I call this 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 completely blows away the store-bought stuff, and it’s super 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!
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 or I recommend nothing less than 100-proof vodka
6 cups water
4 cups sugar
Instructions: 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.
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, the lemon is still yellow because you'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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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! Or "gardening" 😉