In the land of food and beverage, I find myself falling back on the wisdom inherent in the phrase: “Do as the Italians do.” It’s especially worthy when it comes to the tradition of making liqueurs and elixirs from natural ingredients. Every year, as the summer drags on and the fruit and nuts start falling from the trees, I inevitably get a handful of messages from friends asking what should they do with all the black walnuts falling in their yards? Black walnut trees are common in Tennessee and in much of the southern United States. They’re also common in parts of Europe, where the tradition of turning black walnuts into Nocino – an autumn-spiced liqueur tailor-made for fall cocktails – goes back nearly 2,000 years to a group called the Picts. Italians would later take up the tradition and refine it, but the origins of this spirit are fascinating.
In Britain, the Picts, from the Latin pictus, meaning painted, were known to paint themselves blue and drink a homemade spiced walnut liqueur while celebrating into the night. They believed that drinking this elixir would allow them to communicate with goblins, elves, gods, and goddesses. On the night of June 23 and into the next morning, the Picts would send their most agile women into the walnut trees to collect the nuts and drop them onto the ground, to become impregnated by the magic of the early morning dew. After dancing and singing songs all night by the fire, they would quarter the dew-kissed walnuts and plunge them into alcohol to begin the maceration process. After a few months (with spices and sugar added along the way), the Nocino would be ready to drink as the first chill in the air appeared.
What does all of this have to do with Italians, you ask? When the Roman Empire made Christianity the official religion in 313 AD, the traditions of the Picts evolved to reflect the traditions of the Bible. As St. John’s birth was celebrated on June 24, the Nocino tradition blended into the significance of that event.
If you mark your calendars for next June you can pick walnuts and make your own blend of Nocino. Then you’ll be ready to gather with the goblins just in time for Halloween. Making a Manhattan variation can be a great way to enjoy this luscious, nutty delight. Though you may want to skip painting yourself blue.
Black Walnut Manhattan
Prep Time: 5 min
Makes: 1 serving
- 2 oz. Bourbon or Rye Whiskey
- .5 oz. Italian sweet vermouth (Cocchi Torino or Carpano would be great here)
- .5 oz. Nocino (Nux Alpina and Don Ciccio are a few brands readily available in the United States)*
- 2 Dashes Angostura bitters
- Cherry, orange peel, and a maple leaf, for garnish
- Add ingredients to a mixing glass or pint glass, fill the glass three-quarters full of ice and stir briskly for 15 seconds.
- Allow the drink to sit and chill for 5 minutes, then strain into a coupe or old fashioned glass.
- Express the orange peel over the glass and discard.
- Add the cherry and for seasonal presentation (or for Instagram), a maple leaf, and some mums (pictured).
- *You can also order Fee’s Black Walnut bitters easily online or through your local bottle shop. The flavor is very similar to Nocino.