Limoncello. ‘The Elixir of the Gods.’ Tart, sweet, served bracingly cold; it’s the perfect liqueur for sipping after dinner. Add some Prosecco and berries like I recently did with this Limoncello Cooler and you’ve got a gorgeous apertif. It’s well known the very best is made in Sicily but that should not stop you from making your own!
I love making liqueurs and it’s not about saving money; making your own allows you to not only control the quality of the end result but you can also determine taste based on the quantity of ingredients. Like something a bit less sweet? It’s in your hands. The added plus for me is that I love to offer guests a liqueur I’ve made and they’ve become so popular with my friends and family that holiday gift giving has been made much easier. I’ve done Limoncello, coffee, chocolate and cranberry liqueurs that I think I could bottle full-time if my friends had their say.
This Limoncello is made with plain Eureka lemons, the ones found most often in supermarkets. The Sorrento lemon with a zest high in lemon oils is preferred for making Limoncello in Italy but I’m happy with the results from the Eureka lemon; maybe the end result color is not quite the yellow from commercial brands, but the taste is what matters to me. The commercial brands of Limoncello I’ve purchased have included a dye for their coloring anyhow…so do that if you want but I’m good with a product that is not so yellow as long as the result is a bright, lemony flavor and this definitely measures up to that standard.
More important I believe for overall quality is using good organic produce. Since you will be steeping the peels for some time in vodka I strongly recommend using organic lemons that have not been doused with pesticides. The ones I used also had a thicker and yellower rind…all conducive to making a superior product.
You want peel, not pith!
Although Limoncello is made with the peels of lemon, it’s extremely important to not include any of the white pith that is next to the peel or it will impart a bitter taste. If there is any pith on a slice, scrape it off with a knife or spoon. I used a vegetable peeler and when necessary, a very sharp paring knife to scrape any pith from the peels. Some people prefer to grate the peels with a Microplane grater; though that does expose more of the peel to the vodka to extract the lemon essence I also think it’s more conducive to having some of that pith get included so I don’t recommend it.
Recipes for Limoncello are all over the map. Giada de Laurentis has a recipe that only takes 4 days, I’ve seen others that require the peels be steeped for months. I’m not sure how much lemon flavor will come from 4 days and I’m way too impatient to plan months in advance, so my favorite recipe takes 3-4 weeks (all depends on how impatient YOU are!).
I’ve also seen several recipes that call for Everclear which is 195 proof alcohol; it’s true that the aromatic elements are leached from the lemon peel by alcohol so it stands to reason that the higher the proof of the vodka, the better. But Everclear is a harsh ingredient and I simply don’t like it; add to that fact that some stores won’t carry it because of that high alcohol content so I want something that is a bit smoother and more readily available. Additionally the European recipes I’ve seen don’t use it and simply specify equal quantities of pure alcohol and water which is the equivalent of 100-proof vodka.So that’s what I use. Smirnoff 57 is 100-proof vodka; combining it with the others ingredients will result in a liqueur that is 60 proof which is what commercial varieties offer. If you can’t find 100 proof vodka, use the more common 80 proof and be sure to steep the peels for 4 weeks total to extract their flavor; your end result liqueur will then be 50-proof.
The high alcohol content is one reason Limoncello can be kept in the freezer without turning to a block of ice; the lower the alcohol content, the more ice formation you will see. If you do use 80-proof vodka; be sure to not overfill your bottles as you may see some ice crystals form; allowing some room for expansion will insure that you don’t have an explosion in your fridge!
Don’t limit yourself to just Limoncello; the same recipe can be used with limes, blood oranges, mandarins and more (next season I’m absolutely making Blood Orange Liqueur). Using grapefruit or their related fruits will result in something with a touch of bitterness, more akin to Campari or Aperol. Campari is just a bit too herbaceous for my tastes but I just love Aperol and the Aperol Spritz is a favorite cocktail so I need to put that on my own to do list.
By the way, the biggest expense I’ve found when it comes to making liqueurs for gifts are the bottles. I’ve begged for people to return them and some do but still, each year that I bottle up gifts, I’m flummoxed at how much I have to spend on bottles, often in the neighborhood of $8-10 each. Until now. Not only can I find smaller sizes than those available locally but the unit price for bottles at Specialty Bottles is so much lower. I bought 2 cases of these 8.5 oz bottle with a gold lid and these shrink bands for the top since I ship items over the holidays. Cost including shipping? About $2/bottle! I thought I would share this with you in case you want to start running your own brewing facility too!
Make this now…and be enjoying some with friends by the 4th of July…cheers!
- 12 organic lemons
- 1.75 liter bottle of 100-proof vodka, divided
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups sugar
- Wash the lemons well with soapy water, rinse and dry.
- Remove the yellow part of the lemon peel with a sharp peeler being careful to avoid any of bitter white pith. If any pith remains on the back of a strip of peel, scrape it off with a sharp knife.
- Put the yellow peels in a jar or bottle, add half of the vodka and seal tightly. Leave the bottle to steep until the peels lose their color, at least 2 weeks.
- Combine one cup of the water all of the sugar in a saucepan and heat on medium high just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, add one cup of ice cold water and let the mixture completely cool.
- Strain the vodka from the peels. I strain mine by wrapping some cheesecloth under a metal strainer and pouring through both; that will remove the large peels and any smaller particles. Once strained, add the remaining vodka and the syrup.
- Put the liqueur in bottles, seal tightly and store for at least 1 week before using.
- For drinking straight, store the Limoncello in the freezer.