When Eric Davis, a server at Nightwood who also helps create the restaurant's cocktails, came into a cache of black walnuts courtesy of Michigan's Bare Knuckle Farm, one of the restaurant's suppliers, he decided to take a crack at nocino, a spicy, chocolate-colored after-dinner liqueur that's hard to find stateside.
According to food writer Waverly Root, nocino (pronounced no-CHEE-no) originated in the foothills of the Apennines mountains in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, an area known as the gustatory Eden of a country with culinary delights all along the peninsula. The general recipe involves quartered green (i.e., not fully ripened) walnuts, citrus peel, cloves, and cinnamon, which are covered with neutral high-proof spirits in a sealed jar, then left to steep for several months. The resulting liquid is strained, and often cut with sugar syrup.
But in the same way that Italian cooks argue about what goes into (or doesn't go into) authentic Bolognese sauce, no two nocino recipes are alike. La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy, an exhaustive compendium of traditional recipes compiled by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, notes that the walnuts are ideally gathered on June 24, the feast day of Saint John, before the shells have gotten too hard. According to this source, the sugar syrup used to cut the mixture after it steeps is supposed to be made with red wine and more spices.
There are a few brands of nocino available commercially, but really it's one of those things that are best homemade. It's like the difference between drinking limoncello made from delicately scented lemons grown on the Amalfi coast and the often rather crude versions available in stores here in the U.S., which tend to be more evocative of furniture polish than lemon groves.
Davis had never tasted the real thing—only a commercial version made in Austria—but he did have a lot of experience making bitters, fruit syrups, and experimental liqueurs. "The approach is not all that different," he says. "I had perused about a dozen online recipes. . . . The main difference is what liquor to use, and how much to cut it [with sugar syrup]. Most of them have a similar content in terms of the spices."
Adding some green walnuts he'd gathered at a relative's property in Wisconsin, Davis chopped up the nuts into quarters and loaded them into sterilized quart-size mason jars. Then he went a little off the beaten path, packing cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, citrus peel, and candied ginger into the jars. But he really went off-piste when it came to the spirits. Most recipes call for vodka or grain spirits, or even grappa. Instead, Davis used a high-proof rum, El Dorado 151—an unusual, untraditional, and possibly controversial choice. "I thought it would complement the flavor, provide a little more structure," says Davis, explaining that the brand is made with demerara (aka turbinado) sugar, which gives it a "nice caramelly flavor." Whatever alcohol is used, Davis says, he's learned quality is important—impurities can cause off flavors. "If you try to save five bucks, it's not worth it."
After letting the jars sit for about three or four months, he strained the liquid and cut a test batch with simple syrup, an optional step he says was necessary in this case due to the high proof of the rum. Satisfied with the ratio, he let everything sit another month to allow the flavors to mingle and mellow. "It turned such a strange color, sort of like motor oil . . . like something that has gone beyond rancid," he says.
At Nightwood in Pilsen in the early evening a few weeks ago, Davis poured a few drops of the dark brown liquid—which looks like balsamic vinegar in its glass bottle—into small wineglasses. He took a sip and looked thoughtful. "Every time I taste it it's different," he says. "Originally I thought the orange was too aggressive, now I think it's more allspice. Maybe it's the temperature." In fact, it's remarkably complex—sweet but not cloying, spicy, tangy, and cooling all at once, leaving a clean taste on the palate. It's similar to amaro, but with more dimension and depth.
In Italy nocino is traditionally drunk after meals to settle a full stomach. At Nightwood it's incorporated into whiskey-based cocktails, but it can also be enjoyed on the rocks or with soda, as an aperitif. Davis suggests treating it like sweet vermouth and likes his chilled—"it takes the edge off." If you want to try it, better hurry: they're down to the last quart of Davis's original batch, but he's planning on making another this year—as soon as the walnuts are ready.