Homemade Limoncello is easy to make. You just need the correct ingredients and a little patience.
Limoncello origin story
You might be surprised to learn that the history of Limoncello doesn’t go back very far. Even though some claim that Limoncello’s roots extend almost as far back as the original cultivation of lemons, most food historians agree that Limoncello was likely first consumed at the end of the 19th century.
And, perhaps more surprisingly, Limoncello’s popularity is a very recent phenomenon.
In 1988, Massimo Canale began producing Limoncello and obtained a trademark for “Limoncello di Capri.” Limoncello, which previously was consumed in small quantities in Italian homes, took off. Today, Limoncello is available all over Italy and around the world.
What makes Limoncello so special?
In a word: Lemons. Along the Amalfi Coast of Italy and its nearby islands (including Capri), near the Bay of Naples, and in Sicily, citrus groves abound.
The Sfumato or Sorrento Lemon is especially good for making Limoncello. The skin contains lots of the oil that gives Limoncello its distinctive flavor and aroma. The Sfumato’s skin is also thick so you get lots of the glorious rind without the bitter pith. Thin skinned lemons, like the Meyer Lemon, are juicy and flavorful, but don’t work well with Limoncello because it’s the thick skin you want, not the juice.
That’s right, there’s no lemon juice in Limoncello. In fact, there’s only four ingredients in Limoncello; lemon peel, alcohol, water, and sugar.
Tips for making Limoncello
Since you’re using the best quality lemons (Sfumato, preferably organic) be sure the rest of your ingredients match up as well. The water should be filtered. This should remove any off-flavors that might get in your Limoncello. The sugar should be organic and raw, if possible.
For the alcohol, use grappa or grain alcohol. I see lots of recipes that use vodka, which is much easier to find that grappa or grain alcohol.
Don’t do it!
Vodka is a poor substitute for grappa or grain alcohol. Trust me, you’ll be much happier in the end.
Be patient when infusing the alcohol with lemon zest. This will take at least 3 weeks. Don’t rush it. Keep the jar in a cool, dry place like your pantry. And be sure to use a sterilized jar.
Once the alcohol has been infused, remove the lemon zest and retain the now yellow-hued alcohol.
This next step is crucial.
Pour one Tablespoon of the alcohol into a glass. Add 1/2 Tablespoon of simple syrup (see recipe below). Taste the mixture. If it is too strong, add more simple syrup until you get the taste you desire. Most recipes call for equal parts infused alcohol and simple syrup. I prefer less-sweet Limoncello, so I add less simple syrup.
Once you have figured out the ratio that suits your palette, mix the together the infused alcohol and simple syrup and pour the Limoncello into a sterilized bottle. Keep it in the freezer.
How to enjoy Limoncello
Limoncello is typically served as a digestiv, meaning at the end of a meal. It is especially nice with a lemon tart or a piece of cake, but a glass of Limoncello by itself is nice as well.
Where to get Limoncello
Making Limoncello at home is easy and fun, but if you must, almost any liquor store these days carries Limoncello.
And, a trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy isn’t complete without buying some Limoncello. My all-time favorite spot is Antichi Sapori d’Amalfi in the town of Amalfi. You can’t miss it; their store is right at the foot of the giant staircase leading to the cathedral.
I was hesitant to go in at first, this place looks like a tourist trap from the outside. But, they make their own Limoncello with good ingredients. And they have bottles with interesting designs and fun shaped bottles which make a perfect gift. Some bottles are 100cl or less so you could conceivably pack a bottle in your carry on, although many airlines don’t allow alcohol in your carry on.
Another option is to pack your bottles in your checked baggage.
Word to the wise if you do this. The corks in Limoncello bottles are not sealed as securely as, say, wine bottles. Take it from someone who learned the hard way and had a suitcase of wet and sticky clothes upon returning home; seal the bottles yourself using heavy duty tape.
Peel (yellow only, no pith) of 8 large lemons
32 oz grappa (or grain alcohol)
16 oz water
14 oz sugar
· Place the zest in a sterilized jar with the grappa (or grain alcohol). Seal the jar and put it is a cool, dry place for a minimum of three weeks. Longer, if you can wait. You’ll notice that the liquid takes on a yellow tint from the lemons after a few days.
· After three weeks (or more) strain the peels and retain the liquid.
· On a stovetop, make a simple syrup by bringing the water and sugar to a simmer until the sugar melts. Let the syrup cool.
· Combine the infused grappa with the simple syrup and put in a sterilized bottle or jar. Seal the jar or cork the bottle and put in your freezer.