It’s been about four years since we our first Nocino. The Italian Walnut Liqueur is a staple for many families fall meals, used as an aperitif, or a digestif – served before or after a meal, and sometimes as a topping for iced cream, fall is when it’s most enjoyed, but we make enough to break a little out when we really want to wow guests.
That first batch was terrible! It was bitter – we had added foraged Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), thinking for some reason that the addition would make a nice balance to the sweetness we’d add later. It was terrible, bitter, full of tannin from the walnuts and bitterness from the wild prairie plant. I gave up on it after trying it, filtering it several times, and letting it age until fall. Nothing helped. A year later I had stripped an antique American Walnut table and was researching old fashioned, home made stains. My sweety mentioned that we had had made our own stain extracting the worst out of the black walnuts.
It was about 100 degrees, and I knelt on the grass to test the “Walnut Stain” on a piece of scrap wood, you couldn’t see sunlight through the bottle. The stain took well, but the sweet and nutty smell coming from the warm wood was too much. I looked at the bottle that had aged two years, I looked at the stain sample, and looked at the bottle again. I picked up the cork to smell, then I actually licked the cork – no tannin!
Slowly I put what I had been considering the bottle of walnut stain to my lips and took a tentative swallow. It was amazing, simply delicious, if anything it was too overpowering with the nut flavor. We had succeeded, though it took two years of aging. Frankly, this was one of the most amazing drink additives, mixers, or liqueurs I’d ever tried!
Last year we kind of went nuts (pun intended) making Nocino, Wild Blackberry, Elderflower, Elder Berry, Vanilla, Vanilla Pomegranate Liqueurs as well as Vodka infusions of Rosemary, and Cardamon (instead of Moscow, think Mumbai Mule!)
The Elderflower is simply amazing – a fruity, flower perfumed liqueur with hint of vanilla and slight notes of citrus, it’s too flavorful to drink more than a slight ounce on the rocks, or as a mix into a Left Bank, a Martini with white wine, Elderflower liqueur and a London Dry Gin.
The Elderberry Liqueur has an incredible flavor, powerful fruity flavor, almost like a Jolly Rancher – Elderberry flavor! Although nice as an aperitif, the best use was in a mixed drink, 2 ounces of good vodka and 1/2 ounce of liqueur on the rocks was lovely.
After investing in several cases of .375 liqueur bottles with which we could present our liqueurs while entertaining or as hostess gifts and Christmas presents we found that we couldn’t fill them all. Make no mistake, this won’t happen again.
Extraction of the essential flavors from nuts and flowers is startlingly simple, and as I found out, even ridiculous mistakes can be overcome with aging. Previous years we’ve used excellent vodka, cheap vodka, tried good rums, cheap tequila, and even mixed bourbon in the steeping. All our experiments worked out.
The cheapest vodka, with a horrible cleaning fluid smell (You know who you are Mr. Boston!) but ages down into a mellow and tame liqueur given enough time – the best vodka also makes a fine liqueur and had the additional benefit of not needing to be aged an extra six months.
Our local Elderberry bushes had already given up their flower petals, and we had all but given up for a batch this year. Yesterday afternoon, after giving up a last minute peach picking trip we settled on a trip to one of my favorite woodlands in Chicago for an foray to find early Chanterelles. While we found no Chanterelles we did find several previously unnoticed Elderberry bushes. I pulled less than 1/4 from each bush, settling for a decent sized batch of Elderflower Liqueur, but the woods kept giving and we passed bush after bush in full flower.
My friend Jenny and I cleaned the flower from the poisonous and bitter stems, spending an hour or two carefully pulling only the petals. At some point Jenny came up with the idea of keeping the flowers – stems and all, in a plastic bag and giving them a good shake. After a few minutes she had double what we had pulled from hand and we quickly soaked out bounty in Everclear Grain alcohol.
After reading all winter about flavor extraction, earlier this spring we settled on the use of 195 proof grain alcohol. While there is supposedly no flavor the grain alcohol has a uniquely laboratory aftertaste, but the flavor extraction is said to be more pure and supposedly faster.
It’s been about 6 weeks since I started this post, and have come with the frustrating idea that we should have run our Everclear through a Brita type filter, some sand filter with activated charcoal to take the worst of the raw liquor flavors out – but this good news I managed to harvest over 10 pounds of Elderberries yesterday, some of which will go into an Elderberry Liqueur, and some will go to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Some of the bushes have double that amount ripening right now, but that’s another post!
My sweetheart came home from a trip to her parents in New Palestine, Indiana this afternoon (about six weeks ago now) with Black Walnuts for Nocino, a bag of Butternuts and a bag of “Sweet” Hickory Nuts (as opposed to Pignut Hickory Nuts) and we spent the afternoon chopping and bottling our bounty. We’ve got four or five quarts of Black Walnut, two quarts of Hickory Nut and two quarts of Butternut as well as five quarts of Elderflower.
We’ve now cut the Elderflower Liqueur and added simple and some other very light spices, and poured off the Nocino, though we’ve not cut it or flavored it, we’ll wait for to age at 190 proof for a few more weeks, then add our Vanilla Everclear – my partner has a co-worker who travels to Western Africa each year to a family vanilla plantation, and of course, again, graced us with a half dozen very fresh vanilla beans. This year we decided to try making a Dry Vermouth out of the Black Walnuts. We’ve been steeping the alcohol infused walnuts in a decent Pinot Grigio in the refrigerator for three weeks, and Saturday we’ll pour it off and run through coffee filters and spice it up and add a little more alcohol to bring the proof up to about 18 24, and let the spices of their things.
We’ll also experiment with a small batch of Nocino, and use the Wine to bring the alcohol level down to about 80 proof, hoping that that will bring a different dimension to the entire process.
The Hickory and Butternuts are still steeping, waiting until we have an evening together to process. I’m sure that the solvent can’t take any more flavor out than it already has, so idling away beneath the sink shouldn’t hurt anything (Alright you purists, comment!)
We’ll be using straight vodka to make our Elderberry Liqueur, (Costco’s Kirkland brand is said to be a neutral vodka that doesn’t impart flavor at a great price) while this takes longer to pull the flavors out we don’t have to age as long, and a Jolly Rancher liqueur might be just what we need next month as the days grow shorter.
With the case of 12 – .750 liter bottles we’ll have about 34 quarts of 60 proof liqueur, the traditional strength.
Enjoy the encouragement, and whatever you do, don’t not do it!