When life hands you lemons (and I think we can all agree 2020 has had a widespread lemon-surplus), the best and most logical thing to do is to make limoncello. The sweet lemon liqueur from southern Italy is often used as an aperitif before meals, but the easily-sippable spirit can be enjoyed at any time. The process of making homemade limoncello is incredibly simple, and a tasty bottle of sipping liqueur you made yourself makes a great and thoughtful gift.

Limoncello, like all good Italian creations, has a foggy past and ties to several legends of origin. For limoncello lovers of Italy’s southwestern island of Capri, the lemon liqueur’s birthplace was in the rigorously-tended-to garden of Maria Antonia Farace at a small boarding house on the island of Azzurra. Maria’s nephew opened a bar that made a well-loved lemon liquor from nonna’s old recipe. The nephew’s son, Massimo Canale, started a small handmade production of limoncello and registered the trademark in 1988.

Further up the Italian coast, Sorrento lemons became a trademark of the citrus liqueur, and Sorrento and limoncello soon became synonymous. The Sorrento lemon, also known as Limone di Sorrento, is a fragrant cultivar of the oldest and most significant lemon group in Italy: the Femminello-types. In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, these flavorful fruits grow in a protected region and are primarily used for making their world-famous liqueur.

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Today, the lemon liqueur is most often used as an aperitif. Aperitif -- from the Latin word aperire, to open -- is an alcoholic beverage sipped before a meal that stimulates the appetite, relaxes the diner, and preps the digestive tract for the upcoming meal. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages when doctors would muddle herbs and botanicals into alcohol to alleviate digestive issues and stomach pain. Modern research has shown drinking aperitifs before your meal can boost your metabolism and increase overall energy intake.

Limoncello is best served icy cold and in a shot glass or small ceramic cup. It’s meant to be sipped and enjoyed before diving into your next delicious dish. Limoncello also makes a great addition to cocktails like this refreshing Sparkling Shamrock, Limoncello Gin Collins, or this deliciously sweet Lemon Drop Martini.

My personal favorite way to use limoncello (other than drinking it) is by using it in a number of sweet and sour desserts. I still have dreams about the limoncello cheesecake I made for my two-year anniversary this past June. The Torta di Ricotta al Limoncello, if you want to say it like the locals, features the delicate cheesy flavor of ricotta perfectly combined with the tart and sweet lemon. Add in a graham cracker crust, and...oof. Good luck getting that cheesecake to last longer than two days.

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Other mouthwatering desserts to try with your freshly-made limoncello include this light, citrusy lemon cake. Skip the oven altogether with this easy no-bake limoncello pie made with only cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, limoncello, and lemon zest. Follow the Italian theme with a limoncello-based tiramisu or a mascarpone and white chocolate-filled double-decker cake.

Limoncello is a delicious, versatile, and classy addition to your kitchen bar. The process doesn’t happen overnight (is it too cheesy to say Rome wasn’t built in a day?), but it’s incredibly simple and doesn’t take more than some lemons, liquor, water, sugar, and a mason jar.

Materials you'll need:

  • 6-8 lemons
  • 750 mL pure grain alcohol or 100 proof vodka
  • 5-6 C water
  • 5-6 C granulated white sugar
  • Large mason jar or another glass jar

Picking The Best Ingredients

Melanie Davis

There are no tricky distillation or fermentation processes when it comes to making limoncello. The bright and bold lemon flavor is infused into alcohol by soaking lemon peels in either pure grain alcohol or 100 proof vodka over several weeks. The higher the proof of the liquor, the more citrus flavor will be extracted. The alcohol is then balanced out by a simple syrup solution of water and granulated white sugar.

For the most intense flavor, I recommend using pure grain alcohol. I find that the simple syrup transforms the harsh buzz to a deliciously warm, lemony burn, but PGA is not for everyone. 100 or 80 proof vodka will pull out enough lemon flavor to make an excellent limoncello, just be sure to adjust the simple syrup solution as needed. The lower the proof of the liquor, the less sugar solution you’ll want to use to keep the liqueur from becoming too cloying.

Because the alcohol will pull out everything from your lemon peels, it’s best to choose organic lemons if possible. Non-organic lemons are often coated with wax, and you run the risk of accidentally infusing your boozy concoction with insecticides or pesticides. As far as the last two ingredients -- nothin’ fancy here. Just your good ol’ white sugar and some tap water.

Turning Lemons To Limoncello

Melanie Davis

Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel off the uppermost layer of the lemon’s rind. The white underside of the rind, or the pith, has an unpleasant, bitter flavor that you don’t want in your final product, so it’s best to do this step slow and steady. Your lemon peels can be wide or narrow, big or small, but keep in mind that the leftover pieces of rind will need to be completely strained from the alcohol. Fine zests can make for a grainy limoncello!

Once you’ve gathered the peels of 6 to 8 lemons, transfer to your alcohol. I normally pour out my fifth of clear liquor into a large mason jar. (Since we’re adding simple syrup to the steeped alcohol, there will be more liquid than a typical 750 mL bottle can hold. A mason jar keeps the whole process air-tight and easy!) And after this, you wait. For the most intense lemon flavor, you’ll want to steep the lemon rinds for at least three weeks. You’ll be able to see the clear alcohol transform into a vivid yellow as the lemon rinds soak in the bottom of the mason jar. Place in a cool, dark location out of the way.

Putting The 'Sweet' In 'Sweet And Sour'

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After you’ve patiently waited for three long weeks, you can start to add the final sugary touches to your limoncello. First, make a simple syrup solution by heating water and white granulated sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. For a tart limoncello, stick with three to four cups of simple syrup. Prepare five to six cups if you’re looking for that mouth-puckering, sugary-sweet lemon flavor.

Strain your lemon peels from the steeped liquor and toss. Remove your simple syrup from heat and let cool. Then, mix your simple syrup into the liquor in 2-3 cup batches until desired sweetness is achieved. Your limoncello is ready to drink after this step, but I like to let my limoncello sit for three to four days in the fridge before serving to really let the simple syrup and alcohol mingle. Call me crazy, but I think it brings out the tangy sweet and sour combination even more.

Serve your limoncello ice cold in a small glass before meals, with dessert, or just because. The classic flavor is as refreshing in the summer as it is warming in the winter, making it a year-round favorite for eating and drinking. Seal your homemade spirit in a decorative glass bottle with a cork, create your own custom limoncello label, and present the lemon liqueur as a wonderful, thoughtful, and tasty gift this holiday season. I would say it’s the gift that keeps on giving long after the holidays, but we can’t make any guarantees with this delectably sweet limoncello.

If the homemade liqueur bug bit you and you’re interested in creating more of your own spirits, look to lemons’ relatives. This same steeping and simple syrup recipe can be used for other citrus liqueurs like orange, sweet lime, or tart grapefruit. Make your own zingy combination in one bottle or create a homemade series of bright and tropical liqueurs. By adding a bottle of brandy and a few extra steps to your recipe, you can also make a sweet, Southern, homemade peach liqueur. Create a seasonal harvest liqueur with this nocino recipe, a spicy-sweet Italian liqueur made from green, undeveloped walnuts.

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