Perhaps you’ve seen it around. Maybe you read that George Clooney likes it. You may have even seen Danny DeVito talking about it. Maybe you’ve tried it yourself, or if you have been to Italy, maybe you remember how it arrived after your meal, compliments of the chef. Limoncello is a delicious lemon-flavored liqueur that is often served after an Italian meal in order to aid digestion. The secret is that it’s delicious any time, and the best is often made at home.
A proper limoncello has a creamy texture and is usually served neat, right from the freezer. It can be sipped or slammed and it goes great over ice cream. It is crisp, sweet, and refreshing. You could buy it, but most Italians make it themselves.
It’s not like you have to have to go all the way to Italy to enjoy great limoncello. Sure, you can go to Italy (and I recommend it) but you’d be surprised by what you can make right in your own home. The only traveling you will need to do is to make a short trip to Wisconsin. That’s right. If you live here in the Twin Cities, you need to visit our neighbor state in order to get the proper ingredients. Hey, it’s shorter and cheaper than booking a trip to Italy, right?
So, what’s so special about Wisconsin? Well, for one thing, they sell 190 proof neutral grain spirits (Everclear). Here in Minnesota, Everclear is available, but only at 75% alcohol. Depending on where you live, availability may vary. In Arizona, for example, you can buy 190 proof Everclear in the grocery store! My recipe requires the strong stuff. Sure, you could substitute the weaker version or even vodka, but you would have to refigure the syrup with less water to compensate. And now I’m getting ahead of myself. . .
2 cups 190 proof (95%) neutral grain spirits (Everclear)
5 large, organic lemons (zest only)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Gather the Ingredients
So, you made the trip to Wisconsin and you bought a bottle of Everclear. Maybe you felt silly about it, maybe you were surrounded by cheering college kids. At least you could tell them you were making liqueur. Either way, you got what you came for. Now for the lemons. Organic lemons are a little harder to find and are sometimes small. If you opt for non-organic lemons, you’ll probably need to scrub wax off of the rind and wash off any insecticide residue that may be present. Since we are only interested in the quality of the lemon peel, grab six or seven if they are small.
Start the Infusion
After washing, the next step is to remove the zest from the lemons. I recommend using a Microplane grater for this, but a fine cheese grater will also work. You want to remove only the yellow part of the peel, not the white pith which is bitter. Once you have finished all of your lemons, take the grated lemon zest and place it in a canning jar or some other sealable container. Pour in two cups of 190 proof grain alcohol and seal the container. You will not need the rest of the lemons for this, so go ahead and make some lemonade or margaritas!
As the zest soaks in the alcohol, it will release the essential oils and flavor into solution. Allow the zest to soak in the alcohol for at least three days. Give the jar a shake once or twice per day to mix it up. After three days or more, the zest will have released it’s lemony goodness.The solution should now be cloudy and yellow, while the zest has lost much of its color and has become brittle. It’s time to remove the zest.
Strain and Filter
Remove the zest from the solution by pouring it through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. This should remove most of the zest, but I recommend filtering the liquid afterwards. Once strained, the yellow liquid will still contain tiny pieces of zest that could impart a bitter flavor and residue over time. At this point, I usually filter the liquid through a paper towel to remove the bigger particles and then through a coffee filter. The paper towel is an important step to save time since the coffee filter would quickly clog otherwise. Filtering this way takes a few extra minutes now, but pays off later in flavor and smoothness.
Make the Syrup
Put your filtered lemon concentrate in a container and set aside for now. Place the sugar in a sauce pan and add the water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved and the water becomes clear. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Be sure your syrup is cool before proceeding. A hot or warm syrup will cause the alcohol to evaporate. Combine the cool syrup with the lemon extract. As you do, the combined mixture will turn a pale and opaque. Once combined, your limoncello is basically finished. Pour it into a bottle and store in the freezer to chill. It will not freeze due to the high alcohol content.
Limoncello can be enjoyed in shot glasses, fancy cordials or straight from the bottle! Once you make it yourself and understand how delicious and easy it is, you will want to make more for your friends. I like to give small bottles away as gifts or bring them to dinner parties. They make great holiday presents. Why not print up your own labels? Not satisfied with lemons alone, I have also made arancello which is the same thing only with oranges. Experiment. Share. Drink, and enjoy!