Here’s one of the many worst things ever about 2020: we’re all stuck at home. By that, we’re not talking glued to the couch seven days a week, counting down the hours, days, and seconds until the next episode of Fargo. (Which, by the way, has been totally fucking awesome despite being set in un-Fargo-like Kansas City instead of the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Hands up if you’d give up your vintage Colombo-Ricci revolver for a pie-making class with nurse Oraetta Mayflower.)
But back to reality. Let’s face it: you aren’t going anywhere soon. That’s atrocious news if you’re the kind of imbiber who considers it one’s God-given obligation to mule home whatever liquor nerds abroads are knocking back. Think pine-redolent Mastika from Greece, thyme-based Farigoule from France, and viscous Xtabentún from Mexico.
Anyone can plunk their ass down at the bar and croak out “Eine cerveza s’il vous plait.” But to truly immerse oneself in the local landscape is to show an appreciation for how your fellow liquor nerds get through the day.
No one’s saying you have to love Raki the next time you find yourself on a three-day blue-cruise off the coast of Turkey. But you owe it to yourself to at least try it, for no other reason than to watch it magically go from crystal clear to milky white the second you add water.
Here’s the thing about travelling: you can get vodka, whisky, rum, gin, and even tequila almost any place in the world. Such are the fringe benefits of the planet being a modern global village.
But unless you’ve got a normal-times plane ticket and a willingness to push the envelope at Canada Customs, good luck getting your hands on a bottle or six of Portugal’s Licor Beirão. Or Latvia’s Riga Black Balsam. Or the Domican Republic’s Mama Juana.
More than something to sip, such off-the-radar offerings are actually transporting. Pour a couple of fingers, sit back, and suddenly you’re in a better place. Which is to say somewhere you not only survived after being pushed out of your comfort zone, but came back home with a new appreciation for life.
Stepping up to the customer service counter at a store and asking for a Texas Mickey of Maotai isn’t easy when you’re in Beijing with zero grasp of Mandarin. But if you can make yourself do it you’ll have a memory to draw on. And that is exactly what travel is great for—stocking the memory bank with something other than the endless cycle of work, weekends, rinse, and repeat.
So what to do this year, when trekking to Northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region isn’t happening, and won’t be happening any time soon? Let’s face it—at the rate things are going, you’re going to be lucky if the villagers of East Van let you near Little Italy this fall.
That’s bad news if you’ve got a thing for, say, Nocino.
Internationally minded liquor nerds know that said liqueur is an Italian specialty made from green (which is to say, unripened) walnuts.
(Confession time: before October 9, I’d never heard of Nocino. This, despite having been to Italy more than once, and spending a good hour or two per day in whatever negozio di liquori happened to be closest.)
But sometimes it’s important to take a flyer. And assuming you’re not Superman, literally flying to Italy for Nocino is out of the question.
The folks at Ampersand Distilling in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island are seemingly of the opinion that when you can’t travel to Emilia-Romagna for Nocino, you make the best of what you’ve got at home.
If you happen to have a walnut tree in your backyard, then you’re well aware that fall is harvest time. Ampersand takes walnuts while they are still green in summer and then blends them with locally sourced honey, and hints of cinnamon and allspice.
Acting fast is key here. As a past gold-medal winner at the Canadian Artisan Spirit competition, and a top finisher in best non-fruit liqueur at the Sip Awards Best of the Northwest in 2019, Nocino! is in high demand. Like all limited editions it’s here until it’s gone.
Your B.C.-flavoured trip to Italy in a bottle doesn’t stop with Ampersand. Sons of Vancouver distillery makes a world-beating No.82 Amaretto, which it bills as “inspired by our mothers’ canning recipes and a 16th century love story”. Things start and finish with apricot kernels, Bourbon vanilla, orange peel, demerara sugar, and B.C. honey.
Dragon Mist out in Surrey, meanwhile, offers a Limoncello made from fresh lemons, while Odd Society in gloriously gritty East Van distills an Italian-style bittersweet vermouth. You can find the Italian digestive Amaro (as well as Limoncello) at Long Table Distillery, with Amaro also available at Mad Laboratory Distillery.
You may be stuck at home, but Italy, here you come—no plane ticket required.
Here’s a Nocino cocktail, courtesy of Ampersand, you can make at home.
1.5 oz Nocino!
1 oz rye
1/4 lemon juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Squeeze a lemon peel over the drink to express oils and then drop into the drink.