Limoncello made with vodka on the left and grain alcohol on the right.
When I left Italy in 2002, I carefully packed two coolers full of the delicious Italian food and beverages that I was sure I’d be homesick for once in the United States. I needn’t have worried. Thanks to cooking channels, food blogs, and celebrity chefs, the food products I cherished in Italy became not only readily available here but part of the foodie lexicon.
Like limoncello. I had drunk it often as a digestivo; an after-dinner drink said to aid in digestion. I don’t know how much the limoncello actually did for my digestion, but I certainly felt happier after drinking it. It was lemony, sweet, cloudy, and a wee bit lethal.
While it’s easy to find limoncello in the States—I even saw it for sale at a rural gas station!—I wanted to make my own. I played around with several recipes and found them too sweet. I tried several different brands of vodka and while the limoncello I made with them were tasty, they lacked the characteristic cloudiness of a typical limoncello. So, I settled on this: less sugar, more lemons, and grain alcohol made from corn rather than the wheat, rye, or potatoes often used to make vodka. I’m finally happy with the results.
However, with this recipe you can use either the grain alcohol (I used Everclear) or your favorite plain vodka. Just be mindful that grain alcohol is 75.5% alcohol by volume and extremely flammable, while vodka is 40-50%. Whichever type of alcohol you choose, please use and drink it responsibly (and for legal reasons, if you don’t do either of those things, then you shall hold harmless and indemnify both Syndy Sweeney and T. Rex & the Rabbit Foods, LLC).
One more thing before we get to the recipe. It’s a simple process but it is a lesson in patience. It takes 8 to 12 days to make. It’ll be worth it.
1 bottle (750 ml) of grain alcohol (75.5% alcohol/volume) or vodka (40-50% alcohol/volume)
3-1/2 cups filtered water
2 cups white granulated sugar
Using a sharp vegetable peeler or paring knife, remove the peel from the lemons in long strips, making sure they don’t include any of the white pith. If you have thin bits of white attached to the peel, that’s okay; if they’re thick, remove them carefully with a knife. Once you’re removed the peels, set aside the lemons for another use (see below).
You can see how thinly sliced the lemon peels are.
This labor of love results in very little to no white pith!
Place the lemon peels in a large Mason jar (that holds at least 1500 ml) or a large glass canister. Pour the alcohol over the lemons and place a piece of cling film over the mouth of the jar. Store in a cool, dry, and safe place (no access to kids, pets, or your crazy friend) for seven days. Occasionally take a peek and gently slosh the jar.
On the seventh day, make a simple syrup: Put the sugar and water into a large pot. On medium heat, bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and cool for 15 minutes. Place the simple syrup into the refrigerator for two hours or until cold. Pour the simple syrup over the lemons and alcohol (if you’re using a 1500 ml Mason jar, it will be about an inch from the top). Cover the top of the jar or canister with the cling film and put it back into its safe place.
1500 ml Mason jar filled almost to the brim.
You can actually drink the limoncello the next day; however, I prefer to let the lemons hang out a few days longer to extract as much flavor as I can.
Place a small sieve over a large measuring cup (at least 2 quarts) or into a pitcher. Gently pour the limoncello into the sieve. Discard the lemons. You can bottle the limoncello in clean (use very hot water) stopper-topped bottles or in Mason jars of various sizes. Cover the bottles or jars and store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. I like to fill small bottles with the limoncello and give them away as presents.
To serve, fill a rocks or wine glass halfway with the chilled limoncello. You can add an ice cube, lemon zest, or a few frozen raspberries or blueberries. Sip and enjoy!
Don’t Freak Out!
1) What do you do with 12 naked lemons? You can literally make lemonade: Juice 6 lemons and strain into a 2-quart pitcher. Make a simple syrup with ¾ to 1 cup (I prefer it less sweet but go with your tastes) granulated white sugar to 1-1/2 cups water. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and cool for ½ hour. Pour the simple syrup over the lemon juice and stir. Fill the pitcher to the maximum fill line with cold water. Stir and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour before drinking.
2) You can also juice and strain the lemons and place the lemon juice into a tightly covered jar or plastic container and store in the refrigerator for up to a week and use for vinaigrettes, water, fish, or lamb. Or if you’re not a big lemon juice user, place the plastic container in the freezer for up to 6 months.
3) Limoncello is not just an after-dinner drink. You could use it to make a lemon tiramisu or in your favorite cheesecake recipe. Use it as both the acidic and sweet component of your favorite vinaigrette recipes. Pour over lemon, lime, vanilla, mint, pomegranate, or raspberry gelato, sorbet, ice cream, or frozen yogurt. Add a splash to your favorite sangria.