If you haven’t had Limoncello or at least heard of it, I question if you’re really Italian or Italian-American? Limoncello is the second most popular liqueur in Italy and it has recently become very popular in The United States. Because Limoncello imparts a strong lemon flavor without the sourness or bitterness of pure lemon juice it is a trendy ingredient in cocktails and desserts; and restaurants are now increasingly offering Limoncello on their beverage and dessert menus. In Italy, Limoncello is traditionally served chilled as a “digestivo”, or after-dinner digestive; and along the Amalfi Coast, it is usually served in small ceramic Capodimonte cups that are also chilled.
Limoncello is primarily produced in Southern Italy in the region around Naples including the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento and the islands of Capri and Ischia. It is also produced in Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia. While the exact origin of the liqueur is unknown, it is at least one hundred years old. Recently The United States has seen a rise in commercial production of Limoncello using California lemons that are grown year around.
Traditionally made from Sorrento Lemons, the zest of the lemon, peels without the pith, is steeped in pure grain alcohol until the oil is released and the alcohol is infused with the lemon essence resulting in an aromatic yellow spirit. This spirit is then mixed with simple syrup and varying the sugar/water ratio and temperature will affect the clarity, viscosity, alcohol content and flavor of the final liqueur. An alcohol content of 28-32% is considered optimal for Limoncello, though a less alcoholic version, which is known as Crema di Limoncello, having an alcohol content of around 16% also exists.
You can buy Limoncello in most liquor stores here in The States, and the prices range from about $15 to over $100 for a 750ml bottle, averaging around $22. However, it is very easy to make at home, but it is a slow process and requires some patience. My preferred method is to use organic lemons and Everclear® 190 proof grain alcohol. By using organic lemons I don’t need to worry about the chemical pesticides that would leech into the alcohol. It also eliminates the extra step of scrubbing off the pesticides along with the wax used to coat lemons found in grocery stores. For the alcohol, Everclear is a good choice and is sold in every liquor store; and because at 190 proof it dilutes to the proper alcohol ratio of 28-32% when mixed with simple sugar. Some recipes call for vodka but I don’t think it’s a good choice. Keep in mind vodka is about 80 proof or 40% alcohol, and when mixed with simple sugar the alcohol ratio dilutes to about 14-18%, which is very weak for traditional Limoncello.
The process to make Limoncello involves steeping the lemon zest in the alcohol for 4 to 6 weeks in a cool, dark place. Some methods call for longer steeping times, sometimes up to 3 months, ostensibly to create a stronger flavor. I don’t think there’s any benefit to this, keeping in mind that longer steeping yields diminishing returns; there is only so much oil to be extracted from the zest. Therefore, if you want a stronger lemon taste use more lemons rather than steeping longer. When ready the zest is the strained from the spirit and the spirit is then mixed with simple sugar, bottled and then again stored in a cool, dark place for at least 10 more days and preferably longer, to mellow and allow the Limoncello to become smoother before drinking.
When the spirit is mixed with the simple syrup it becomes cloudy. This is called the Ouzo effect and is the result of spontaneous emulsification of the sugar and extracted lemon oil. While commercial Limoncello is clarified, and you certainly can do so at home also, I find that it’s more cosmetic than truly beneficial to the final product; and in my opinion, keeping your homemade Limoncello cloudy adds to its artisanal quality.
The final step is to bottle your Limoncello. I like to use 750ml swing stopper bottles and the following recipe will require 3 bottles. Wash and sanitize the bottles immediately before filling. Then using a funnel and a ladle fill each bottle to about 1 or 2 inches from the top. If there’s any remaining, pour it over ice and enjoy it, knowing that it will only get smoother as it mellows.
So, whether you bring some home from your vacation in Italy, buy it from your favorite liquor store or make it yourself, a great way to store your Limoncello is in the freezer. Because of the high alcohol content, it will not totally freeze at normal home freezer temperatures, and you will always have a frosty bottle on hand to enjoy after a special meal or with your special friends.
- 15 lemons
- 1 (750-ml) bottle Everclear®
- 3 ½ cups water
- 2 ½ cups sugar
- Peel the zest from 15 freshly washed, organic lemons being careful to remove any remaining pith from the zest, as this will impart a bitter taste. Reserve the lemons for other uses.
- Add the lemon zest and Everclear into a 2 quart sealable glass jar and let steep for 4 to 6 weeks in a cool, dark place to infuse into an aromatic yellow spirit.
- After the lemon-Everclear spirit is infused, combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring regularly until sugar is fully dissolved, approximately 5-10 minutes, then let the simple syrup cool to room temperature.
- While the simple sugar is cooling, line a strainer with cheesecloth and strain the infused spirit into a large stainless steel pot removing the zest and other solids.
- After the simple sugar cools to room temperature, combine it with the lemon-Everclear spirit and mix well. The mixture will be cloudy.
- Wash and sanitize three 750ml swing top bottles. Using a funnel and ladle, fill each bottle to 1 to 2 inches from the top.
- Again, store the bottles in a cool, dark place or even in your freezer for at least 10 days before drinking, preferably longer, to allow the Limoncello to mellow and become smoother.
- Serve well chilled.
Image: Italian traditional liqueur limoncello with lemon is used under license from Adobe Stock: © nolonely – stock.adobe.com