Making Limoncello Out of Life’s Lemons

We noticed that our post about Limoncello Cocktails has been popular, ranked sixth with hundreds of views in our nine-month old blog. Limoncello is also the basis for our preferred drink of the moment, the Pisco Pedicab inversion of a Brandy Sidecar, since it also takes advantage of blood oranges that are currently in season.

It occurred to us that we probably should post our Limoncello recipe, since there is great variation in sweetness and alcoholic content, especially when compared against store-purchased bottles. The variation is enough to affect the balance of any of the cocktail recipes we have posted. It was time for us to refill our home-made stock, so we thought that now would be a good time to post about it. Life gave us some lemons, so now let’s make some Limoncello.

Limoncello is a liqueur that is primarily found in Southern Italy. When we visited cities along the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri, every store featured ready-made bottles, and almost every restaurant had their own house-made version to serve, primarily after dinner. Each place had their own secret recipe, but it’s not hard to figure it out since it’s a very simple liqueur that anyone can make at home.

Many recipes do use Vodka as the base, but we prefer to use Everclear, which has a much higher alcohol content to draw out the oils from the lemon rind. Much can be said about Everclear and its bang for the buck proof level, which makes it the liquid of choice for jello shots. But for our purposes, what’s important is that it is truly a neutral tasting spirit, just waiting for flavors to get added or infused. It used to be much easier to find, but we noticed that it’s an item that is not readily available in most liquor stores anymore. In California we can only get the 151-proof (and not the 190-proof) version which works just fine for Limoncello. We always buy an extra bottle or two when we do find it in stick somewhere, since we also use it to make Amaros (possibly a subject of a future post, as we are currently in experimentation and trial phase).

We are fortunate to have a friend that has a very prodigious Meyer lemon tree, so we almost always have a constant supply whenever citrus fruit are in season (which is about twice a year). To start making Limoncello, the lemon rind should be “steeped” in Everclear for about a month. The liqueur is diluted to taste using simple syrup after the infusion process.

The first step is to wash the lemons, especially with fresh picked fruit. It is important that no pith (the white part of the lemon rind) is included, as it will turn the Limoncello bitter, and the best way to ensure this is to use a Microplane rasp grater:

The Microplane peels just enough of the rind and leaves all of the pith behind as shown below. Grating the rind will maximize the surface area, helping the infusion process. We grate the rinds off of 8-10 lemons, depending on the size, for each batch of Limoncello:

After grating, the “naked” lemons without skin look like this. Either juice the lemons or store them in plastic bags where they last for a few days. Use the lemon juice to make cocktails, lemonade, lemon meringue pie, sorbet, salad dressing, a sauce or anything that comes to mind:

Transfer all of the lemon rind into the “steeping” vehicle, in this case a one liter bottle:

Pour the Everclear into the same bottle using a funnel:

As it settles, the Everclear instantly takes on the bright yellow color of the Meyer lemon rind. Store the bottle in a cool dark place for about four weeks. Shake the bottle around to agitate the mixture about once a day (or whenever you remember to):

We didn’t want to wait four weeks prior to posting this, but the next step is to dilute it to taste. After the four week steep, make a simple syrup with 5 cups of water and about 3 cups of sugar. Once the syrup is cool, add between 3-1/3 to 3-1/2 cups of it to the steeped lemon mixture. This is our preferred mixture, but many of our friends have expressed shock with the “booziness.” Add more of the syrup to taste, making sure to stir it all up. Once the desired flavor profile is reached, let the Limoncello “rest” for a day or so to make sure that it all settles and mixes in.

Once ready, separate the rind from the Limoncello by pouring the mixture through a strainer or funnel lined with a coffee filter into a bowl or another bottle. Repeat this process if necessary. After dilution, the Limoncello will have a lighter yellow tinge (note this is a picture of our disappearing previous batch):

This process will work with any citrus rind such as a Buddha’s hand, lime or orange rind (Morocello anyone?). Once you have made the Limoncello, keep it in the freezer where it will last for a few months. Sip over ice or use it as an ingredient for cocktails as a substitution for any of the sweet liqueurs (orange, elderberry, etc.). You will definitely taste the difference and be glad that life did indeed give you lemons.

Related Posts
Limoncello Cocktails (Aug. 30, 2012)
PMixology Monday: Simple Sidecar Cocktail Inversion: Pisco Pedicab (Feb. 18, 2013)

View all BarFlySF Cocktail Recipe Posts

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6 responses to “Making Limoncello Out of Life’s Lemons

  1. I agree with your friends that your preferred mixture is too boozy 😉 but you are the BarFlys!
    I knew that if you keep Limoncello in the freezer it will last almost forever… while
    only for few months if you keep it at room temperature and in that case we use to put in the freezer 2-3 liquor glasses so when you pour Limoncello in them you don’t need ice cubes to contaminate it.

    • Grazie Ilaria. Coming from a true Italian, we take that as a very nice compliment! In Italy, you should look for Alcool Puro which is pretty inexpensive at the markets. Since Alchool Puro is 95.6% alcohol by volume (ABV), you will need more syrup (more water, less sugar) to dilute it (Everclear is 75.5% ABV). You are correct that it lasts a long time in the freezer, but with us, it doesn’t last much more than a few months. The ice cubes can still help tame the “booziness,” but use the syrup to dilute it down to your liking.

      • Well, a bottle of Alchool Puro is not so cheap here nowadays (it’s about 12 euros for a 1litre bottle), maybe because people are using it more to make home made liquors.

        When I make liquors I usually use this formula to calculate the final ABV percentage:

        (alchool volume / total volume) * ABV

        For example:
        (1000 ml of Everclear / 1000Everclear+1040 ml simple sirup) * 75.5= 37% ABV of the final liquor.

        Considering that for Limoncello I like to use 1:4 (sugar/water) I would use this proportions:

        1000 ml Everclear
        208 ml sugar (1040=x+(x*4))
        832 ml water (1040-208)

        I know this is a bit complicated for someone to understand, also because I wrote the example in metrics, but the formula works!
        Maybe if it’s not clear, you can explain better than me.

        • Your ABV computation is, I think, correct, but your inference about sugar and water amounts is not.

          The short answer is, following your recipe of adding 208 ml of sugar to 832 ml of water will yield about 935 ml of syrup, shorting your volume by 105 ml, or about 3.6 fluid ounces, and increasing the ABV of the limoncello by about 2%, to 39%. To get 1040 ml, you’d need to bump up the amounts by about 11%, to 231 ml of sugar and 926 ml of water.

          However, I’m betting you actually made a “1:4” syrup in bulk, then combined that with the Everclear in the amount you’ve computed, that is, 1040 ml, so 1000/(1000+1040) * 75.5% ~ 37% is correct.

          The issue with your water and sugar formulas is that you assume the total syrup volume is the sum of the sugar and water volumes — this isn’t the case because the sugar dissolves, and the total volume can be significantly less than the sum of the two volumes.

          For example, adding 1 cup of white granulated (not caster or baker’s) sugar to 1 cup of water yields about 1.5 cups of syrup, not 2 cups (assuming a bulk density of 50 lbs/cubic-foot for the sugar, or about 0.80 g/ml). (All this holds at 20 degrees C).

          The physics of why this is so are obscure, and have to do with molecule shapes and intermolecular forces. Fortunately, we don’t have to solve this problem — folks have compiled how sugar (ie sucrose) syrup density varies with concentration and temperature (see e.g. sucrose facts here — http://www.nordicsugar.com/fileadmin/Nordic_Sugar/Brochures_factsheet_policies_news/Download_center/Functional_properties_of_sugar_on_a_technical_level/Functional_prop_on_tech_level_uk.pdf).

          This is basically how I came up with my numbers, ie using the information in such tables.

          • Thanks for the clarification Rick! We appreciate you taking the time to explain the science behind all this goodness. Hopefully this will now be all clear for all of us Limoncello makers.

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