Tales From The Top Shelf: Nocino

Steve Sculley of Tony K's will show you just where to find it.
Steve Sculley of Tony K's will show you just where to find it. Photo by Kate McLean
A whiff of Amaretto will bring you to your knees. Nocino, on the other hand, has you grabbing a change of clothes and off to the airport buying tickets to Vegas on the way. This walnut liqueur is that good and it just so happens to be the best time of year to enjoy some.

Maybe the rarity of Nocino is why it feels so special, or maybe it’s the strong capturing of walnut essence. Served neat, on ice— it probably doesn’t suck poured over ice cream? Ever had a Godmother? Dancing with Vodka, Nocino makes an especially classy partner while Amaretto isn’t looking. They call that a “Single Aunt Denise.”

While the Italians have curated Nocino for centuries, the roots of this ancient beverage actually dates back to the Druids.

(Chimes begin playing in the background.)

A very long time ago, Scotland was inhabited by a magical race called the Druids. Every year on June 24th, the Druids would harvest unripened walnuts, make a brew, have a party, start tripping out, and then “goblins, elves, and goddesses” would show up.

When the Romans arrived to Britannia in 55 BC and got to know the Druids a little better, the consensus was, “wow.” The Druids were by far, the most batshit crazy group of people Rome had ever tried to conquer—and Rome got around. The Romans eventually decided, “never mind” and left the island, bringing home to Italy the tradition of making Nocino.

Centuries later and people still partook in the beloved, yearly event. In an effort to make these festivities feel a little less pagan, the Catholic Church re-marketed it as the feast day for St. John the Baptist, or San Giovanni. They further sprinkled superstition into the mix by using barefoot virgins to climb up into the trees to harvest the nuts, and by adding bonfires, which scared off local nut-grabbing witches.

Because throughout history, whenever something important needed to be done, powerful old men always found a way to incorporate barefoot virgins. Making wine? Barefoot virgins. Picking super special tea leaves? Barefoot virgins. Human sacrifice to offset a famine? Barefoot virgins. Doesn’t sound like the most ideal gig, but then again they never really had a choice.

Fast forward to present day and the harvesting of “green” walnuts on the feast day of San Giovanni is still the celebrated way of making Nocino. Chopped and mixed with baking spices, these walnuts spend three months submerged within a neutral grain spirit, like vodka. Afterward, the infusion is strained and sweetened with simple syrup. Nocino is a lot like limoncello in process as well as it's hard to find an authentic batch on the shelves.

Nocino is made all over Italy, but especially embraced in the Emilia-Romagna region. Whereas, Piedmont has Barolo and white truffles, Emilia-Romagna has: pasta, Prosciutto, Bolognese, Parmigiano, Balsamico, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati... but, in terms of cuisine Emilia-Romagna is pretty well stacked.

Don Ciccio & Figli, a craft distillery out of Washington D.C. makes Nocino according to the Amodeo family tradition. A bottle of Don Ciccio & Figli Nocino is available at Tony K’s Home of Fine Spirits, 2720 Bissonnet, for $37.49. I would advise you stick with craft distillers when sourcing Nocino. Otherwise, they're too sweet and synthetic.

You may kiss the ring now.

click to enlarge Kiss it. - SCREENSHOT
Kiss it.
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