Introduction: Homemade Limoncello + Variations

Ever since my first trip to Italy, I've been a fan of sipping a little limoncello after dinner on special occasions (you know, like Tuesday). For about a year I've been making my own. There are a lot of recipes out there, after quite a bit of trial and error here's a process that I find leads to a smooth, delicious drink (and great party gift / conversation piece).

What is limoncello?
Limoncello is an Italian lemon liquor, produced mainly in Southern Italy (but now made and consumed world wide).

How’s it made?
By soaking the zest (the fine outer skin) of lemons in rectified spirit (highly distilled, highly concentrated alcohol) until the oils and color of the zest have infused into the spirits. A sugar/water mix is then added to sweeten and dilute the mixture to the proper proof.

Why make it at home?
Because I suck at making wine and beer and stamp collecting gives me paper cuts on my tongue.

Step 1: Gather Your Equipment

1 1-litre glass bottles (swing top bottle is ideal)

2 1-Liter glass jars (mason/ball jars)

1 Gold coffee filter

1 Small box paper coffee filters that fit the aforementioned gold coffee filter

1 microplane

1 750ml / 1 Liter bottle of distilled spirits. 190 proof Everclear is ideal, check your local liquor store to find out what is the highest alcohol level you can legally buy. Worst case scenario you can buy 100 proof vodka but this is NOT recommended.

12-18 organic lemons (or other citrus but we’ll discuss this later, organic isn’t mandatory but it makes later steps easier)

Step 2: Clean and Zest Your Lemons (or Other Citrus)

Scrub the outside of the lemons, make sure you get off any dirt, wax, pesticide, labels ,etc. Don’t be lazy about this part, really get them clean.

Using your microplane, remove the fine outer skin (aka ‘zest’) of the each lemon into a clean bowl. Get all the zest you can but do not microplane so deeply that you get the thick, white layer (aka ‘pith’) underneath the yellow outer layer. Pith makes for bitter limoncello. In the photo you can see that we haven’t removed enough of the outer layer to expose the white pith (which is good).

As an alternative, you can use a traditional peeler to remove the zest. However, it’s significantly harder to avoid the pith when using a peeler.

Once you’ve zested (aka skinned aka microplaned) all your lemons, place the zest into one of your (cleaned) glass jars.

Step 3: Mix the Zest With Your Alcohol

Sorry, but here's where we have to do a little math together. We want the final product that we're making to be 34% alcohol by volume (68 proof) and - with this recipe - we are planning to make a 1 liter batch. So, how much alcohol we start with and how much simple syrup we add later, will depend directly on the strength the alcohol we are using. I prefer a 190 proof (95% alcohol by volume) Everclear or other grain alcohol because a) it's entirely flavorless and will not tint/change the the flavor of our final product and b) I can use less alcohol and get more limoncello for my money. This isn't an option for everyone (190 proof isn't legal everywhere) so as an alternative to grain alcohol, you can use 100 proof vodka (or even 80 proof vodka if that's all you can get your hands on).

Here's the math (and logic), we're trying to figure out two things:

  • How much alcohol to mix with your zest in this step.
  • How much simply syrup to add later in this recipe.

Since we're going for 1 liter (1000ml) of final product at 68 proof, our formula for calculating how much alcohol to start with looks like this

Quantity of starting alcohol = 68000 / Proof of Starting Alcohol

So, if you're using 190 proof grain alcohol, you would divide 68000 / 190 and get 357.8. That means you would mix 357.8ml of 190 proof grain alcohol with your zest.

If you're using 100 proof vodka, you would divide 68000 / 100 and get 680ml. You would then mix 680ml of 100 proof vodka with your zest.

Once you know how many milliliters of alcohol you're starting with, mix that amount with your zest in one of those air tight glass jars and shake it up. Now store the jar in a cool, dark place.

Step 4: Wait

This is the boring part. The longer you are willing to wait, the more flavorful your final product will be. While you’re waiting, the alcohol is pulling the oil, flavor, and color out of the zest. You want to allow as much of this as you can. Purists recommend that you wait up to 60 days before you move to the next step. I use 190 proof grain alcohol and have had good results with5 weeks (35 days). I know people who do less but I strongly encourage patience, it will be rewarded. When it comes to waiting, more is better. Feel free to shake your mixture once a day or so. It may or may not help but it feels like you’re doing something.

Step 5: Filter

Amazing! You’ve managed to wait many weeks and now you’re ready to filter. This is the most ‘not sexy’ part of the recipe but it’s also the difference between a great final product and a mediocre glass of lemon flavored alcohol. (or lime or grapefruit)

Place your gold coffee filter into the top of your second 1 liter glass jar (use in conjunction with a funnel if needed). Pour your alcohol/zest mixture through the filter. This step will filter out all zest and any particulate that might be in the mixture. If your hands are clean, you can press the zest that catches in the filter to squeeze out that last little bit of liquid.

Remove the filter, throw the zest in the trash, clean the filter.

Thoroughly wash and dry glass jar #1. (the jar that originally had the zest/alcohol mixture in it)

Add a paper filter to the gold filter and place it on top of the newly cleaned jar #1. Pour your liquid from jar #2 back through the paper+gold filter into jar #1. This will take some time and patience. About halfway through, your paper filter will likely become so saturated that you’ll want to switch to a new one. Make sure you lose as little liquid as possible if/when you switch to a new paper filter. Not everyone believes in paper filtering and it's a valid debate. for some people, it results in a loss of lemon oil/flavor. You'll have to try it both ways and decide for yourself, but DO NOT skip thorough filtering. A well filtered limoncello has a clean, smooth taste.

Once the filtering is done, reseal your jar.

Step 6: Add Simple Syrup

Now it’s time to add some sugar-water to your mixture. This not only sweetens it (yum), it dilutes the starting alcohol down to our idea 68 proof.

I'm not going to teach you how to make simple syrup, google it and watch a video - as the name suggests, it's simple. I do, however, have a couple of thoughts on how you make and add it to the mixture:

  • DO NOT BURN your sugar. Trying to cook / dissolve your sugar into water too fast or at too high a temp burns the sugar and that leads to a caramelized, burnt flavor in the limoncello.
  • Use good old white sugar. Don't get fancy/organic/hipster. Just use the white stuff right out of the bag.
  • Traditional simple syrup is 1 cup of water to 1 cup of white sugar. In my opinion, this makes for a limoncello that is way too sweet. I use significantly less sugar in my batches. For your first batch, I recommend making a simple syrup with HALF the sugar – so for every cup of water in your simple sugar recipe, use 1/2 cup of white, granulated sugar.

We have to do one more little bit of math here but it's rather easy. To calculate how much simple syrup to add, simple subtract how much alcohol you started with from 1000 and you'll get your milliliters of simple syrup to make / add. So if you started with 680ml of 100 proof vodka, you'll be making 320ml of simple syrup. If you started with 357.8ml of grain alcohol, you'll be making/adding 642.2ml of simply syrup - and so on.

I always make about 50-100ml more simple syrup than I plan to use. This allows me to 'top off' my mixture and make sure I have a full 1 liter. You'll inevitably lose a small amount of liquid during filtering so having a tiny bit of extra simple syrup helps close that gap.

Once you've made your simple syrup, let it cool completely - DO NOT add it when it's still warm - I even put mine in the fridge so it's a little cold when it goes in and then add the simple syrup to the filtered alcohol/zest mixture. Seal the jar tightly, shake it (if you must), and put it back it it's cool, dark, place.

Step 7: Wait Some More

Again, it’s time for some patience. The longer you let the mixture sit, the more it will smooth and mellow out. If you HAVE to cut corners, this is the step where you do it – but try not to cheat. My rule is to let it mellow for the same number of days/weeks that I let the alcohol/zest mixture steep. Four to six weeks is ideal but in a pinch you could get away with three weeks. Again, when it comes to waiting, more is generally better.

Step 8: Bottle It!

Congratulations! You’ve got yourself a finished,1 liter batch of homemade limoncello. Transfer the final product into a serving bottle (something like a 1 liter swingtop bottle). If you’re determined to be the most amazing limoncello maker ever, you can filter it once more during this transfer and then let it rest for 7-14 days in the serving bottle. No matter what you decide to do, make sure to put your bottle in the freezer for a while before serving – limoncello should be icy cold when it’s served.

There are loads of great looking bottles out there. Swingtop are the easiest, but corked bottles also look great. Also remember, limoncello is strong and (like all adult beverages) should be consumed in moderation and using good judgment.

Step 9: Variations and Experiments

I've tried lime-cello (so-so), lemon-lime-cello (not bad), pompelmocello (grapefruit, a huge success), blood orange, Myer lemon and on and on. I encourage your to try all kinds of citrus, vary the amount of time you spend steeping, the amount of sugar you use, etc. Let me know what you learn and how it goes, there's always room to try something new.