of black walnut nocino, and ended up with about a quart and a half of liqueur. In the month or so since I’d last tasted it, the spirit had evened out a bit, but it was still a punch in the face.
So, remembering my apricot jam, I made two cups of simple syrup and added it to an equal amount of my walnut liqueur. While I’m not going to start selling this stuff, it suddenly became a very worthwhile experiment and it makes a hell of a cocktail.
It’s particularly good in a nocino version of a Manhattan. But if you don’t have a black walnut tree in your yard, pick up a bottle of Don Ciccio & Figli, and get stirring!
2 oz Rye whiskey1 oz Nocino2 dashes Orange bittersGlass: CocktailGarnish: Orange or lemon twist
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into your favorite cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange or lemon.