As autumn arrives in America, one of the great seasonal pleasures is seeing a scattering of nuts across a path and looking up to see the tree that made them. Nut liqueurs and nut bitters might seem opposite expressions, yet both are great options that can round out flavor in a cocktail or stand alone with minimal trappings of ice and soda, or just ice.
Nuts that are native to Europe have claimed areas and brands. Périgord in France is often referred to as “chestnut tree country.” Sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) have been a key product in the region for hundreds of years. Infused in alcohol with sugar, they are used to make crème de châtaigne, a chestnut liqueur associated with autumn. Another classic French nut liqueur is liqueur de noix. It is a pitch-black liqueur made by macerating green walnuts still in the soft casing that surrounds their outer shell with spirit, sugar and spices. In this case, the walnuts are English or Persian walnuts (Juglans regia) and the “green” refers to the immature state, i.e., before the soft outer husk splits to reveal the nuts in their mature hard shell.
Italians also celebrate their native nut trees in a range of liqueurs. Their version of liqueur de noix is nocino. Hazelnuts are toasted and then distilled to flavor Frangelico. Bitter almond oil is used to give Amaretto its distinctive almond flavor. And pistachios are infused to create Dumante Verdenoce, a pistachio-flavored liqueur. Marketed not only as a product for drinks, it is also presented as a culinary ingredient, particularly for desserts. Nut liqueurs blur the boundary between food and drink as their voluptuous mouthfeel and mellow flavors can transform even a simple assembly of ricotta cheese and summer fruits into a sophisticated dish.
Persian walnuts (Juglans regia) can be grown in the USA, but there is no need to use them when the native black walnut (Juglans nigra) is already here and can be treated in the same way to make liqueur via maceration. Slicing through the husks and soft shells of unripe black walnuts speeds the release of flavor into alcohol. Initially it takes on a bright chartreuse color that matches the exterior of the husks. Within weeks the liquid becomes black—a reminder that walnut shells were once used as black dye and an indication that maceration is complete. Anyone handling green walnuts should be mindful that they will stain hands and fabrics black.
In autumn, when black walnuts are ripe, they burst out of the husks. Their hard, woody shells must be cracked to release the tender meat of the nut. Infused into bitters, the meat of the ripe nut yields a more standard dark brown color and classic walnut taste—it is the husks that give the black color to green walnut liqueur.
Also occupying Juglandaceae, the walnut tree family, are butternuts, hickories and pecans. Black walnut grows wild in the eastern United States as far north as southern Minnesota and as far south as northern Florida, with a few isolated populations in the Midwest. Butternut (Juglans cinerea), sometimes called white walnut, grows in northeastern America. Its name butternut is an apt description as the nuts are similar to walnut but have a richer, buttery taste that is almost banana-like when fresh. Oil is readily expressed from the nuts, and butternut oil is an excellent candidate for fat-washing, as it endows spirits with a dairy-like smoothness while being completely plant-based.
Hickory is a familiar smoke flavor in foods and is also appearing as bitters, in both cases derived from burning the wood. Of the 11 species of hickory nut native to the USA, bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) should not be used—they really do taste bitter. Pignut hickory (Carya glabra) ranges through insipid and bitter. However, shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) are reliably delicious. It is fiddly to remove the nutmeat from the shell, so one way of extracting the flavor is to remove the soft husks, crack the nuts in the shells and simmer the cracked nuts still in their shells in water for about half an hour. This hickory nut–flavored water can then be combined with spirit and sugar to create a liqueur.
By comparison, the closely related pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is much easier to remove from its shell—one of the reasons why it is widely known as a commercial crop while hickory nuts are not cultivated on a large scale. Pecan is native to the Mississippi River Valley from southern Indiana all the way down to Texas, and small wild populations are found in Ohio, Kentucky and Alabama. Its flavor, and the association of pecans sweetly embedded in pecan pie, make it a natural candidate for an American version of Frangelico—in this case, toasting pecans instead of hazelnuts before distilling them in spirit.
For small-scale operations where an assortment of spirits is made in the same location, it might be more convenient to extract the flavor of toasted pecans by simmering them with sugar and water until soft, leaving them to cool to room temperature and then reserving the liquid to blend with spirits, as this avoids running nuts through the still. Pecans’ sweet caramelized notes partner well with coffee, again in part because of the long-standing association of enjoying coffee with your pecan pie.
Southwestern states are home to pinyon, or piñon pines. While pinyon leaves and pinyon cones have a resinous aroma, the nuts contained within the cones are rich in oil and have a light buttery flavor. Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis) ranges through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and Texas. Single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) grows in Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California. Because the public land that Colorado pinyon and single-leaf pinyon grows on tends to be designated as mixed use, and the timber from the trees is not perceived as valuable, much of the land they would grow on has been rendered unsuitable by ranching and mining, which disrupt growth of the trees. Natural pinyon woodland is controlled and prevented from spreading into land used for ranching, even though the valuable pine nuts could yield a higher income per acre than livestock. High intensity wild harvesting of pine nuts in Asia, fueled by low-wage costs supporting lower prices, is disrupting forest ecology by removing an important food source for wildlife. The American pine nut industry is declining.
Yet pine nuts make excellent liqueurs, as they blend well with more heady aromatics like basil and citrus peel. Pine nuts are a foraged produce, which if collected in moderation can add commercial value to a naturally occurring ecosystem thereby supporting its preservation and restoration.
Native tree species are being hit hard by disease. American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) used to be one of the most common trees in the northeast. Its populations were devastated by chestnut blight. It has survived as a species in part due to people taking it outside of its native range; there are healthy American chestnut trees in the West.
Using native trees as an ingredient entails a degree of custodianship. In order to ensure sustainable ingredient supply, it is wise to plant some nuts each year, protect the trees when they are young and vulnerable to herbivory, protect mature trees from environmental stress and watch over them and seek advice if they show signs of disease. For example, butternut is currently under threat from butternut canker, a fungal pathogen. There is no cure for butternut canker; the conservation strategy for butternuts is to maintain a bridge to a future of healthy wild populations of butternuts by cultivating butternuts now.
Butternuts were planted around households and farms because their nuts were valued as a food. Establishing a few butternut trees around a distillery provides a supply of butternuts as an ingredient and can also be part of wider efforts to conserve butternuts. In the case of pine nuts, there is need to work with a local supplier and support a long-term plan by germinating seeds from mature individuals that have drought tolerance and reintroducing them into the wild.
Europe has well-established liqueurs made from local nuts that have earned places in cocktails and are enjoyed as stand-alone tipples over ice. In America, there is an array of native nuts equally worthy of celebration in liquid form, you just have to take the time to get to know them.