Pick organic lemons with smooth skins
Recipes, Sips & Syrups

Homemade Limoncello aka Sunshine in a Bottle

Sunshine in a bottle. Sweet, boozy sunshine. If you’ve never had a sip of the Italian lemon liqueur known as limoncello, you’re in for a treat.

Homemade limoncello blows away the store-bought stuff, and it’s ridiculously simple to make. While many commercial imports tend to be too sweet, homemade limoncello can be made as strong or as mild as you wish. Let it sit a while to age into a bright, smooth sipper, and your concoction could rival some of the finest in Italy!

The Italians have been making limoncello for over a hundred years, when those clever Sicilians figured out how to cope with their hot summer evenings. Most of the country’s limoncello production is situated along the Amalfi coast, where the zest of Sorrento lemons (also known as Femminello St. Teresa lemons, and praised for their high oil content) is steeped in alcohol and mixed with simple syrup to create a refreshing digestif.

Served straight out of the freezer in a chilled glass, limoncello is perfect on its own, or can be used to spike lemonades and flavor cocktails. If you’re like me and you like to do a little “gartending,” as I call it — aka garden bartending — a tall glass of limoncello and soda on the rocks, garnished with a mint sprig, makes a delightful drink after digging in the dirt all day.

Homemade Limoncello

Makes 4 (750 mL) bottles


15 to 20 organic lemons
2 (750 mL) bottles high-proof pure grain alcohol (I use Everclear)
6 cups water
4 cups sugar


Since limoncello is made from the zest of lemons, you’ll want to use thick-skinned, high-quality, organic lemons free of wax and pesticides. Don’t skimp; the best lemons will make the best limoncello. I picked Eurekas right off my tree, choosing the ones with the smoothest skins.

Wash and scrub off any dirt and dry your lemons thoroughly.

Pick organic lemons with smooth skins

Wash and scrub your lemons thoroughly

Using a Microplane, zest your lemons, taking care to zest only the peel and not the pith. The pith is the bitter white part of the rind, which will give an unpleasant flavor to your limoncello. The peel is the yellow part of the rind that contains the oils which give zest its lemony flavor.

You’ll notice that even after zesting, my lemon is still yellow because I’ve only zested the thin outer layer of peel. A Microplane is essential for this reason; some people use a vegetable peeler or a paring knife, but they inevitably peel some of the pith along with it. Pith is no good.

Zest your lemons with a Microplane

A Microplane also produces fine shreds of zest, rather than long strips. These fine shreds have more surface area and therefore more pockets of lemon oil that can infuse the alcohol.

Fine shreds of lemon zest

Resist the temptation to zest every part of the lemon clean, as you might zest some of the pith as well. With the leftover lemons, freeze some lemon slices or make lemon juice cubes (or just plain ol’ lemonade) so nothing goes to waste.

I usually end up with 2 to 3 cups of zest from my lemons. Pour the zest into a clean 1-gallon glass jar.

Pour both bottles of alcohol into the jar and seal with a lid.

Pour both bottles of alcohol into a 1-gallon jar with the zest

Lemon zest steeping in grain alcohol

There is much debate on using a rectified spirit, such as Everclear, over a high-proof vodka. In my opinion, the higher the proof, the better infused the alcohol will become in a shorter amount of time.

Here in California, Everclear comes in 151 proof (unless you know someone in the military who can buy the high-octane stuff on base). Back in my home state of Nevada, my friends used to soak cherries in 190-proof Everclear (ahhh, high-school memories). In other states, Everclear is even illegal. So, just use whatever you can get your hands on. I recommend nothing less than 100-proof vodka (and a mid-grade vodka like Smirnoff is fine for this purpose).

When it really comes down to it, high-quality lemons (that are properly zested) are much more important than high-proof alcohol.

151-proof Everclear

With your potent mixture sealed, it’s time to stash it away for three weeks (or up to six weeks if steeping in vodka). Keep the jar in a cool, dark place and let the alcohol work its magic.

Seal the jar with a lid and let the lemon zest steep for at least two weeks

At this stage, the stuff is pretty lethal, so don’t do something silly like I did and try to take a whiff of what’s brewing in there. I guarantee your nose hairs will hate you for it.

After the waiting period has passed, examine the jar. The alcohol will have taken on a bright yellow hue by this point. Scoop up a spoonful of zest; if the zest has become white and brittle, its job is done and all the oils have been released.

White and brittle zest means its job is done

Now it’s time to make the simple syrup. In a medium saucepan, dissolve the sugar in water over medium heat. Let the syrup cool to room temperature before adding it to the lemon-infused alcohol.

Give everything a stir, seal the jar again, and let it sit for at least another week. The limoncello will mellow out a lot during this period, and will continue to get smoother the longer it ages. (Hint: Start a batch now for Christmas gifts!) Some of my best batches have sat on a shelf for more than three months before being bottled. They become bright and citrusy, with the lemon flavor really shining through. On the other hand, “young” limoncello is pretty potent and best suited for mixing into cocktails than sipping as a digestif.

Pour simple syrup into the lemon-infused alcohol

After a week or two (or even longer, if you can stand it), it’s ready to be bottled. I reuse my empty Everclear bottles, as well as two Bormioli square swing-top bottles. The Bormioli comes in a 34-ounce size, which gives a little extra room if you like your limoncello on the sweeter side and want to add more simple syrup.

Strain the limoncello through a fine sieve to catch all the lemon zest.

Strain limoncello through a fine sieve

First straining of limoncello

Then, strain the limoncello again as you funnel it into glass bottles, using an ultra fine sieve, gold coffee filter, paper coffee filter, or layers of cheesecloth. The second straining might seem unnecessary at first, but it’s worth the effort to get the liqueur as clear as possible.

Strain the limoncello again as you funnel it into glass bottles

Besides, look at all those pulpy bits! You don’t want those floating around in your beautiful bottle of liquid sunshine.

Pulpy bits from second straining

You know you’ve made a good one when you see the “lemon collar” — a ring of oil floating at the top.

Lemon collar on limoncello

Once everything is bottled up neatly, store your limoncello in the freezer, along with a couple of cordial glasses so that you’re always ready for dessert!

Finished bottles of homemade limoncello

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  • Victoria Grigaliunas

    I can’t wait to make this. I have been looking for a good limoncello recipe. I don’t know much about it, so all of the comments are helping to answer my questions.

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  • santiagobenites

    I love Limoncello, and I got excited when I saw this recipe! Unfortunately, I live in the ‘nanny state’ province of Ontario (Canada) where our oppressive government thinks that it’s in everyone’s’ best interests to limit the amount of alcohol content to a measly 40%. Sadly, there will be no homemade Limoncello being made at my house 🙁

    • You can try this with 80-proof but the zest will need to steep in the alcohol longer to fully release its oils. Good luck!

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  • Matt

    I added my zest to 151 Everclear 18 days ago and just checked it – the zest is still yellow. I assume I should just let it hang out a little more before adding the simple syrup? Thanks!

    • Yes. The Everclear should be very yellow and the zest very pale when it’s fully infused.

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  • Bella

    I have a blog where I have been documenting my cooking and sharing recipes. One of the things I recently made again was the limoncello. I was wondering if it would be ok for me to link your post to in on my blog? I’ll show what I did, but not give the actual recipe since I don’t want to plagerize you.

    • Thank you for asking and yes, you may link to my post. I’m glad you enjoyed the recipe!

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  • Laurel

    HI – I have a question about the ‘mellowing’ period.
    do you find the liqueur mellows once bottled (i.e. filtered) ? or does the bulk of the mellowing occur while the zest is mixed with the alcohol and simple syrup? thanks love your blog and the amazing attention to detail!

    • Both! The liqueur starts to mellow once it’s mixed with syrup and continues to age, regardless of whether it’s filtered or not. Once all the oils have been extracted from the zest, the zest has no effect on the flavor (though it will continue to break down if left in the limoncello for a long time).

  • JB

    I have a unique question… started a batch of limoncello over a year ago and the everclear and lemon zest has been steeping since then in a cool basement closet. Will it still be safe to add the simple syrup to and then consume, or has it steeped too long? Thanks!

    • It’s still safe. The Everclear preserves it all and the lemon zest only has so much oil in it (it can’t be oversteeped, that is).

  • Adrienne Laurencelle

    Do you leave the zest in when you put the simple syrup in? Or do you strain most of it out at that point?

    • I leave the zest in when I pour in the simple syrup, and then I strain it out (twice) before I bottle it.

  • FlowerChick.com

    I can’t wait to try your recipe! I agree that limoncello tastes best when it’s chilled…delicious. Thanks for the tips.

    • Enjoy! It’s one of my favs and you just reminded me that I need to make a new batch this season.

  • Lana

    so how strong is this stuff when everything is said and done?…

    • It’s pretty strong in the beginning, so if you want to drink it right away, you can add more simple syrup (or use it in a mixer). However if you can wait a couple of months, the initial bite mellows out and becomes smoother.

  • Bella

    will it continue to mellow out after I’ve strained it and bottled it?

    • Yes. Well-aged limoncello tastes very smooth.

  • Bella

    So one more question after all…
    you talk about freezing or refrigerating the bottles after they have been bottled. But do they have to be chilled? Can I just store them in my liquor cabinet? Since its just sugar, alcohol, and essentially fruit oil shouldn’t it be fine?

    • Yes, room temperature is absolutely okay. But limoncello tastes best when it’s chilled, in my opinion. 🙂

      • Bella

        Of course I’ll chill it before serving. I just am filling it into various little small bottles, also for giving away. I figured I could store them on a shelf in my garage before giving it away at special occasions. 🙂

  • Isabelle Bruderer

    Hi, I love your recipe! It looks so good, and my friend and I are thinking of making it so it will be ready in time for my bachelorette party. I was wondering if you could tell me what size jar you used to store the mixture in. I’m not even sure what I would call a jar like that when looking for it.

    • I used a 1-liter bottle. The Bormioli bottles that I used are linked in the post if you’d like to buy the same ones!

      • Bella

        Thank you so much! I have another question. I got some everclear yesterday. Apparently it’s the same thing with a different name. It’s 190 proof. I was wondering you would recommend adding a larger amount of simple syrup when the time comes.

        • I’ve used 190 proof on subsequent batches and kept the ratio of simple syrup the same. The key is to let the limoncello age a bit after you mix in the syrup. The longer it sits on a shelf, the smoother and more mellow the flavor becomes. I’ve tried freshly made limoncello before and wow – talk about moonshine! But months later, it turns out perfect. I personally prefer my limoncello more citrusy than sweet, so it all depends on taste… though it’s easier to add more syrup as you need to (rather than adding too much in the beginning).

          • Isabelle Bruderer

            ah, sorry for all the questions, I sure think this is the last one I have. hopefully.
            I couldn’t tell if you strain out all the lemon zest before you add the simple syrup, or do you just leave the zest in until it has all been soaked in?

          • I just leave the zest in until I’m ready to bottle the limoncello.

  • Vanessa

    Do I need to do anything special to seal the bottles? If I re-use the vodka bottles is it okay to use the old caps too?

    • Yes, perfectly okay to re-use the old caps. The bottles do not need any kind of special or permanent seal. If you store them sideways in the freezer, just keep an eye out for any drips.

  • Liztaylor

    I dont suppose you have a recipe to make about a fourth or half as much as this recipe makes? 

    • You shouldn’t have a problem just quartering or halving the recipe. The simple syrup is a matter of taste preference, so you can make the limoncello as sweet or strong as you like. Just keep the ratio of water to alcohol proportionate so that your limoncello doesn’t freeze in the freezer.

  • Babyluv97

    I can’t wait to try this out! First time i will be attempting this.

    • Perfect! It’s citrus season now!

  • Amyloukasten

    Can I store it in the fridge? We have a Meyer lemon tree but no room!

    • Sure. Freezer vs. fridge is just a matter of temperature preference and long-term storage. In the freezer, limoncello keeps indefinitely. The fridge works too, since you’ll likely drink it within a year anyway.

  • Erin

    Thank you for this recipe, funny I went to find a jar and opened my cabinet to literary find the exact same jar you used…talk about following your directions LOL

  • Nichole Livengood

    We made this in time for it to be ready for the 4th of July and it was magnificent.  Thank you for posting the recipe!  We are making more for Christmas Gifts!

    • Excellent! Have you tried making the same with orange or grapefruit zest yet? Mine are brewing now… mmmm.

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  • Alrighty! I’m heading to Cost Plus tonight to procure some jars for this and my kimchi! I’ll be posting photos!

    • Ooh nice! I’ll be posting my kimchi recipe soon too. We’ll have to compare as I’d love to know yours!

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  • debbie.williford

    Love it! We have been making this for about 10 years. Your method is a little more complicated than ours but the common ingredient is the organic lemon peels. They make all the difference!

    • Really! And I thought my method was as easy as it gets! What do you do differently?

      • debbie.williford

        After reading again, I guess it really isn’t more complicated, it just seems that way with all the steps spelled out in detail. When you are assembing, it all goes very quickly. We use the recipe from the book ‘In Tuscany’ by Frances Mayes. Also, we sometimes we use Stoli vodka which is a little less potent than the grain alcohol. p.s. Really enjoy your blog!

  • Fantastic! My brother makes the same stuff. You know, you can make orange-cello as well. the place I tried orange-cello in Italy had orange tree branches grafted on to a lemon tree so the singe tree gave two fruits. 

    • I have backyard orangecello and grapefruitcello in the works. 🙂

      Maybe I need to graft some blood orange and pomelo branches on to my trees… I’d love to make them all. My kitchen looks like a bar right now!

  • Oh wow. You found a way to bottle sunshine!?! I’m SO on board, and now know what I’m doing when I wake up tomorrow 🙂

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