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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Besides, look at all those pulpy bits! You don’t want those floating around in your beautiful bottle of liquid sunshine.
You know you’ve made a good one when you see the “lemon collar” — a ring of oil floating at the top.
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!