How to Make Limoncello

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Introduction: 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

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
Sugar
Water

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

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

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

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!

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!

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    105 Comments

    I used the Everclear 190 proof grain alcohol with the peels from 8 lemons. What is the ratio of water and sugar to bring the alcohol level down to something drinkable?

    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

    4 replies

    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 everyone...you can use vodka...it 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.

    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.

    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!

    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.

    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!

    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!!!

    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?

    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?

    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.

    http://www.abarabove.com/how-to-make-limoncello/

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

    5 replies

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

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

    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.

    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.

    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?

    How many mil liters are ther in a quart.