Sipping limoncello after a meal is very popular in many parts of Italy. It also makes a great ingredient in cocktails. Even better, you don't need to travel to get some: homemade limoncello is easier than you might think, and it makes a wonderful gift!
If you have ever visited Southern Italy in particular, you have probably seen stores lined with bottles of different shapes and sizes filled with bright yellow liquid. It's incredibly popular both locally and as something to take home as a souvenir.
It almost tastes like summer in a glass, though of course with citrus being more of a winter fruit, it's more made in the cooler months. Whenever you enjoy it, it's a wonderful burst of fresh citrus flavor.
What is limoncello?
Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur that is popular as an after-dinner "digestif". Typically, just the lemon zest is used to make it. Plain alcohol is infused with strips of zest over a few days or weeks. Then the infused alcohol is strained and mixed with simple syrup so it becomes less strong and sweeter.
There is no one set recipe, so the sweetness can vary dramatically from one brand to another. Making it at home, of course, you can adjust to your own taste.
Areas like the Amalfi Coast and Sicily grow a lot of lemons and a decent proportion are used to make limoncello. It's also popular in Rome, Florence and other areas towards the Mediterranean.
Is it only made with lemon?
While limoncello itself is made with lemon, you will also find a number of variations made with other citrus fruits. Arancello is made with oranges and there's also grapefruitcello, pomelocello and limecello.
Most are made in much the same way by infusing alcohol with the fruits' rind, but you will also find cream versions where the infused mixture is mixed with milk. Each has a slightly different flavor and color, so it's worth experimenting!
Tips for homemade limoncello
This is very easy to make, but a few tips to ensure it turns out well:
- Use organic fruit as far as possible. Keep in mind that the alcohol will draw out everything from the rind, you want to try to avoid having any residual pesticides in there.
- If you can get higher that 80 proof alcohol, use it. Higher proof alcohol will draw out more of the flavor from the rinds and quicker. It will, however, tend to need more sugar added after.
- Use a vegetable peeler to remove the zest - it's quicker and easier than a zester or knife. It also means you have larger pieces that are easier to strain later.
- Make sure you remove any white pith from the rind before using. The pith can make the drink have more of a bitter aftertaste.
- Ensure the rinds stay under the alcohol while infusing - this helps to avoid them going bad.
- The longer you leave it to infuse, the more flavor you will get. That said, you also don't generally want to leave the rinds in longer than a month as there is a higher chance it will go bad.
- Add some simple syrup then taste before adding more. Your taste may not be the same as other peoples, and how tart the lemons you use make it can vary from one batch to another as well.
How should you store limoncello?
In Italy, limoncello is often stored in the freezer to keep it longer. Given the alcohol level, it won't freeze, so you get a nicely chilled drink when you serve. The exception is if you make a creamed version where it will need to be refrigerated instead.
Limoncello should keep a reasonably long time, even if just kept in the fridge, but if you ever see mould on it you should throw it out.
Traditionally, limoncello is bottled into tall, thin bottles, and that is indeed a nice way to give it as gifts. Smaller bottles mean you have a better chance of using it while it's still good - use clean bottles and proper canning techniques to increase the shelf life before you open it.
How to use limoncello
As mentioned, limoncello is traditionally served as an after-dinner drink. Normally you serve it just as it is, nicely chilled. However you can also use it as an ingredient in cocktails.
Limoncello works well to substitute in just about any drink that includes lemon juice, particularly ones that also include simple syrup. You can swap out some of the lemon and sweetener and it will give a slightly different flavor profile and be slightly stronger.
I have made a couple of cocktails using it which I definitely recommend trying - "Campfire in Lemon Groves" is a amaro limoncello cocktail with a wonderful smokey-citrus flavor. I also used some in the bright and refreshing lemon raspberry bellini.
What can you do with the leftover lemons?
Since making limoncello only uses the zest, you will be left with lots of lemons without skins that need used relatively soon. You can use some lemon juice to make fresh lemonade, or variations such as blueberry lemonade and limonana (with mint).
It's also great for lemon curd, or simply freeze the juice in an ice cube tray ready to use when you need it.
Homemade limoncello is easy to make and is a delicious, versatile liqueur. It's a bright sip of summer any time of the year, and perfect in cocktails too. So gather some ingredients, and with just a little patience, you'll have a bottle of summer sipping that makes a great gift idea too (particularly for some of those hard-to-gift for people!).
Why not try these cocktail with citrus flavors:
- Cranberry whiskey sour
- Raspberry caipirinha
- Passion fruit margarita
- Plus get more cocktail recipes in the archives.
- 10 organic lemons zest only
- 750 ml vodka 1 bottle, or other plain spirit such as a grain alcohol, white rum at least 80 proof
- 1 cup sugar 200g, or more to taste
- 1 cup water 240ml, or more, as needed
- Wash the lemons well and remove the zest with a vegetable peeler. Turn over each piece and use a sharp knife to remove any white pith.
- Put the pieces of lemon zest in a bottle or large jar and add the vodka or other alcohol. Leave to infuse in a cool place for at least 4 days, up to a month. Longer will give more flavor.
- Make the simple syrup by putting the sugar and water in a saucepan and warming until the sugar dissolves. Leave to cool before adding to the infused alcohol.
- Once the alcohol has infused and become slightly yellow in color, strain it with cheesecloth. You may need to strain more than once to remove all of the lemon zest.
- Mix in the sugar syrup and taste. If you prefer it sweeter, make and add additional simple syrup until it is to taste. Transfer to small bottles, using canning procedures to ensure longer shelf life.
I first shared the post for homemade limoncello on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.