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Nocino Report: Defeated By Walnuts

The nocini back in June, when I could still open all the jars.
I took this photo

It took only a few minutes from when we broke out our inky-black nocino after six months of curing it in a dim cabinet for my friend to remark that her throat was burning. Soon, everyone else felt it too. Our five nocini, all infused with different warming spices, produced different results; each was its own unique product of liquids plus solids, multiplied by time. But what they all had in common was that prolonged exposure (more than a shot's worth) to any of them produced the unfortunate side effect of making the imbiber feel as if they'd gassed a cigarette in 45 seconds. The black walnuts got their revenge. The nocino had too much pep. Such is the life of the homebrewer.

The juice in question had spent six months transforming itself from a bunch of walnuts and various other stuff into proper nocino, the theory and practice of which you can read about here. The plan was to let the walnuts, liquor, and flavoring substances harmonize for, like, eight weeks, then add some sugar, then let it rest for another few months until the Winter Solstice, at which point the harsh flavors of walnut and everclear would have been dulled by time. By late December, everything should have mellowed to the point that we'd have several liters of delicious, spiced walnut ooze with which to enjoy the winter while remembering the brightest, highest summer. I promised a followup blog in December running through the results. Almost none of this happened as planned.

There are more than a few relevant factors in play: No true consensus nocino recipe exists, so I just sort of averaged the advice of like six or seven of them together; we used black walnuts from my partner's grandmother Sally's farmland outside of Woodland, Calif., where most traditional recipes call for the comparatively milder English or Persian varieties; two large two-liter jars that I borrowed from my father were substandard, with threads that were more or less cemented in place when nocino seeped into them during the shaking process; those jars are still closed, as they've been converted to a new long-term nocino project I hope to test in Q1 2023; Defector Media published its first blog post in Sept. 2020, which means that the first anniversary party of said blog post took place in Sept. 2021, which means I was on the eastern seaboard when I should have been removing walnuts from my potions, which in turn means that said potions are distinctly angrier and imbued with more malevolent walnut spiritual force than initially anticipated. These are all complicating factors.

A pre-taste test nocino.

And yet the sum of these complications still added up to several quite tasty if rather violent bottles of nocino. I hesitate to term the experiment a failure, since the stuff does taste good. Even a nocino made with simply walnuts, liquor, and sweetener was pleasantly warm, with the pure essence of walnut tempered out nicely by the maple syrup we tossed into it. It worked tremendously well on top of ice cream and other little desserts, which, due to its previously noted paint-stripper qualities, is mostly how I'll consume the nocini until they calm down in springtime. The standout concoction was the most traditional of the bunch; an orange-cardamom-centric nocino with anise, cloves, and vanilla bean. Its embarrassment of warming spices adequately tamed the angry walnuts better than any of the other combinations we tried; I would describe its current taste as an "evil walnut chai," and I would mean it as a compliment. Most recipes call for some citrus peel, and some combination of ginger, cinnamon, coffee beans, and nutmeg, and suchlike. The closer we hewed to the suggestions of so many Mama's Lovely Kitchens, the better the results.

Defector readers who followed along on the nocino experiment reported similar results. Dan said his nocino worked well with both bourbon and eggnog, though he also reported a "spicy on my tonsils" effect. His wife also was inspired by all the foraging and used some fennel seeds and fronds to make a finocchietto, which I would like to try in 2022. Mark reported that an anise-centric batch of nocino he made mellowed out the best, while a citrus-forward one somehow tasted harsher by December. Rob said his was delicious, especially in whiskey cocktails, though he might swap out maple syrup for sugar for a cleaner flavor.

Easily the worst of the bunch I made was the "mint special," which you may be surprised to learn is full of mint leaves. The sharpness of the mint was completely overpowered by the angry walnuts, although in the course of losing that battle the mint also managed to also dull the ameliorative effects of the maple syrup, which is necessary to dull the fangs of the walnuts and everclear. So the strongest flavoring agent, perversely, was the most neutralized, and all I got was a moderately sore throat. Nice going. Another more straightforwardly piquant herb-y light nocino fared better in the taste test. Rosemary and thyme from my dad's garden plus peppercorns and allspice formed a holy alliance against the juglonian forces of walnut goop and mostly prevailed, delivering the most amaro-esque drink of the bunch.

My dad, who will probably join you down in the comments, is another central character here, since he also participated in crafting a bunch of varied nocino recipes. He, however, actually followed the advice of the many generations of nocino brewers before him and actually removed the walnuts when advised to do so. His nocini were calmer, more sippable. He made an orange-cardamom batch that tasted like haunted bubblegum, and he flavored several with homemade honey instead of maple syrup of straight-up sugar. Honey proved the best dulling agent, although it's worth noting that even someone who did something as staid as "prevent the walnut spirits from going wild" produced some angry nocino. After sipping maybe two shots of it, my brother and I immediately played ping-pong for 25 minutes, road-testing the stuff and decisively proving that it was stronger than the human body. We both got extremely lightheaded and had to go sit down. The walnuts had won again; we'd been owned. The nocino from both households was delicious, though far too spiky. Maybe in a few months it will be even better for its overdoneness.

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