Homemade Limoncello: Italy's Lemony Elixir

May 31, 2011

Years ago, I spent a lovely weekend with friends in a tiny cabin we rented on a picturesque lemon grove just outside of Sorrento, Italy. We'd asked the kind owner if we could pick lemons to make lemonade. He responded with a grin, told us politely to wait, and returned with icy cups of his homemade "lemonade," a much more potent and delicious form of lemonade than we had in mind. The elixir he shared with us was limoncello (lee-mohn-CHEH-loh), a beautifully sweet digestif made from lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and water. I don't recall the variety of lemons he grew, nor do I know what type of alcohol he used (though my guess would be grappa), but the exhilaration of that first sip has stayed with me for over 20 years. Indeed, Italy has a way of doing that, especially when staying on the Amalfi coast.

Limoncello is easy and inexpensive to produce, containing only a few simple ingredients and requiring just a bit of time to mature. It's sipped icy cold - but never with ice - after dinner (or in lemon groves with a kind Italian farmer) from small glasses. Cin cin!

Makes 4 bottles

When in season, I love to make this with Meyer lemons as they are so fragrant and deliciously sweet. After the maturation, pour your limoncello into pretty bottles such as swing top ones and give as gifts during the holidays. The recipient will love you!

15 lemons
2 (750 ml) bottles grappa or Everclear (Note: If you use Everclear or some other more pure alcohol, dilute it to about 40%, the strength of vodka. Below that, it will not properly extract all the oils from the rinds)
4 cups sugar
5 cups water

Wash the lemons with hot water to remove wax; pat dry. Zest the lemons with a zester or vegetable peeler so there is no white pith on the peel. You want to take great care while zesting to make sure you are only getting the outer part of the rind. The pith is too bitter and will spoil your limoncello!
Put the peels in a large 1 gallon plus glass jar and add one bottle of alcohol and seal tightly. Leave the jar to steep in a cool, dark place until the peels lose their color, at least 2 weeks.
After the initial 2 week resting period, combine the sugar and water in a large saucepan and cook until thickened and clear. Let the syrup cool. Add the syrup and the additional bottle of alcohol to the limoncello mixture from Step 2. Allow to rest for another 10 to 40 days.
Strain out the lemon peels through a coffee filter or cheesecloth and pour the limoncello into another container. Press down to remove all the alcohol and oils that you can from the peels before tossing them. Stir the liquid with a clean plastic or wooden spoon. Put the liqueur in clean bottles (I prefer swing top bottles), seal tightly and leave the finished bottles for at least 1 week before using.
Store your limoncello in the freezer to enjoy icy cold – it won’t freeze.


Marina @ Yummy Mummy's picture

I am planning on making a batch this Summer. Though I've enjoyed limoncello (in Sorrento too!) I've never made it. Thanks for the recipe! I have a limoncello spritzer recipe on my blog from last Summer and just had a wonderful limoncello lemon drop martini at a local Italian restaurant. Delicious!

Ellen's picture

I have a couple of tweaks for this recipe. First, make sure to use 100 proof vodka, not the more common 80 proof. 100 proof (50% alcohol) will ensure that the limoncello isn't too watery. Don't use Everclear, however, it's too strong and you'll get funny looks at the liquor store.

Make a syrup of 3 parts sugar:1 part water, cook until the sugar is completely dissolved and then some. Don't stir while cooking, which could lead to crystallization. Cool before using. This stuff keeps forever, so make a lot if you think you'll be making a lot of limoncello. It's also a nice simple syrup for cocktails. If it's too thick, you can always add water, but if it's too thin, your kind of stuck.

Do not use Meyer lemons. For some reason, they make the vodka taste like gasoline and it cannot be fixed. Use regular old lemons, steep only the peel for 5 days in the vodka in a dark place, shaking/swirling a few times a day. After 5 days, the vodka should be a brilliant yellow, at which point you can strain it. Throw out the lemon peels. Add the sugar syrup until it's as sweet as you like, bearing in mind that when it's cold, it won't taste as sweet, so use perhaps a little more than you think you need. Decant into pretty bottles, freeze and give as gifts. Save a couple for yourself!!