Posted by: Jerry Garrett | March 17, 2012

Ten Tips for Making Homemade Limoncello

Lemons of Amalfi (Jerry Garrett Photos)

POSITANO, Italy

Limoncello is a delicious, high-octane Italian liqueur made from the zest of Mediterranean lemons. Many who have tried it wonder if they can make their own at home. You can.

Recipes for homemade limoncello abound on the internet. I encourage you to look up a few, and find one that appeals to you. But beware: If all you do is follow a recipe, finding the secret to making a memorable limoncello of your own may elude you.

I can’t tell you which recipe is best, although I will offer some advice from Italian nonnas, whose limoncello I have tried and admired. Here are ten things to keep in mind:

1. Moonshine? No, this is not moonshine. You’re not a bootlegger. You won’t have the “revenooers” knocking down your door, wanting to break up your backyard still, and trying to haul you off to jail. Basically, you are just flavoring existing liquor – not much more elaborate than making a cocktail.

2. What’s a “digestive”? It’s something that aids digestion, says the dictionary. Limoncello is a digestive. That’s why Italians consume it after dinner. It should taste like lemons – not candy, not soda pop. It is not meant to be a knockout punch at the end of an evening of heavy drinking. But it certainly can be that, if you drink to excess.

The towel is better than the recipe.

3. What recipe? In my experience, the tastiest limoncello recipes are the ones that call for the most lemons, and the least amount of sugar. Here is the most commonly distributed recipe on Italy’s Amalfi Coast:

1 liter of water

1 liter of alcohol

1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of sugar

Zest of 8 lemons

That, to me, is way too much sugar. The recipe that I liked best called for twice that many lemons, almost half that much sugar. If you are comparing recipes, and wondering which you will like the best, carefully consider the lemon-to-sugar ratio. The more lemons, the more digestive effect you will get. A ton of sugar may appeal to your sweet tooth, but this ain’t supposed to be lemonade.

For the purpose of furthering scientific research into this important field, here is the recipe from my favorite nonna:

1.25 liters of water

1 liter of alcohol

800 grams (1.76 pounds) of sugar

Zest of 13 lemons

For more recipes, I came across this interesting and worthwhile blog.

For anyone who recommends a recipe using high fructose corn syrup, I suggest capital punishment.

4. What lemons? Any lemons can be used. But remember, garbage in, garbage out. You only want the “zest” off each lemons. The zest is just the yellow part; if you buy supermarket lemons, remember the yellow part is where all the pesticides have been sprayed. Choose organic lemons, if you don’t like the taste of pesticides. (Hint: Most humans don’t.)

Home of the best lemons!

BTW, the world’s best lemons are grown on Italy’s Amalfi Coast (the Femminello St. Theresa variety, which are high in citrus oil), although lemons grown on the Mediterranean coast from Liguria to Sicily are similar. In North America, the Meyer Lemon is a good choice.

5. What is zest? It’s the yellow part of a lemon’s skin. You’re supposed to shave that off. Don’t get the white rind in your zest. The white rind will make the limoncello bitter. If you’ve done a good job of shaving your lemon, it should still have the balance of the rind on it, and it won’t be leaking juice. It should still be slightly yellow, although it will now be smooth. Don’t use that part. (Make a lemon pie with it!) For limoncello, use only the zest. Put the zest into the liquor you’re using, and put it in a sealed container.

6. Define “liquor”. I know of three types used in limoncello making: Unflavored grain alcohol, vodka and grappa. I personally wouldn’t use vodka or grappa because each adds a hint of its own flavor, which I don’t want in my limoncello. 151 proof grain alcohol, like Everclear, should give you what you want – a kick, but not a spin – for taste. (The idea of putting vodka or grappa in my limoncello mix reminds me of the time I tried to substitute “healthy” olive oil in making oatmeal cookies – yuck-a-muck!)

How much is "a batch"? (Johnny Jet)

7. How much is “a batch”? You don’t want to make a lot – at least not until you get the hang of it. Almost every blog I read from people who have tried to make their own limoncello says they had to throw out the first batch or two (or more). They all seem to eventually get it right, but they wished they’d tried smaller quantities first. The recipe above makes about two liters – which more than enough for beginners. I’d start with half that.

8. How long? It varies. I know you were hoping I could be more specific. Me too. But I’ve heard everything from a few days to a few weeks. The popular recipe above says to leave the lemon zest in the liquor for four days. My favorite nonna said twice that long. Essentially, when the color leaves the zest (leaving kind of a whitish pulpy glop), the liquor absorbs it, and its color becomes more intensely yellow. Now it’s time to move to the next step – which is to strain the pulpy glop out.

9. What sugar? Haters of white, refined sugar will be disappointed to know there’s really no way out of using it to make limoncello. You can use raw sugar, demerara crystals or organic white sugar; but each of those choices adds both taste (molasses hints) and color (brown) you probably don’t want tainting the clarity of your limoncello. Once you have come to terms with what sugar you are using, you bring your liter of water (or whatever amount of a batch size you are making) to a boil, and then mix in your sugar to make a simple syrup. Combine the strained liquor mixture with the simple syrup and bottle it.

10. When is it done? Again, it varies. Sorry, I don’t have a more definitive answer. Most limoncello-makers say to leave it covered in a dark, cool place for anywhere from two weeks to two months. A popular recipe from travel guru Rick Steves says to keep a bottle in your freezer. Although I keep a bottle chilled once it is opened, I never met any Italians who refrigerated it.

Consume in moderation. Most Italians drink no more than one espresso-sized shot.

Jerry Garrett

March 17, 2012

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Responses

  1. you haven’t really given a recipe: you soak the lemon peel in your grain alcohol everclear is 151 proof or 75% alcohol. I used 20 lemons to 1 1/2 bottles of everclear. Make a simple syrup equil to the amount of the alcohol.
    I leave it 60 -90 days. strain it, you can use paper filter, then make a sugar syrup ( measure equal parts sugar heat until all sugar is absorbed. let cool completely and cut the everclear…..half syrup and half everclear. Bottle and let sit for a few weeks if you can.

    • Thank you! You’re right. I haven’t given an exact recipe, per se. These are some tips that I haven’t seen explained in the other recipes I’ve read. We used actual lemons from the Sorrento area of the Amalfi Coast. We only had to use eight…because the lemons were bigger than nerf footballs. I believe our recipe only required it to sit for a couple of weeks. Our recipe came from a woman in Positano who made astonishing limoncello. I’ll check with my fellow moonshiner here and ask her to include any other suggestions she might have. Our finished product was just bursting with fresh lemon taste. It put several bottles we bought at the liquor store (for scientific testing!) to shame. I don’t know how long ours might have stayed tasting so fresh – maybe not as long as some recipes that require more time – but ours doesn’t ever stay around long enough for longterm evaluation!

    • Everclear is actually 190 proof, or 95% alcohol. Bacardi 151 is rum, which you certainly don’t want to use in making limoncello. I cannot figure out where the 151 I see all over the internet came from, as Everclear is 190 proof. So, yes, your limoncello will have a kick, but remember, you are essentially making 2-750 ml. or 2-1 liter bottles, so you’re cutting the proof in half. I make my Sambuca with Everclear, anise extract, & simple syrup, & get 2 bottles out of 1 bottle of Everclear. Man is that stuff good!

      • Actually, I found I made a mistake – I do see now that there is indeed Everclear 151…whoops, my bad! Only 190 is available here in NJ, & I don’t even think we can get it at all in PA.

  2. I’ve tried several recipes and continue to taste varying degrees of cough syrup. Is there an ingrediant that influences this taste? More/less syrup, water or lemons?

    • We, too, have had some bad batches lately. Hard to isolate what the problem is so far. But the lemons are the prime culprit. We are finding that lemons – any kind – from grocery stores in the U.S. just don’t taste very good. We even used some excellent organic lemons from a special farm in California. Nothing tastes like Amalfi Coast lemons (there are even taste differences between Sorrento and Amalfi lemons; Piano di Sorrento-grown lemons are the best, imho). FYI: We just spent a month in Italy and were amazed (and disappointed) that we could not find Amalfi lemons anywhere outside of Campania (and they weren’t even a cinch to find there). Most of the lemons in Italian grocery stores these days seem to be from Spain! Or, Sicily.
      Anyway, we will continue to experiment, and we will post any discoveries here.

  3. An Italian characteristic when cooking, baking, making liquors is sometimes exact measurements don’t exist . . . .it is a “feeling and a knowing” becoming a chemistry experiment without exact measuring. Thank you for the information. . . . ☼

    • I agree. A “pinch” of this or that is about as scientific as some Italian recipe amounts get!

  4. Hello,

    Just made another batch and yes the lemons vary. There is a taste of the pith or white part of the lemon. Bitter….Is there anyway to “fix” it???? I would love any ideas at all…. This has never happened before. It always tastes yummy.
    thanks

    • If you can taste the pith, I assume there is some pith getting into the batch. It’s important, I think, to use a very fine zest tool, so you get only the yellowest of the yellow part. If you feel you aren’t getting enough zest that way, add an extra lemon to the batch. Hope that helps.

  5. Hi Jerry , we have heaps of Meyers and Lisbon lemons we have always used the Lisbon lemons for lemoncello and get good results. Which would be you first choice

    • Lisbon over Meyer, for me. I’ve never had good luck with the Meyer.

  6. Completely disagree with your opinion that using vodka creates a substandard limoncello! You haven’t tried mine. I have made amazing Meyer limoncello with my own home-grown organic Meyer lemons using 100-proof vodka (the highest proof I can purchase, 50% alcohol). Sorry, but I quit drinking Everclear my junior year in college. Pure trash! Vodka, on the other hand does a phenomenal job of extracting the lemon oil and essence, and does not in any way interfere with the lemon taste. My initial extraction, before adding simple syrup, after 2 weeks or more of soaking my Meyer lemon peels in vodka, is an impressive deep neon yellow color. Trust me: there is no “vodka taste” in the finished product What does vodka taste like, anyway? It’s pretty damn near neutral in flavor. Use vodka! It works just fine. Meyer lemons plus vodka makes a delicious limoncello, and I doubt anyone who knows and likes limoncello will scoff at your creation just because you used vodka as the base, because it will taste delicious, like mine. The most contentious issue with making limoncello is probably how much sugar to use (or not use). That will definitely impact your final result. Too sweet and syrupy is not good.

    • Thanks. I agree with your “too sweet and syrupy is not good”. In Italy, we could used the ingredients the locals were using. Back home in the US of A, it’s been a challenge to find ingredients that give us the “Amalfi taste”. I appreciate knowing of your confidence in vodka. Perhaps we should give it a try!

    • Your recipe sounds very good. How many Meyers lemons do you use to 750 ML bottle of 100 proof vodka? thank you

      • I believe six medium size lemons should do.

    • I appreciate the statement , but I have been making limoncello for about 20 years now and vodka doesn’t even come close to cutting it.
      Italians purchase 190 proof ethyl alcohol to make it at home and in the family restaurants, which makes the alcohol more of less flavorless. This sets the finished product @ around 80 proof or higher (depending on the water amount used). 190 proof grain is the closest you’re gonna get (sold in some US states), or even the 151 proof (sold in the other states). If you use the 151, adjust your water amount so that you don’t dilute it as much (try 75% water to 100% 151 everclear).

      Give me the “Pepsi challenge” and I will pick out the vodka every time, no problem. I suggest that people don’t get lazy. Start with the right ingredients. Go find the purest alcohol you can get.
      Now, if I can find a decent nocino recipe. That stuff is GOLD after 3+ years on the shelf!

      Buona fortuna!

      • I agree. In Mississippi I could use the 190 Everclear, but the lemons were meh. In California I could get better l lemons, but only the 151 Everclear. Tried with Vodka once and while the limoncello was ok, it wasn’t nearly as good since the Vodka imparted a definite flavor that the grain alcohol lacked. That said, if you only have access to vodka for some reason it’s not a horrible substitute, but it is still a substitute. But if it’s all you can get, you just have to get the most flavorless vodka you can find, I guess? I do prefer Eurekas to Meyers though (those are what I can get locally) – mainly because the Meyers, while great for juice, are so difficult to get any zest off, they’re so thin skinned! How do you zest them without going down to the pith? (or without going further, and getting juice every where?) Have you ever tried with the “sweet limes/sweet lemons?” The juice is sweet on those, but the zest is still very traditionally “lemony” I wonder how well they might work compared to other varieties?

      • The lemons we get in America, as a general rule, seem too perfume-y to me. They smell good, but they taste like perfume (yuk). You could probably try other citrus fruits. The recipe is pretty forgiving. I’m tempted to try oranges, because they definitely sell “orangecino” varieties in Italy. (They don’t sell well, and I’ve never tasted one that was great.) But here is a top secret tip: Blackberries substituted for the lemons make for a dynamite liqueur (like chambord). It was also pretty foolproof to make…not nearly as temperamental as the lemons we’ve tried. We must go back to the Amalfi Coast!

  7. The best way to zest a lemon is to use a Microplane zester. It seems to glide over the pith and shaves just a very thin layer of zest. I just came back from visiting Mom in Palm Springs and brought back 60 lbs of California lemons that I picked from her neighborhood trees. I use about a cup of zest (13 medium lemons) per .75 Liter bottle of 96% Grain Alcohol and let it sit for 2-3 months, strring the mixture once a week. The zest takes up ~1/3 of the volume in the infusion. I use 2 Cups of sugar per Liter (4.2 cups) of water to make a Simple Syrup, then mix 2 parts Syrup with 1 part infused and filltered Alcohol. This results in ~ 32% alcohol or 64 Proof Limoncello. It is fabulous!

    • Thank you so much for your info!

      • what (will) happen if i have not peeled off well the yellow part and left some “white”. can i fix it?

      • Get a lemon zester at a kitchen store. That should do a neat job of it. The white is pretty bitter. You want to stop “zesting” before you get down to the white.

    • So I am on my third year of making Limoncello, and the quantity is getting larger due to all of my friends clamoring for more. I have been zesting the lemons in CA, and bringing back just the zest and juice to NJ. I freeze the juice and only use the zest. This year I picked ~500 lemons, which yielded 5 lbs of zest (4x1qt ziplock bags). The Microplane zester was indispensable! I found a 5 gallon glass jar, and combined 2.5lbs of zest with 16 liters of 95% Everclear. This results in ~1/3 zest and 2/3 alcohol mixture, once the zest puffs up a bit and settles in the jar. I am using a 1 gal pickle jar to soak the other 2.5lbs of zest in alcohol while the 5 gal jar is being used. Once the first batch of liquor is done “resting”, I will filter it, and use the jar for the second batch. Last year I did a second soak of the zest with a small amount of fresh alcohol, and managed to extract more color out of it. I used this “rinse” alcohol for a portion of my alcohol for this year’s batch. I am still using 2 parts water to 1 part sugar, and 2 parts syrup to one part alcohol/lemon extract. This stuff is much better than store bought.

      • This is fascinating. We are just back from Italy’s Liguria with new recipes, including something using their mandarin oranges to make a test batch of “mandarincello” which was fabulous. Those little oranges are so hard to zest, though! Can’t wait to whip up a new batch. We will try some of your suggestions. Thanks.

      • Hey – Does anyone know of where to buy Capri lemon seeds? Maybe I’m going overboard…
        But…I’ve really moved on to Nocino and have even purchased an oak barrel to age in.
        I need to get a life.

      • Very late comer to this discussion, but I too am a multi-year maker of limoncello. A couple of observations from that quest.

        First, as noted elsewhere, a microplane is the only way to go to remove the zest. Any other method results in pith being incorporated. It also exposes the most surface area to the alcohol (solvent) resulting in the most effective removal of the essential oils from the zest. If you do not have a sufficiently strong solution of essential lemon oils, when you add water, the ouzo effect will not take place – in other words the limoncello will remain almost clear, rather than opaque and the flavour will be insipid.

        Second, I agree with others that Everclair, if available, is the preferred alcohol. The high proof ensures a quick and complete dissolving of the essential oils. Grain alcohol is of course almost universally used in Italy, so why not go with the tried and true. Vodka is a lower proof, so the essential oils do not dissolve in that liquor as readily. And there is of course the flavour issue. If you properly filter the essence you have created several times using coffee filters, the product is improved substantially.

        Finally, I have experimented with a couple of other variations. Orangecello, made with Valencia oranges is very good. Simply substitute orange zest for the lemon zest. I used 24 oranges zested for a 1.75L bottle of Everclair 190 proof. This proved to be a little too orange tasting, so I would suggest perhaps 12 to 15 oranges would be better.

        My latest venture was into the world of Crema di Orangecello.

        Crema di Orangecello

        750 ml Everclear orange extract
        4 C Cream
        4 C Whole Milk
        5 C Sugar
        1/2 tsp vanilla extract
        pinch nutmeg

        Used up some of the orange extract I had made with 24 oranges to 1.75 ml Everclear (190 proof). But this was too orange tasting, so I cut it down with an equal volume of Everclear. This diluted orange flavoured base was used in the recipe.

        Heated up the sugar, cream, milk, vanilla extract and nutmeg to near boiling, stirring constantly. Let the mixture cool before mixing in the orange base. Bottled and stored in the freezer.

        I tried to make some later using hot milk mixture and cold extract, and the sugar crystalized out, leaving it grainy. Will not repeat this error. As an aside, I always use bottled water to make my essence because our local water has a high mineral content. Be aware that the quality of the water you use will have an impact on your final product.

        We live in a retirement community and often have get togethers. I have inspired four or five others to begin making Limoncello, so there are not a lot of variations that have not been tried eg. adding lemon juice (bad idea); using vodka (this is not Limoncello, it is lemon flavoured vodka); using too few lemons (insipid); making it sweet (not my taste, but if you like Cake and the other flavoured vodkas, maybe go this route); drinking it out of the freezer (love it this way – if it freezes solid, you have it too diluted). Finally, we winter in Arizona and have lots of friends with citrus trees. Have never tried to make it with store bought citrus, but can’t imagine that would improve anything…..

      • It’s never too late to join the discussion, Stu, especially when it comes to limoncello! I agree with your observations completely. Especially your comment about the water you use. I think Italian bottled water is the best bet. Funny thing that we have noticed here in Italy, though, is that there is a big difference between bottled waters here. Toscana is pretty good, and readily available in the U.S. at places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Some of the cheaper waters (especially Nestlé brands) are full of scale and particulates. In the U.S. we used Arrowhead, which seemed consistently good.
        As to lemons, everybody here in Italy claims theirs are the best. They are sure all different. Even on the Amalfi Coast, the people in Piano di Sorrento, for instance, say their lemons are better than those from down the hill in Sorrento. Or over the hill in Amalfi. We can sure tell the difference between lemons in our yard, and lemons from our neighboring town ten miles away.

      • As to the difference between lemons, I hear you, it is clear that the world of wine is made up of the subtle difference between grapes, so why not the same with lemons.

        The issue I am currently wrestling with is ripenes of lemons. Used up much of my limoncello supply at my daughter’s wedding and am a bit panicked about laying down a new supply. Lemons are currently coming into season here in southern Arizona as we speak, but most have a slight tinge or more of green rather than the wonderful yellowness of late December and January. While I have tried to pick only the ripest of the ripe, I am hesitant to proceed. I know the real answer to the question I am raising (should I proceed? Answer: No, unless you want inferior product), but wondered if you have any experience in this regard (ripeness of lemons). Guess I am pondering is no limoncello better than bad limoncello…..it is a tough world we live in…

  8. I have never tasted or made Limoncello but all things being fairly equal the “elephant in the room” for odd flavors might be the water that is used.Clorine doesn’t mix well with anything.

    • Yes, that is true. A good point. Even most U.S. bottled waters are poor choices. You can find truly Italian waters at finer grocery stores. Using them could only help the recipe, imho!

  9. Hi, my dad closed his bar awhile back and I inherited a bazillian bottles of vodka I need to use. Can I use less water when making lemoncello instead of the 151 proof? I really would like to use whay I have but don’t want to waste my time.
    Thanks

    • Good question. I would go for it. Leave the water the same. Only the percentage of alcohol in the final product should be affected, not the taste. Some people might argue a limoncello with a lower “proof” might make it more consummable. No one need to let good vodka go to waste!

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