A little over a year ago, some eagle-eyed S&B readers may recall seeing our resident imbiber Chris Manis fist-pumping through the frozen streets to the tune of “Chasing Heather Crazy” by Guided By Voices. Although not too unusual for Manis, this particular episode resulted from his first taste of Watershed Distillery’s liqueur, Nocino. The chocolate-hued potion is an old-school Italian staple, a thick drink made from green walnuts with notes of vanilla, cloves and cinnamon swirled in, often served as an after-dinner drink.
Nocino is beautiful served over ice, with every sip subtly revealing complex flavor nuances. Like a wine, the flavor deepens as it oxidizes. But while purchasing my own bottle at the Distillery, I overheard that Watershed’s Marketing and PR Manager Allison Bowers had begun using it in her baking recipes and immediately knew this would be my new favorite ingredient in the kitchen, as well as my bar cart.
Bowers has been using Nocino as a vanilla replacement in brownies, cakes, oatmeal cookies, buttercream icing, and more. I tried it myself and loved the way Nocino added a little insert-Italian-phrase-for-sumthin-sumthin-here. It adds a subtle and welcome richness to dishes that is delicious but hard to put your finger on, in a good way; it’s not instantly recognizable the way adding whiskey or one of the ingredients Nocino features — like cloves or cinnamon — would be. I also explored Nocino’s savory side and was instantly smitten with the flavor that came from adding a tablespoon to a pan of browned butter, then pouring over pasta with some grated parmesan.
All of this is to say: any way you want to enjoy Nocino, you probably can’t go wrong if you keep in mind this simple formula: delicious thing + Nocino = even more delicious thing. Plus, a little goes a long way, so there will be plenty left to sip after (or, ahem, while) you’re cooking, too. Here are my two favorite recipes so far — one savory sauce, one sweet — to get you started. So delicious and unexpected, dinner guests will be fist-pumping as well, but at least the soundtrack will be in your hands.
Nocino Pan Sauce
Makes 1 cup
- 2 tablespoons pan drippings (or olive oil)
- 1 and 1/2 cup vegetable stock, chicken stock, or beef stock, plus extra as needed
- 3 tablespoons cream or 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon Nocino
- 3 teaspoons cornstarch, whisked with 4 tablespoons water or stock (optional)
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- If you’re using meat drippings as the base, once you’re finished cooking your meat of choice, remove and place the meat on a separate tray but leave all of the drippings in the pan. Pour off all but two tablespoons of leftover oil or rendered fat from the pan. If not, grab your olive oil, swirl it in the pan, and heat over medium-high heat.
- With the pan on medium-high heat, pour in ¼ cup of the Nocino and stir constantly. As the mixture simmers, scrape up any crispy browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a spatula.
- Reduce the mixture by about half, then pour in the stock and stir. Let it come to a rapid simmer, then let it reduce to about ½ cup.
- Turn down the heat to medium-low and whisk in the cream or butter until dissolved.
- Whisk in the cornstarch-liquid mixture. Let the sauce simmer for another few seconds, until thickened. If you let it go longer than a few seconds it will likely become too thick, you can fix this by stirring in either a little more cream or broth.
- Pour the sauce into a measuring cup or serving dish. Add the black pepper and remaining 1 tablespoon of Nocino and stir.
- Pour over the meal, and warm up your hands for all of the high-fives you’ll get from your guests as soon as they taste what you’ve made.
Nocino Caramel Sauce
Makes 1 cup
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 6 tablespoons room temp unsalted butter cut into pieces
- ½ cup room temperature heavy cream
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt (or fleur de sel if you have it)
- 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon Nocino
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Get all of your ingredients ready – or “mis en place” if you like to use terms that make you feel fancy – for easy grabs because making caramel happens quickly.
- To begin, heat the sugar, water (to wet the sugar) and butter over medium high-heat in the saucepan. Most recipes don’t call for the water, and it takes a couple minutes longer this way because you’re waiting for the water to evaporate, but after many, many, many trials I’ve found it’s harder to ruin the caramel this way.
- When the water evaporates and the sugar and butter start to melt together, start whisking. Do not stop until all clumps are gone and the mixture is fully melted.
- Cook the sugar and butter mixture until it reaches a light amber color. Then remove the pan from the heat IMMEDIATELY.
- Stand back from the saucepan (there’s usually a sharp rise in steam) and slowly pour the heavy cream into the mixture. Whisk until the cream is incorporated and the caramel is smooth. Whisk in the salt.
- Let the caramel sauce cool for five minutes while resisting all urges to taste it because it will burn you, seriously. Stir in the two tablespoons of Nocino and cinnamon, then let sit for 10 more minutes. Add the remaining one teaspoon of Nocino to the caramel, pour into a glass jar, and then cool to room temperature. Store at room temp.
Why Nocino? Why Ohio?
Watershed’s Dave Rigo explains the birth of Nocino
Never heard of Nocino before? Don’t feel bad; neither had Watershed co-owners Dave Rigo and Greg Lehman, before a man named Charlie stopped into the distillery for a tour. “He hung around after the tour and asked if we wanted to try a bottle of something he made at home,” says Rigo. “We didn’t know what Nocino was, but we gave it a try and instantly loved it.” Unfortunately it was bad timing for Charlie; Rigo and Lehman were focused on perfecting the spirits they already had in production. Plus, selling a niche Italian liquor to Ohio isn’t exactly a no-brainer business move. But Charlie patiently checked in every so often, and about a year and half later invited Rigo and and Lehman to his house to make his family’s Nocino recipe with him. An afternoon of picking and halving green walnuts, zesting lemons, and adding spices later, and the Watershed pair were sold.
“The really appealing thing about Charlie’s invitation was that he didn’t want a cut of the profits or anything really, just to see a family tradition that had been passed down through generations be experienced by more people,” says Rigo.
As it turns out, making Nocino wasn’t a bad business move after all. Ohio is the third-largest producer of walnuts in the country, and since its debut in 2015, Watershed had sold through a majority of its inventory.
“We’re seeing a huge amount of local bartenders playing around with Nocino, which is cool, and more and more people cooking with it too. I absolutely love to cook so I’m always trying new things with it. I really like it in bread pudding, or just pouring it over ice cream. The flavor is really powerful so you don’t have to use much,” says Rigo.
Sure, Watershed’s Nocino is quickly becoming a Columbus favorite, but what do old-school Italians think?
“There’s an amazing Italian restaurant called Dante in Cleveland, which carries our Nocino. When we first introduced it to them, the Italian head chef’s friends had just brought him a bottle of Nocino from Italy, so he did a taste test — completely skeptical of how good a Nocino made in Ohio could be. After trying both, he said: ‘I wish I could say differently, but I like the Watershed better’” laughed Rigo. •
Watershed Distillery Nocino can be purchased at various liquor stores and Watershed Distillery, located at 1145 Chesapeake Ave, Suite D in Grandview. You can call ahead and check availability, (614) 357-1936. Visit www.watersheddistillery.com to find out where it is sold near you.