Introduction: How to Make Limoncello

Picture of How to Make Limoncello

Limoncello is a sweet, lemon-flavored Italian liqueur. Unlike many liqueurs, it's very easy to make at home, requiring only the most basic of ingredients and tools. Doing so is easy but rewarding--from a scientific perspective for the chemistry involved in the process, and from a culinary perspective for the simple joy of drinking something you made from scratch.

One of the interesting things about limoncello is that it isn't sour at all (if it's made properly). This is because there's no lemon juice in it. The lemon flavor comes from lemon zest--the very outside of the lemon peel, where the essential oils are most concentrated.

In its native Italy, limoncello is most frequently taken cold, as a digestif (an after-dinner drink). I find it especially refreshing early in the evening on a hot day, but it's enjoyable any time you like.

Step 1: Overview

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So, how do you make this wonderful stuff? The ingredients are as follows:

1 750 mL bottle of grain alcohol ( Everclear or similar, also known as rectified spirit--as long as it's potable, strong, and unflavored you'll be fine)
Zest of 8 lemons

Simple, yes? Oh, you'll also need a glass jar in which to keep the stuff. Be sure you have lots of spare room, as you'll add more liquid later. Mine is two liters, and works great.

You want to get the strongest alcohol you can get your hands on. Vodka, even the 100 proof stuff, isn't sufficient. In some states, such as Nevada, you can get 190-proof Everclear, which is 95% ethyl alcohol. Alas, California isn't one of them, so I'll make do with 151 proof (75.5% alcohol, which is still pretty stiff). You can as well, but go with the high-test if you get it. You'll dilute it down to something drinkable later; right now we need a strong but potable nonpolar solvent, and high-proof alcohol fits the bill. I understand an old catalog came with a disclaimer that Everclear was to be used "for the production of homemade cordials," or some such, which is exactly what you're doing here.

Step 2: Prepare the Lemon Zest

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First, wash the lemons thoroughly. A produce brush helps a lot with this. Some folks use a special-purpose fruit and vegetable wash solution to get them super-clean, but I've never been one for such luxuries.

Next, zest the lemons. For those of you who aren't familiar with the process, lemon peel consists of two layers: zest and pith. The pith is the inner, white part, and the zest is the outer, yellow part. You only want the zest, because the pith is bitter and will impart that bitterness to your limoncello. Therefore, be careful that you don't get any bits of white in your zest.

There are a lot of ways to zest lemons. Going from low-tech to high, they're as follows:

A knife. You can zest lemons with a knife, but it needs to be small and very sharp, and you need to be careful with it. Blood in your limoncello is not cool, no matter how much of a goth you are.

A potato peeler. Some people like these, but they probably have sharper potato peelers than I do. The first time I made this stuff, I tried this but then switched to a (just-sharpened) knife. Then I bought . . .

A lemon zester. Mine's a knock-off of a nice ergonomic model from Zyliss and also includes a channel knife so you can make twists too.

A Microplane or similar fine grater. This might be the ultimate zesting tool--I've heard people say they make it much easier, and they certainly look like they would, but I don't have enough use for one to justify dropping $15 or $20 on it. (Edit: On the recommendation of nattles, below, I have purchased a Microplane grating rasp, and it is everything a grater should be. Strongly recommended.)

Keep in mind that smaller bits of zest will give you more surface area, and therefore more chance for the lemon oils to dissolve into the alcohol. Knives and potato peelers will each give you little chips of zest, whereas the zester will give you thin strips, and the Microplane very tiny shreds. I'd go for the lemon zester if you didn't have anything more specialized; it should only cost five bucks or thereabouts. Or if you want to splash out a bit more, get a Microplane rasp.

Step 3: Add the Alcohol and Wait

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Next, pour the alcohol over the zest and wait a month or so. Keep the jar in a cool, dark place, and shake it every so often to mix the lemon zest around. In the meantime, maybe you could make lemonade or lemon chicken or something with all the lemons you have. Be advised that they'll spoil much sooner without their zest, so you'd better get to juicing pretty quickly.

Step 4: Remove the Lemon Zest

Picture of Remove the Lemon Zest

OK! It's been a month or so, and the alcohol has taken on a very bright yellow color. This is just what we want--it shows us that the lemon oils have left the zest and entered the liquid. Now it's time to take out the lemon zest. If it's done, the booze should be lemony and the zest very pale and somewhat more brittle. This is about right.

Step 5: Dilute, Sweeten, and Enjoy!

Picture of Dilute, Sweeten, and Enjoy!

Remember when I said we'd dilute it down to something more reasonable? Now's the time. I used 4 cups of water and 2-1/2 of sugar, which is a decent starting point. You may want to add a bit more sugar-water if you used the high-test Nevada Everclear instead of the weak stuff we get here in the California Republic, but it's easy enough to adjust the strength later. (Edit: I have a batch in now that I'm planning on preparing according to Alain80's recommendation below of a 1:1:1: ratio of alcohol to water to sugar (one gram of sugar per one milliliter of water/alcohol). I'll post my results here once it's done.)

Anyway, heat the water on the stove and stir in the sugar. You don't need to boil the water, but you do need to get it hot enough so the sugar dissolves. Stir it frequently until it turns clear. The sugar-water will be markedly more refractive than plain water, because of all the dissolved sugar, but you should be able to see the bottom of the pan clearly.

There's an argument that I should have taken pictures of making the syrup for completeness, but dissolving white powder in clear liquid to make another clear liquid is the sort of thing even the dimmest Photo 102 student would recognize as "not visually interesting." My pedantic side demanded one, though, so it's in this batch as well.

In any event, that's it! You can drink it as it is, but it'll improve with a month or so of sitting. It won't freeze unless you added a lot of water, so feel free to keep it in the freezer. Good luck!


gulcin (author)2009-02-17

why did you add the sugar syrup at the last step i am asking this because almost all liqueur recipes I've looked they put the sugar, fruit and alcohol together then wait. is there any difference ? thanks a lot

StoutJacob (author)gulcin2009-03-29

You would add sugar at the beginning if you were trying to ferment your fruit to produce alchohol. Little micro-organisms use the sugar in fruits to fuel their reactions, and alcohol is one of the byproducts. If we were fermenting lemons, we'd use the fruit, not the peel, because of the fruit's high sugar content. Adding sugar would boost the reaction, to a point. But in this case, all of the fermentation and fortification has been done for us. The result: Everclear. Also, adding sugar in the beginning of this recipe would be kinda pointless, because sugar is water soluble, not alcohol soluble. Since Everclear is almost pure alcohol, very little of the sugar would dissolve into the solution. The rest would just sit at the bottom of your container, doing nothing. Sugar is only added to this recipe because is makes the drink sweet. Therefore, it can wait till the end, just like adding sugar to your coffee or tea.

that is not what they are talking about.
gulcin was asking if it mattered that a lot of recipes for LIQUEUR have you adding sugar directly to the jar in the begining. so the tutorial on fermentation was not needed.
i have done it both ways. and adding the sugar in the begining just gives the sugar time to disolve(which it will) it just takes a lot longer. but because it is added in the begining, time is not an issue. in short it is just two seperate ways to add sugar to the liquid.

also can use works just fine. people say this all the time but they are wrong. i cant buy everclear in my state and i make things like this all the time with vodka. it works great.

LemonPro (author)Scurvymcdiggle2017-11-28

Vodka will work (not great), grain alcohol is without a doubt the best option.

If anyone needs convincing, I would suggest trying a batch with both 100 proof vodka and 190 proof Everclear to make the determination.

Scurvy doesn't have Everclear available, thus he is not qualified to say what is right or wrong, he shares a half baked opinion and he is wrong.

I have been making my own Limoncello for nearly 40 years from a family recipe, trust me you will appreciate the difference. Consider the fact that there many different Vodka's available and they vary in taste which will become part of the flavor profile of your Limoncello.

Everclear (Grain Alcohol, 190 proof) will extract out maximum lemon oils and flavor without imparting the vodka flavor. It is consistent and will be repeatable for future batches.

I have no doubt that Scurvy's recipe produces that cheap translucent look and tastes something like a spray of Lemon Pledge furniture polish in your mouth with a shot of vodka.

Revkan11 (author)Scurvymcdiggle2013-07-04

Yup! I used vodka. And I don't need to use that expensive Gray Goose stuff either. I bought Taaka vodka 80 proof. 10 bucks for 75ml! My Limoncello was perfecto!

Laral (author)2016-02-25

I checked that site and found the price with shipping is just about double what I pay at BevMo!, $23.99+tax, or, $30.27+ a quart. I guess if you have no alternative you might buy it there but… $58.24 a quart?! I think that $30.27 is already too much.

watchthebirdie (author)2015-12-18

I love limoncello and make it often. The one thing I'd caution about is drinking alcohol that's high in proof. It's very strong at 150 proof and up, and should be diluted down to no more than 80 to 100 proof at the most. Another traditional Italian drink closely related to limoncello is crema limoncello which uses milk to make a cream liqueur. I like it even better than regular limoncello. I found the recipe in a book from Amazon called How to Master Moonshine. It has a whole section of recipes so you can make your own liqueurs or liquors...and it also tells you how to make your own alcohol!

ZackA2 (author)2015-09-27

I use Polmos Spirytus 96% proof from poland. I get it in polish neighborhood in New York. So far i have made Limoncello and Mintcello with it. Great stuff!!!

AlbertF3 (author)2015-09-07

I've made several batches with simple sugar and each batch is a little different, evolving based on what I've learned from each. For next batch I want to try sugarcane water insteD of simple sugar. Has anyone tried this?

Laral (author)2015-01-31

I can't believe they don't sell the 190 in CA. This is the state with the highest number of 'foodies' per capita, not to mention the biggest producer of lemons in the country. What's their reasoning?

abarabove (author)2014-10-15

We tested 3 different ways of making limoncello.

1. heating the alcohol over a low flame to incorporate the sugar

2. Shaking refined sugar until it dissolved

3. Adding simple syrup to add the sweetness and drop the proof.

The heating results in a much richer limoncello, but there is a bit of fire hazard that you should be aware of. The shaking method did not drop the proof down, but worked well if you want a very "hot" and flavorful limoncello. The final one turned out the best as a standard comparison to limoncello.

keyguy13 (author)2008-10-03

Could you use splenda instead of sugar, for us diabetics?

Scurvymcdiggle (author)keyguy132013-07-05

maybe xylitol would work....i have used that stuff in other projects with pretty good results.

Revkan11 (author)keyguy132013-07-04

Splenda doesn't give the Limoncello that silky texture like sugar does. Maybe try half splenda and half sugar in a small batch?

Revkan11 (author)keyguy132013-07-04

NOOO. Yulk.

tellumo (author)keyguy132008-10-03

I don't see why not, but I'd experiment with a smaller batch to be on the safe side. Also recall that you'll drink this stuff an ounce or two at a time, so you're not getting that much sugar per drink.

tellumo (author)tellumo2008-10-03

Oh, also, I don't think Splenda has this problem, but be advised that NutraSweet (aspartame) breaks down under heat, so you shouldn't heat the stuff to get it to dissolve, because you'll be left with water that has a tiny bit of protein in it.

Revkan11 (author)2013-07-04

I've tried lime zest with Bacardi rum. Really good and pretty too. Be sure to use cheese cloth get all of the particles out of it or it will look muddy. Try orange zest in vodka; nice.
I wonder how mint leaves would do?

doctorstitchs (author)2009-02-26

How many mil liters are ther in a quart.

Revkan11 (author)doctorstitchs2013-07-04

1 milliliter in a quart = 946.353

a bottle of liquor is 750 ml
that's about 3.094cups per 750mL bottle

flataffect (author)doctorstitchs2009-06-29

Look it up. You're online.

grraorwwl (author)flataffect2010-08-22

No Joke.

admiral001 (author)doctorstitchs2009-10-24

Revkan11 (author)2013-07-04

If you keep it in the freezer, it gets smooth and silky. Try it. And that is correct. Mine's been sitting for 3 weeks now in the freezer and every time I take a taste it get s better and better. DELICIOUS!

Revkan11 (author)2013-07-04

I made Limoncello but I used a large drinking glass and covered it with a sandwich bag and a rubber band. Is it safe to drink?

janetsellers08 (author)2013-06-14

Why does it have to be such strong alcohol? I use potato vodka, dump in lemon peels and sugar to that bottle, and shake. In an afternoon or wait weeks, it is tasty.

Chocolatefdawn (author)2013-03-28

Cannot find 'Everclear' in the UK, and the only grain alcohols I've found are used as cleaning fluid(?). I have, however, discovered a vodka on sale in the UK that is 88% proof (Balken). Would this do or would it taint the flavour of the resultant lemoncello?

tellumo (author)Chocolatefdawn2013-03-28

This stuff: ? You should be fine. Just dilute it as recommended and all should be well. Good luck!

coachkatz (author)2012-02-25

Just made my first batch today. I bought a 1.75L of grain alcohol and used 20 Meyer Lemons. I tried a conventional lemon and found it hard to do with my peeler and more difficult to remove the pith. Using the peeler on the Meyers was easy and took the extra step of scraping off any pith. It is steeping as we speak and anxious to taste the results. if anyone is interest in homemade drinks you should try "Apple Pie". Lots of recepies on line and pretty easy. You combine apple juice, apple cider, sugar, cinamon and grain alcohol and its ready to drink, hot or cold.

tellumo (author)coachkatz2012-02-25

Sounds excellent! A few questions from the lab:

1) 151- or 195-proof grain alcohol?
2) Have you done a comparison between a batch prepared with Meyer lemons and regular ones? If so, what were the results?
3) Any proportions or recipes that you recommend on the Apple Pie drink?

coachkatz (author)tellumo2012-02-25

I;m in Florida and can only get 153 proof. This is my first batch so have no comparison with other lems. As to Apple Pie it's kinda like Limoncello...lots of different recipes. Think I used half gallon of apple cider, half gallon of apple juice, maybe 4-5 cups of sugar and about 8 sticks of cinammon. Having tasted others and making several batches I learned this: take the cinamon sticks out before you bottle it, otherwise the cinamon taste is too strong IMHO. You can always add little more alcohol or sugr to meet your tastes....mmmmgood.

dalejand (author)2012-01-22

My first batch following your recipe turned out delicious! It turned out not as yellow because I used organic unbleached cane sugar - the sugar granules were brownish - turning my limoncello.... well, brownish. Tastes great, but now I feel weird giving it away. Oh well, my closest friends won't mind and there's more for me now. Just wish I hadn't made a double batch. It's a learning lesson for next time. I thought I'd post so others can learn from my mistakes.

dalejand (author)2012-01-21

I'm about 3.5 weeks into my zest soak. I used the micro-grater side of my cheese grater to zest the lemons, though, and my zest is much smaller than yours in the pic. I'm not sure if I should soak the zest for a shorter time since there is technically more surface area making contact with the evercleer. It's now a rich yellow color. Any advice is appreciated!

tellumo (author)dalejand2012-01-21

You are probably ok to go on to the next step. It's ok if you want to let it sit longer, but I think you're OK.

Immanis (author)2009-04-23

I've tried this recipe 3 times now (it makes great Christmas gifts), and every time I do it, I have to make more and more. This time, I diversified into Lemoncello, Orangecello, Limecello, and Grapefruitcello - my favorite!

rhfromvenice (author)Immanis2011-11-13

IMMANIS: Your variety of "cellos" sounds great. Will you share recipes? Thanks a lot!

jamiec53 (author)Immanis2010-09-05

Try meloncello!

louisimo (author)Immanis2009-09-17

Thanks ! I have had some batches end up with a golden color rather than the usual creamy yellow color. They taste similar, the creamy yellow being sweeter. Do you know why it would be a different color ? I'm making gallons for a wedding and the only thing I can think to do is mix them for a consistent color.

Immanis (author)louisimo2009-09-19

Not sure why it would end up a different color after you make it. I noticed that it changed from that gold to the creamy yellow after I added the hot sugar + water mixture. I was a little worried that the boiling water would cause some of the alcohol to boil off when you mixed it, but I might try letting some if it cool down before I mixed next time.

tellumo (author)louisimo2009-09-17

Mixing it is probably the way to go. My guess is that the translucent ones actually do have more sugar in them as compared to the amount of lemon-flavor compounds, causing those compounds to coalesce into droplets in the liquid. Cf. the ouzo effect. I know next to nothing about the chemistry here, though.

tellumo (author)Immanis2009-08-01

Oh, awesome. I make a fair amount of it myself--I was worried that the people at the liquor store were getting terrible ideas about me and the quantities of Everclear I bought, but it looks like you're well beyond my quota. Glad you're enjoying it!

ofedaisy (author)Immanis2009-06-20

Impressive! Looks like you are having fun. My first (small) batch is 2/3 lime 1/3 lemon. I only let it sit w/ the zest 6 days but it had a cool green color. I let it sit in the noon sun for 1 hour to extract a bit more zest before straining it. Poured in the sugar today for a party a week from now. Can't wait for the finished product! Should be a hit. I'll be proud either way, since it tastes good now!

Limoncelloquest (author)2008-10-15

I strongly recommend organic lemons. I've tested it both ways and organic is better. You can see the results at LimoncelloQuest

n0ukf (author)Limoncelloquest2008-10-15

Don't you like synthetic lemons? I guess they're too waxy or plastic tasting (or whatever they're made of). ;)

Limoncelloquest (author)n0ukf2008-10-16

The wax is my biggest complaint actually! Non-organic lemons are waxed and it makes filtering the limoncello much more difficult.

wash them


nattles (author)2008-10-04

After using a microplane, you'll never go back. It's the best zester on the market. I'm a baker and I use one everyday. Microplane makes a utilitarian version (no fancy ergonomic handle) for just $6.95. They are also great for grating nutmeg or hard cheese over pasta. thanks for posting this instructable! i've always wanted to make limoncello and now that citrus season is coming up......

tellumo (author)nattles2008-10-04

$6.95, huh? I might have to get in on that action, at that price. Where'd you find it? The only place I've seen them is at Bed, Bath & Beyond, but naturally they want a minimum of $15-20. Thanks!

nattles (author)tellumo2008-10-06

I just googled microplane and cutlery and more popped up. look for the "stainless steel zester".
it's identical to the one I use at work, which leads me to believe that a good restaurant supply store should have it. I like Economy Restaurant Supply on 7th street in soma. As annoying as it is, sometimes yelp can be helpful (like for addresses), see here:
but be careful, this store is addictive. happy hunting!

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