It's just past the feast of St. John (June 23rd), the traditional date on which Italians harvest green walnuts for making nocino. This green walnut liqueur is herbacious and spicy, good as both an apertif and as a digestif, and useful for a variety of cocktails
And, most importantly, if you live somewhere with walnuts, really easy and dirt cheap (though messy) to make yourself.
You want to harvest the walnuts while they are still green and somewhat soft, but mostly firm. You're trying to get them just as the nutmeat is starting to form inside. Generally, they'll be about the size of a key lime, and will smell like a whole bouquet of herbs thrust in your face.
Makes up to 6 liters, and takes 2-3 months. Final liqueur is 60 proof (30% alcohol)
- 60-80 green walnuts, maybe 1 gallon
- 2 liters everclear or similar 190proof alcohol
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 12 whole cloves
- 1 whole nutmeg, sliced
- 2 vanilla beans
- Peels of 2 lemons
- 400ml (1.5 cups) brown sugar
- 800ml (3.5 cups) white sugar, more to taste
- 1.7 liters hot water
- 1.5 liters cold water
Equipment: apron, rubber gloves, 1 gallon jar (or 2 half-gallons), knife, cutting board you don't care about, large fine strainer or cheesecloth, funnel, many decorative bottles.
Harvest the walnuts, and wash and dry them.
Don the apron and rubber gloves. You really want these, walnut juice stains like you wouldn't believe. Wearing old clothes is also a good idea, as is prepping this outside on the picnic table. If you do it inside, lay down newspaper.
Quarter the walnuts and fill the jar(s) 3/4 full. Pour over the everclear, which should completely clover the walnuts (if not, shake them down). Screw on the lid and let sit in a cool, dark place for at least one month, and up to two. During that time the jar of walnuts will go from a pretty green to a dark, menacing brown. This is what you want.
Add the spices, and gently shake each jar to distribute them. Put them back in the dark place and leave for another 3-5 weeks.
Dissolve the sugars in the hot water in a very big pot. Add the cold water. Strain the liquid from the marinating walnuts through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Discard the solids. Mix, and taste. Add up to 1 cup more sugar if it doesn't seem sweet enough, but be cautious ... it will get sweeter as it ages.
Use the funnel to pour into many decorative bottles that you can give to your friends. Fill and keep one of the everclear bottles full of nocino for yourself. Keeps at room temperature for up to two years (after that, the flavor starts to vanish).
Serve chilled, or over ice, or in a cocktail.
Notes: this recipe uses a lot more walnuts than some others, but I found them necessary. You must use everclear of some other 95% alcohol, vodka is not high enough in alcohol content and will not work. Feel free to play with the mix of spices; the above is only a suggestion, but you could do all kinds of things including star anise and whole allspice. Just stick to "warm, winter" spices. Note that you will also never get the jar you use clean again.