Not only is Ryan Seng the head bartender at the four-star Grange restaurant inside the Citizen Hotel, he’s also an accomplished alchemist.
The proof is his handmade batch of nocino, more than three months in the making. “I played around with it for a while,” Seng said. “I’m really happy with how the flavor turned out.”
Nocino is a liqueur with roots in Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy, a region known also for its prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Nocino starts with green, uncooked walnuts as its base. Seng sourced his at Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento.
“I hacked them up with a cleaver and they sat in mix of vodka and brandy for 2 1/2 months,” he said. “It turned scary green and bitter, so next I sweetened and spiced it with clove, cinnamon, vanilla and orange peel. (Over the following weeks), I diluted it with California chardonnay and pinot noir, and water. I finished it with an infusion of toasted walnuts and gomme (sugar-based drink sweetener).”
The yield was 20 liters, Seng said, and is now available at Grange for $10 per 2-ounce pour. A Manhattan-style cocktail is in the works. He’s made vermouths before, but so far this is his masterpiece.
How did he learn the art? “I met a nocino maker in the Napa Valley, and we had a nice evening drinking it and talking about how he and his family made it,” Seng said. “Working at Grange, we have relationships with great farmers, which all led to my researching how to make it on the Internet.
“For my taste, the commercial brands get a little cough-syrupy,” he added. “I wanted to treat this like an amaro and make make it intriguing.”
Seng’s dark chocolate-brown nocino is well-balanced, aromatic and not too sweet, showing multiple layers of subtle flavors – plum here, vanilla there, a nip of citrus, a hint of brandy.
What’s the proof?
“I haven’t figured out that one yet,” he said, “but it’s fun to drink.”