“The Lemon Kiss”
By Brian Brecht
Making limoncello has been a fun little Clubchair adventure. The impetus to make it came from my trip to Italy in November of 2003 (More on this adventure coming in future posts.).
For approximately 100 years, this popular Italian lemon liqueur has been lovingly produced in southern Italy around the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento lemons having always been one of the primary ingredients. As its popularity has grown to other exotic locales such as Sicily, Sardinia, Menton in France, and the Maltese island of Gozo, other lemon varieties are being used. The US has seen a rise in commercial producers using California lemons. The recipe I share below uses fresh organic lemons handpicked by me from my wife’s cousin’s vineyard in Healdsburg, California.
Making limoncello is surprisingly easy. It requires only four ingredients and time. There is no shortage of recipes on-line for making the delicious liqueur, so by all means, look around. Mine is not much different than most, but you will find there are minor variations between recipes. Below is what has worked for me for the last few years.
The main ingredients are as follows:
- Lemons – 15-20
- Grain Alcohol – (2) 750ml bottles (Everclear)
- Water – 5 cups
- Sugar – 3-4 cups
So this is where the variations begin. You will find some recipes say to use Vodka. By all means, go for it, if this sounds better to you. As with any recipe, booze or otherwise, do what works to your taste. For me, when I contemplated a beverage that has been around for approximately 100 years, vodka was not what they were serving in Southern Italy. Also, from what I’ve read, traditional limoncello is made with grain alcohol that’s at least 151 proof. That’s more than any vodka you’ll find at the local grocery store. To be fair, I have made a version using vodka and found it lacked a certain “punch”. A close friend has called my limoncello the “Lemon Hammer” so clearly we both liked the added kick of the 151.
On to the process.
By far, the most labor-intensive part of limoncello is the zesting of the lemons. This is one step where all the recipes agree. What you’re doing here is ONLY gathering the yellow lemon peel, specifically the oils that reside inside. What you don’t want is any part of the white, or pith. The more white that comes along with the peel, the more bitterness will be added into your Limoncello. This is not a drink in which you want any bitterness.
That said, again, there are variations in methods. Zesting is easy enough if you have a zester. Truthfully, I did not even know what a zester was until I started making limoncello. I’ve used an apple peeler, a cheese grater and a micro-plane. All will work just fine. Using the standard apple peeler or potato peeler will get you large flat peels of the lemon. This, again, will work as long as again you are not getting any of the white pith. For my version I’ve found the micro-plane to be the best method. The shavings of the peel are very fine and expose a great deal of the oil, which is the primary objective.
As a side note, one benefit to making limoncello is that, after the zesting, you have a pile of fresh lemons that will go bad very quickly if you don’t do something with them. Although it is a bit more work, I took the time to juice all 40 of the lemons and froze the juice. I separated it into 2-cup zip-lock bags, and in the coming weeks, I will be able to take advantage of the fresh lemon juice by making one of my wife’s best recipes for lemon chicken. Also my daughter is asking for fresh lemonade. (When life gives you lemons…) It is definitely worth taking advantage of the by-product and not letting any of the lemon go to waste. Finally, if you are able, add the spent peels to the compost pile. It always feels good to go green if you can.
Back to the beverage. As I mentioned, there is not a lot of effort needed at each step. So for me, as long as I was making one batch, I might as well make a double. It also happens that the lemons we picked were so abundant, I couldn’t let them go to waste. So for many of my photos, just be aware that I’m making a double batch.
So we have zested, peeled or micro-planed our lemons and placed them in a good-sized glass jar. At this point you are adding the first bottle of Everclear (remember, I am adding two). Let this mixture sit so that the lemon oils (flavor and color) will infuse into the alcohol. Now we come to our next point of contention. I have seen versions that call for wait time as little as 4-5 days, others say wait as long as a month. I have always erred on the longer side, assuming the longer I can have the lemons sitting in the alcohol, the more lemon flavor I will infuse into the Everclear. The batch we’re doing here has been sitting for a solid 30 days.
Now that you have waited patiently for a month, this is your first chance to open your container and get a full whiff of the lemon infusion. It is wonderful! But let us not stop here. Next, we need to add a simple syrup and our second bottle of Everclear. But first we need to filter the lemon zest out of our initial bottle of alcohol.
Another side note: I have, in the past, left the lemons in the alcohol, and then added the next steps on top of that, assuming, that if 30 days of infusion was good, 60 days would be even better. In the research I have done, it seems most, if not all, the lemon oil has soaked out of the peels by now, so leaving it on the peels longer just adds cloudiness to the end product. I have to say I agree. We will filter the mixture at various points during the process but the amount of filtering I needed when leaving the peels past 30 days was much greater. I don’t feel that it added anything to the overall flavor.
So, first, we need to get a large enough jar that we can filter our stage-one alcohol through a strainer, getting rid of 98% of the spent lemon peel.
Next, simple syrup is just that, simple. It is water and sugar slowly stirred over heat until the sugar dissolves; there is no need to bring the water to a boil.
You’ll know when it is ready as the water will be cloudy at the beginning while the sugar sits in the water. At a certain point, you will start to see the mixture clarify, continuing to heat the water and sugar until the entire pot is a clear and somewhat thick. At this point, pull the water from the heat, and let it cool. I don’t know why, but every recipe I have found specifically says, “Don’t add the syrup until it has cooled”. So here is my warning: “Don’t add the syrup until it has cooled”.
Once the syrup has cooled to room temperature, add it to the stage-one mixture that you filtered earlier. Do not be alarmed if, when you add the syrup, the mixture turns a cloudy yellow. There are a number of variables that can affect the overall color of the batch. Some of the research I have done suggests opaque limoncellos can be the result of something called “spontaneous emulsification,” also known as the Ouzo effect, which is a rapid interaction of the syrup and extracted lemon oils.
Moving on, to the syrup, you will now add the remaining bottle of Everclear. When added, it helps to thin out that opaque color and bring back some of the clarity I had before, but not completely.
From here you want the mixture to sit for another length of time. Again, there is some debate. I have, in the past, let this stage sit for another 30 days. Some recipes suggest bottling as soon as a week later. I am not 100% sure if there’s a difference other than letting the mixture truly blend together for as long as possible. For this batch, I decided to let it sit for two weeks, then moved the mixture into separate bottles. And before the bottling, I would suggest another round of filtering (or two) just to make sure you’ve pulled all the remaining lemon particulate out of the liquid. There are a variety of methods, cheesecloth, coffee filters, etc. I have, at times, used them all.
I think there is value in letting it sit for AT LEAST a couple of weeks, and then putting it into the bottle. But once it’s in the bottles, you can really begin to enjoy the accomplishment and the excitement that soon you’ll not only be enjoying this delicious liquor, but doing so with your friends.
For me, I had almost as much fun coming up with my own label as I did in making the batch itself. Have some fun with it. You’ve crafted the limoncello to your own style and taste, so lets see if you can get your label to reflect the same flare. For me, it was something whimsical that highlighted the Italian adventure that inspired me. And with that, came my own creation, “The Lemon Kiss”
From here, my friends, the adventure really begins. Envision having that fancy dinner party, or perhaps it’s just a few friends over for pizza. You break out your own homegrown version of limoncello. It is a great way to end a perfect meal, and if you have done it right, it helps you remember that Italy adventure you took, or, even better, plan for the one you will be taking.
Just say “Kiss me!”