Homemade Limoncello makes the ultimate gift any time of year. Sweet and tart, this Italian digestif is a delicious after-dinner sipper.
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After a great meal, it’s always nice to have a little tipple to sip.
Limoncello is a digestif that Italians enjoy after dinner, so why shouldn’t we all?
This lemon liqueur is sweet, sour and a little bitter — perfect for settling the stomach while enjoying great company for a little longer.
While traditional limoncello is made in Italy with native lemons, it can be made with other types of lemons. When lemon zest is steeped in a clear spirit, the essential oils of the lemon peels are released to produce a delicious liqueur.
So if life gives you lemons — or if you just have leftover lemons — make limoncello.
Why you’ll love this recipe
Whether you like to experiment with making your own homemade liquors or this is your first time, you’ll love this limoncello recipe.
- Homemade limoncello is easy to make at home. There is very little hands-on time.
- It is a delicious after-dinner sipper that can also be added to cocktails.
- It keeps for a long time in the freezer.
Bottles of limoncello make great gifts. Try making it for housewarming gifts, hostess gifts or even Christmas gifts.
What is Limoncello?
Limoncello is a sweet and sour lemon liqueur from Italy that is typically enjoyed after a meal as a digestif. After Campari, it is the second-most popular liqueur in Italy.
Limoncello hails from Southern Italy, especially Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast.
Traditional limoncello is made with Femminello St. Teresa lemons, a varietal of lemons that’s native to the Sorrento Peninsula of Italy. They are also known as Amalfi, Sorrento or Sfusato lemons.
History of Limoncello
According to Italy Magazine, the origins of limoncello are a bit contested.
One story from the early 20th century tells of a gardener named Maria Antonia Farace, who tended the garden of oranges and lemons of an inn on the island of Capri. After the war, her grandson opened a restaurant specializing in his nonna’s lemon liqueur.
In 1988, Maria’s great-grandson, Massimo Canale, began an artisanal production of limoncello and patented it.
Other claims of limoncello’s invention include farmers and fishermen of the Middle Ages who drank a shot of limoncello in the early mornings for warmth. Another story says the recipe is from a monastic convent where it was enjoyed by monks between prayers.
Apéritifs vs. Digestifs
Apéritifs and digestifs are alcoholic drinks that are typically enjoyed before (apéritif) or after (digestif) a meal.
Often served with an hors d’oeuvre, amuse-bouche or appetizer, apéritifs are designed to stimulate the appetite with their dry or bitter flavors.
Some examples of apéritifs are vermouth, champagne, pastis, gin, ouzo, fino, amontillado or other styles of dry sherry. Apéritif cocktails like a martini, gin & tonic, Aperol Spritz or the negroni are great pre-dinner sips.
Digestifs, on the other hand, are meant to help the stomach digest after a meal. However, they aren’t necessarily dessert drinks.
They range from fortified wines like port, sherry and vermouth to bitter liqueurs like amaros. They also include herbal liqueurs, aged liqueurs like brandy, whiskey (especially scotch) and añejo tequila and sweet liqueurs like limoncello and maraschino liqueur.
Tools & glassware
To make your limoncello, you will need an airtight container such as a large glass jar. You don’t want to use anything that’s too difficult to get out the lemon zest pieces. You might also want some empty bottles for bottling the limoncello.
Making your own limoncello requires just three ingredients.
Best vodka for limoncello
Limoncello usually has a high alcohol content, so the best vodka for limoncello is a high-proof vodka. Use a flavorless, grain-based vodka, not a potato-based vodka.
If you can find it, a 190-proof vodka like Everclear works well because it’s flavorless and won’t change the final product. (It’s not legal everywhere.)
A 100-proof vodka, such as Absolut 100, Pinnacle 100 or Svedka 100, would work really well.
Best lemons for limoncello
The original Italian limoncello recipe is made with Femminello St. Teresa lemons, which is a varietal of lemons native to the Sorrento Peninsula of Italy. They are also known as Amalfi, Sorrento or Sfusato lemons.
However, these varieties can be difficult to find in the United States, so standard lemons will work just fine. Non-organic lemons are typically covered in wax, so organic lemons are a better option.
If you can find them, Meyer lemons are sweeter, smaller and rounder than regular lemons and have smooth, deep yellow skins. They are excellent for limoncello.
To get the zest, use a vegetable peeler but be careful only to take off the yellow skin and not as much of the white pith underneath, which will lend a bitter flavor to your lemon spirit.
You can also use a microplane or zester tool, but it’s a bit more time-consuming.
To sweeten this lemon liqueur, you’ll need simple syrup, which is also called sugar syrup.
Simple syrup can be purchased at the grocery store or online, but it is incredibly easy to make.
Warm equal parts sugar and water and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool completely before adding it to the limoncello.
Make sure to use white sugar, or it will change the light yellow color of the final product.
Always sweeten limoncello to taste — you don’t want it to be too sweet.
You can also experiment with other limoncello flavors by using the same infusion method with the skins of other citrus fruits.
The resulting liqueurs will take on the color of their fruit, so you could make a rainbow of pretty liqueurs.
Here are some variations to experiment with:
- Arancello: Also called orangecello, orange skins will give a sweeter version of this citrus liqueur. Try cara cara oranges which are lovely and sweet.
- Agrumello: This one is made with mixed citrus, so use different kinds of citrus peels. You could do lemon-lime or make up your own combination.
- Pistachiocello: This one is made with pistachio nuts instead of fruit.
- Fragoncello: Strawberries are the key to this version.
- Frambolino: Use fresh raspberries for a unique version of limoncello.
- Meloncello: Cantaloupe is typical, but you could try it with other types of melon.
- Limecello: Use fresh, organic limes to make a lime version of limoncello.
- Blood orangecello: Use the skins of blood oranges to yield a reddish liqueur.
- Grapefruitcello: Bitter grapefruit skins will make a delicious bitter liqueur.
How to make Limoncello
Making this homemade limoncello recipe isn’t difficult and it doesn’t have a lot of hands-on time, but it does take a while for the zest of fresh lemons to infuse into the alcohol. Here’s what to do:
Zest lemons. Be sure to take as little of the white pith as possible, as it adds a bitter flavor.
Place lemon zest pieces in a jar. Cover with vodka. Let rest at room temperature in a cool, dark place for a few days to two months. Give it a shake or two every couple of days.
When it’s ready, strain out the lemon rinds. If you used fine lemon zest, you should filter through a cheese cloth or paper coffee filter in a fine-mesh strainer to prevent any pulp from getting through.
Then mix with simple syrup. Add ½ cup simple syrup at a time, tasting after each until you reach your desired sweetness.
(To make simple syrup, warm the sugar and water over low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. (Makes 1¾ cups simple syrup.)
Decant into a clean bottle, mason jar or swing-top glass bottle. If you can wait, let it rest a little longer after bottling, to help it smooth and mellow out.
Tips & tricks
Here are some tips for making the best limoncello:
- When zesting the lemons, take as little of the white pith as possible, as it adds a bitter flavor.
- There will be lemon flavor after just 3 to 4 days, but you can also wait up to 2 months if you prefer a stronger lemon flavor. If you leave it too long, it can become bitter.
- Add ½ cup of simple syrup at a time, tasting after each until you reach your desired sweetness.
- Remember that your first batch of this lemon-infused alcohol might not be perfect. You might have to try a few times until you find the perfect flavor, amount of sugar and infusion time for your taste buds.
Store your limoncello in the freezer. Serve it ice cold, but not over ice.
Limoncello should be stored in the freezer and served ice cold, not over ice.
Even though it is often served in shot glasses, it should not be taken as a shot. It should always be sipped to take in the delicious citrus flavor of the limoncello.
What to serve with Limoncello
Limoncello is usually enjoyed as a digestif, meaning it should be enjoyed after a meal.
If you are serving an Italian-themed dinner that you’d like to end with limoncello, you might start with caprese skewers, bruschetta pinwheels and tomato bruschetta, then move along into creamy penne rosa or spaghetti & meatballs soup.
Here are some delicious limoncello drinks you can make with your homemade limoncello. It mixes with all kinds of spirits, from vodka to tequila to sparkling wine.
- Limoncello Lemonade
- Lemon Drop Champagne Punch
- Limoncello Spritz
- Limoncello Lemon Margaritas
- Lemon Meringue Martini
Limoncello is a liqueur made with lemon zest. It is made by infusing high-proof grain alcohol, such as vodka, with lemon peels from a few days to a few months. It is then sweetened and bottled for drinking.
Limoncello should be stored in the freezer and served ice cold, not over ice. Usually served in shot glasses or tulip tasting glasses, it should always be sipped to take in the delicious citrus flavor of the limoncello.
Limoncello is usually served cold as a digestif after lunch or dinner.
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- zest of 3 lemons
- 2 cups vodka 100-proof or higher
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- Zest lemons. Be sure to remove as little white pith as possible, as it adds a bitter flavor.
- Place lemon zest pieces in a jar. Cover with vodka and seal the lid tightly. Shake gently.
- Let rest for at least 3 days and up to 2 months. Shake gently every other day or so.
- The day of bottling, make simple syrup, warm the sugar and water over low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Let cool completely. (Makes ~1¾ cups simple syrup.)
- Strain out the lemon zest. If you zested finely, double strain with a paper coffee filter or cheese cloth through a fine-mesh strainer.
- Add ½ cup simple syrup at a time to the limoncello, tasting after each until you reach your desired sweetness.
- Bottle in a mason jar or swing-top bottle. Store in the freezer.
Best lemons for limoncelloItalian limoncello is made with Femminello St. Teresa lemons, which is a varietal of lemons native to the Sorrento Peninsula of Italy. These varieties can be difficult to find outside of Italy, so standard lemons will work just fine. Non-organic lemons are typically covered in wax, so organic lemons are a better option. If you can find them, Meyer lemons are sweeter, smaller and rounder than regular lemons and have smooth, deep yellow skins. They are excellent for limoncello. You can also make other variations with lime, orange or grapefruit zest, or a combination.
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