A few years after a summertime trip to Italy, my lemon tree started bearing fruit in large enough amounts that I no longer needed to buy lemons at the store. After one such harvest, I got the notion to try a recipe for homemade Limoncello but, I was a little gun shy.
I first fell in love with Limoncello on a breezy summer day on the Amalfi coast. This is not unique, I think this is where nearly everyone falls for this lovely liqueur. As you drive the roads that weave their way through the towns that hang off the cliffs of Amalfi, you see lemon trees everywhere.
Life Gave Me Lemons
Here in the U.S., the saying is when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In Italy, the Italians take lemons to the next level, as they do with most foods, and make Limoncello. Typically Italians will serve Limoncello as a digestive after your evening meal. However, if you like lemons, anytime can be Limoncello time!
But I’d gone down the home fruit processing road once before. My father-in-law has a huge, decades-old Mission Fig tree in his yard that bears tons of fruit. The thing about figs is you must let them ripen on the tree, which leads to one massive harvest.
These figs are tasty, but after you pick them, they only will last about a week. So I decided to make fig preserves. I watched my grandmother make preserves from plums, peaches, and apricots all through my childhood. I thought, how hard can this be?
Recipes for making preserves are not involved. They are actually pretty easy. The hard part is dealing with gallons of molten hot fruit. Getting the preserves into jars and then processing the jars. It was a very long and sweaty day. But I was so excited to finally hear the first “thwack” of the lids sealing the jars. That sound made it worth the work.
Researching Recipes for Homemade Limoncello
So, I hesitantly started my research into making a recipe for homemade Limoncello. Wow, this is the easiest recipe I’ve ever made! High proof grain alcohol, lemon peels, water, and sugar. That’s it, the whole list of ingredients. But how you mix them together makes all the difference.
You need to find a good high proof grain alcohol, also known as a “rectified spirit.” Most recipes call for vodka, as this is the most accessible of these spirits. Most vodka’s on the market are 80 proof or 40% alcohol.
It used to be you could find “Everclear” at almost any liquor store. Everclear is a brand name of grain alcohol that is bottled at strengths starting at 120 proof and going as high as 190. In California (where I live), the highest level of alcohol allowed for sale now is 153 proof.
You should not drink any rectified spirit, vodka, Everclear, moonshine, with a level of alcohol nearing 100%. These spirits are intended to be mixed or blended. Drinking high proof alcohol on its own will most likely make you sick, which could lead to alcohol poisoning and even death.
Proof is a fancy way of saying what percentage of alcohol is in the mix. 120 proof is equal to 60% alcohol. For a frame of reference, your typical cabernet sauvignon is around 14% and a good IPA (Indian pale ale) around 6%. So it would seem to be that 120 proof would make for a pretty strong Limoncello.
However, part of the process of a good homemade Limoncello recipe is extracting the lemon oils and flavor out of the lemon peels. Just like vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol. The stronger the alcohol, the better the extraction. So it makes sense to get the highest proof spirit you can find.
Patience is a Virtue, and Limoncello is Your Reward
Homemade Limoncello is a recipe that takes patience. As you will see from the directions below, the first thing you do is peel the lemons, place the lemon peels into the alcohol and wait. You don’t need to worry about the fruit getting moldy or any sort of bacteria growing, the alcohol prevents this from happening.
The longer you wait, the more flavor will be extracted. So you wait. Three to four weeks from now, you can finish the recipe and have your first sip of your Limoncello. Yes, you can shorten the time. Much of the color and flavor will be extracted from the peels in the first week or so. But the longer you leave the peels in the alcohol, the better the final outcome.
Mixing up Your Homemade Limoncello
Now that a month has passed, you are ready to blend your Limoncello. While the recipe is easy, it will take some trial runs to make your perfect Limoncello.
Depending on the level of alcohol you used, you will need to use more or less “simple syrup.” If you start with 80 proof vodka, you will only need enough simple syrup to cut the lemon blend by half. This will render you with Limoncello that is around 40 proof or 20% alcohol. This is still pretty strong, but remember, you only sip a small liqueur glass at a time.
If you started with a higher proof spirit, you would need to dilute your lemon mixture further to get to a level that is near 20%. Yes, you are going to need to do some math.
Another thing you will want to consider is just how sweet you want your Limoncello. For example, my lemon tree is a “Meyer” lemon. Meyer lemons are much sweeter than the Eureka lemons that you usually find at the store. When making my “simple syrup,” I generally use less sugar to compensate for this. Instead of using the typical 1:1 ratio of sugar and water, I will use a 0.75:1.
Lastly, and this is truly just for cosmetics. If you mix the simple syrup with the lemon/alcohol base before the syrup is completely cool, your Limoncello will be opaque. It will not clear as it cools. The Limoncello will still be delicious, and you will enjoy every last drop. But, If you want a clear end product, make sure all liquids are at room temperature before mixing.
Yay! You’ve Made Your First Batch of Homemade Limoncello!
Now what do you do with ten (10) naked lemons?
- vegetable peeler
- paring knife
- Large Jar with Lid (I use a one-gallon jar)
- 4-cup measuring cup
- Bottles for final bottling
- 1 quart High proof grain alcohol vodka or Everclear
- 10 Lemons organic preferred, washed and dried
- 4 cups Sugar to taste
- 4 cups Water to taste
Preparing the Lemon Extract
- Peel the lemons using the vegetable peeler. Keep the peel thin avoiding the pith (the white membrane between the yellow skin and the fruit). The pith may make the extract bitter. If necessary use your pairing knife to remove any excess pith.
- Place the lemon peels in the large jar and cover completely with the grain alcohol. Seal the jar with its lid.
- Take your jar and store this in a cupboard or your pantry, out of direct sunlight. Leave this mixture to sit for up to a month. Every week or so, shake the jar a bit to mix.
- At the end of the month, strain your now "lemon-flavored alcohol" using a strainer lined with a coffee filter.
Make the Simple Syrup
- Mix up to 4 cups of sugar with 4 cups of water in a sauce pan over low heat. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Remove the syrup from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
- You can make the simple syrup ahead of time, but when mixing it with the alcohol all ingredients should be at room temperature.
Prepare Bottles for Bottling
- Sterilize your bottles and their closers by running them through your dishwasher on the hottest setting or by placing them in boiling water in a large pot on your stove.
- Allow the bottles to come to room temperature before you begin bottling your Limoncello.
Mixing and Bottling your Homemade Limoncello
- In the large jar, mix the lemon-flavored alcohol with the simple syrup. Add the simple syrup slowly tasting as you go until you reach your perfect Limoncello flavor.
- Using your funnel add your fresh Limonello to the bottles you previously sterlized
- Chill and store. As tempting as it may be, you should chill your Limoncello at least 4 hours before drinking.