Travel IndustryBooksSmarter ShoppingSports

This Italian Spirit Is Perfect for Holiday Drinking

December 21, 2019, 5:00 PM UTC
A black Manhattan made with Boardroom Spirits Nocino.
Boardroom Spirits

Back before the American renaissance of amaro and digestifs made the after-dinner drinks de rigueur, Samantha Kincaid and Jon Nodler would finish a meal at their favorite restaurant with a little glass of house-made nocino. Years later, using walnuts they handpicked from a nearby farm, the celebrated chefs made their own big batch of the liqueur, which they poured, complimentary, for guests in the months after opening their own restaurant: Cadence, in Philadelphia.

“We chose nocino because the ingredients are locally available, unlike citrus cello, for example, and because we had a connection to the beverage from back when we were just growing our passion for the restaurant industry,” explains Nodler.

Those ingredients include unripened green walnuts, which are steeped in a base liquor and infused with some variation of vanilla bean, citrus peels, cloves, cinnamon, and more, depending on the recipe. The spirit, which traditionally hails from northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, is usually associated with holiday sipping, thanks, in part, to the rich, appropriately festive flavor, and in part to timing. The walnuts, which are usually picked in the summer, have to steep for months before the liqueur is ready. While it can be tricky to nail (it’s easy to over-infuse the walnuts and produce an overly bitter liqueur), nocino has been growing in popularity in recent years, being made in small-batch distilleries across the country.

Liquore nocino fatto in casa
Coinciding with the walnut harvest and traditionally made only around the holidays, the dark brown, bittersweet liqueur is still under the radar.
Getty Images

Just outside Philadelphia, Boardroom Spirits is making the thick, aromatic walnut liqueur, with recipe inspiration from another European country. Led by husband-and-wife team Marat and Zsuzsa Mamedov, and Marat’s brother Vlad Mamedov, the distillery is known for its precision-crafted traditional liquors and innovative products like C and B, carrot- and beet-based spirits made from their respective root vegetables. While on a visit to Zsuzsa’s native Hungary a few years ago, Marat tried her family member’s homemade nocino and thought it would be a perfect addition to their lineup of spirits.

“Beyond creating classics really well, our business is also about innovating, and putting out flavors that may not be as readily available in the market, and we felt that nocino was a really good representation of that,” Mamedov says. With amaro increasingly found on bar and restaurant menus, driven by consumer awareness and interest, the entrepreneur saw an opening. “Part of the inspiration was to bring some of the tradition and heritage forward, and also to introduce something new.”

Nocino liqueur is made with all-natural flavors derived from green walnuts and spices.
Boardroom Spirits

Last year, Boardroom made its first batch of nocino, and for its second iteration this year, the company improved on the recipe. While the first batch was made with vodka, this one was made with a base of barrel-aged brandy, which, according to Mamedov, lent both body and character to the new nocino. Besides the difference in base spirit and a lower proof—compared to last year’s 80 proof, the 2019 nocino is 50 proof—which lends a smoother, more harmonious flavor, there’s one tiny difference that Mamedov says makes an outsize impact: “Instead of using clover honey, like we did last year, we switched it up this year to use wildflower honey, which adds a completely different complexity to the spirit.”

The result is a smooth, dark liqueur with notes of chocolate and citrus, perfect for savoring as an aperitif or a digestif—a substitute for dessert, or as a less-sweet alternative to port. At the bar room in the company’s headquarters, bartenders are mixing the liqueur into cocktails, too, including a take on a black Manhattan, with whiskey, equal parts vermouth and nocino, and bitters. Boardroom’s walnut spirit is available at restaurants and bars around the city, too, including Zahav, this year’s James Beard Award winner for the country’s best restaurant, and Top Chef winner Nicholas Elmi’s Royal Boucherie.

The once-hard-to-find liqueur has also been popping up in other restaurants around Philadelphia, including Cadence, named Food & Wine’s Best New Restaurant of 2019. At Bloomsday Cafe, the newly opened wine bar in the city’s Queen Village neighborhood, the general manager made a batch with a chef friend, and owner Zach Morris says he plans to give it out to patrons “judiciously.” Nocino isn’t relegated to a glass, either, making an appearance at Yellow Springs Farm—the artisanal goat cheese dairy located just outside Philadelphia in Chester County—in its Nutcracker cheese. The goat cheese marinates in the walnut liqueur during its aging process, which lends a salty, nutty flavor. Though this new guard of nocino is made and used in novel ways, the spirit still makes an apropos ending to a rich holiday meal, in keeping with tradition, and it can be poured as a winter warmer all season long.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—A group of nuns on operating their Italian vineyard
—The best things restaurants did in 2019
—5 cocktail trends to watch in 2020
—How last year’s Christmas trees became this year’s seasonal brew
Fortune writers and editors recommend their favorite books of 2019
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.