What is Limoncello?
Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur made with steeping lemon peel in grain alcohol, or vodka, as a substitute.
It is also known as limoncino and limonello, depending on which part of Italy you happen to be in. While it’s popular all over the country (and elsewhere), it has its roots in Southern Italy, specifically, the Amalfi Coast, Sorento and the island of Capri.
Homemade limoncello is the best! If you make it right, that is. If you’ve been following me a while, you know that I love making up cocktails and alcoholic infusions. In this post, I’m going to share with you how I make traditional Italian limoncello.
Suffering for my craft through many an experiment, I long ago discovered that limoncello in Italy is quite different from limoncello elsewhere. My first experience of real limoncello was at a friend’s wedding on the island of Capri, 20 years ago, almost to the day (they just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary).
Italians drink Limoncello Ice Cold
The first thing I noticed was how it was served – straight out of the freezer, in ice cold shot glasses. And it was smoother too. And finally, at 35 – 40% abv, the Italian limoncello was most certainly more potent.
That would explain why, I felt no pain (nor shame), when the table I was dancing on, fell apart!
Here, in the UK, most of the limoncello I come across is an insipid 25-28%, which makes it impossible to be placed in the freezer. But more of that later.
Limoncello doesn’t have a long history. British journalist Lee Marshall in his article entitled L’invenzione della tradizione (The Invention of Tradition) in The Internazionale, says:
“but nobody (that I know) makes mention of limoncello before the beginning of the twentieth century. And, out of a handful of families and social clubs, only a few were to drink it before 1988, when the caparese Massimo Canale registered the Limoncello di Capri brand and started to produce the yellow liqueur… “
How to Drink Limoncello
- Serve it neat, straight out of the freezer, as an aperitif or digestive (before or after a meal)
- Use it in cocktails (see below)
When chilled in the freezer, your limoncello becomes thick and syrupy, it’s like drinking lemon flavoured nectar.
So the alcohol level is important, because anything below 30% is going to freeze, and unless you’re thinking of limoncello ice lollies, we need our FINAL CONCOCTION to be at least 30%. And I’m going to talk you through how to do that even if the best alcohol you can get is 37% vodka.
Homemade Limoncello Recipe (Limoncello Ingredients)
⇒ 4 ingredients. That’s all it takes to make a smooth, classy, Italian limoncello. Let’s take a closer look at the first two.
1. What alcohol to use for making Limoncello
This, to me, is probably the most important thing to get right, if we want to make the real thing. So we need to start with a high level of alcohol. You want to get your hands on grain alcohol or pure alcohol, commonly sold under the brand name Everclear.
Grain alcohol is commonly bottled at 151 proof (75.5% alcohol by volume or ABV) and 190 proof (95% ABV). The 190 proof is very difficult to get and is illegal in many U.S. states because it can very easily lead to alcohol poisoning.
⇒ 151 proof grain alcohol (Everclear) is perfect for making Limoncello
That means that it will contain 75.5% alcohol. So to ensure that we don’t dip below our 30% alcohol volume, a little math is called for here:
- The traditional method of making limoncello is to dilute the alcohol with a simple sugar syrup made with water and sugar.
- If you use the same amount of alcohol to water, you will be halving (give or take) the amount of alcohol in your final mixture.
- So 1 litre of alcohol (75.5% abv) + 1 litre of water (+sugar) = 37% abv (give or take, taking into account our sugar volume).
⇒ Can’t get grain alcohol for Limoncello? Let’s use Vodka!
Ok, so here, we have to think a little. The highest abv you’re going to get for vodka is 50%, which is 100 (US) proof. Immediately, we can see that diluting it by the same amount of water just isn’t going to work for us, as that would take that right down to just 25% abv – you’re gonna get limoncello ice lollies at 25%! Don’t give them to the kids!
Before we get down to the math, let’s talk proof and abv.
What’s the difference between proof and abv (alcohol by volume)?
The words are quite commonly misunderstood and mistakenly used to mean the same thing. Briefly, the word proof goes back to England in the 16th century, when gunpowder was drenched in alcohol to test for its potency. If the wet gunpowder lit, then the liquor was considered above proof and taxed at a higher rate.
This use of the word proof carried over to the US. In the mid 19th century, to standardise the amount of alcohol sold, given the practice of diluting spirits, 50% alcohol in a spirit was chosen as the standard, or baseline. And, this was described as being 100 proof. As in, it would light up.
Incidentally, chemistry doesn’t allow you to get 100% abv, 200 proof. 95% or 190 proof is as high as it goes.
Limoncello Alcohol Percentage Calculation
So, if vodka is all you can get, and what if you can only get 40% abv or only 37%? The trick is to lower the amount of water used. Here’s my rough formula for making limoncello with vodka, all starting with 1 litre (4 cups) of vodka (
alcoholics pros and chemists, feel free to correct me, if I’ve got it wrong.).
As far as I know, in infusions, the sugar has a negligible effect on the final alcohol content. If you want your limoncello stronger, reduce the amount of water. Follow the instructions on the recipe card below, for the actual process.
Be sure to start off with a good quality vodka. That doesn’t mean expensive, be sure it’s something you would drink on its own. Like cooking wine, you infuse rubbish, you’ll get rubbish!
How to make Limoncello with 50% vodka
- 1 litre (4 cups) vodka @50% abv
- Target = 33% final abv
- Water = 500ml (2 cups)
- Lemons = 12
- Sugar = 400g – 500g (2 – 2 1/2 cups)
How to make Limoncello with 40% vodka
- 1 litre (4 cups) vodka @40% abv
- Target = 33% final abv
- Water = 200ml (4/5 of a cup)
- Lemons = 10
- Sugar = 200g – 300g (1 – 1 1/2 cups) SEE BELOW
One of my readers said that with the above formula (40%), his limoncello turned to slush in the freezer. So I would suggest that you start with 200g of sugar (1 cup), and taste it at the end of 4 weeks. If your limoncello isn’t sweet enough, keep adding the sugar until you are happy with its sweetness.
I do have a sweet tooth when it comes to my drinks!
How to make Limoncello with 37% vodka
⇒ why don’t we keep it simple and skip the water?! That’s what I would do, giving you a limoncello with about 37% abv – fabulous stuff!
- 1 litre (4 cups) vodka @37% abv
- Target = 37 % final abv
- No Water
- Lemons = 8
- Sugar = 200g – 300g (1 – 1.5 cups) (taste after 4 weeks and add more, as needed)
⇒ If you are making your limoncello with no water, that is, with 37% or even 40% vodka, just add the sugar on Day 15. NO WATER.
2. Lemons for Limoncello
The sweeter and more aromatic your lemons are, the more sublime your limoncello will be. I am lucky to be able to get beautiful Italian lemons here from the folks I shop with (translate = expensive), Ocado.
Ideally, your lemons want to be organic and unwaxed.
Because whatever pesticides were used and that wax? That’s going into your limoncello otherwise, as it’s only the peel we will be using.
Speaking of peel, the traditional method is to grate the lemon zest into tiny bits. However, half the time, I get lazy and just use a peeler, and make it with strips of peel. This works just as well, especially if your limoncello is going to sit for more than 2 months.
Be careful not to have any of the white bitter pith, or your drink is going to be bitter.
If you can’t get organic lemons and/or unwaxed lemons? Scrub them gently with a vegetable brush with warm water.
What to do with all those peeled lemons after making limoncello?
- Make some lemonade for everyone, and spike the adults’ portions!
- Or any of the desserts in the gallery below!
It makes a perfect cocktail ingredient, and until I get around to posting a recipe or two, including a margarita, here’s a simple way to enjoy limoncello in a drink:
- 2 shots limoncello
- 1 shot vodka
- top with 7Up
- add some ice & berries of your choice
More infusions and cocktails on the Drinks page:
Why did my Limoncello turn Cloudy?
This is in response to a question left by a reader.
Essentially, what makes limoncello is the essential oil from the peel, which is why we don’t add lemon juice to the mix. Over time, the essential oil seeps out into the alcohol.
When sugar syrup is added to the mix, you get a spontaneous emulsification, resulting in an essential oil and water emulsion. So you have a louched (cloudy) limoncello. You want this, because that means you’ve got enough essential oil of lemon, creating a delicious limoncello.
This louche effect is also known as the ouzo effect (same thing happens) and is what you get when you dilute absinthe. In the latter, the process is known as la louche.
Sterilising Jars and Bottles for our Limoncello
- Turn the oven on to a cool 130˚C/250˚F/Gas Mark ½.
- Wash the jars, bottles and lids in hot soapy water.
- Place the jars, bottles and lids upside down in the oven and leave them to dry, with the door closed for 15 minutes.
- Turn the oven off and leave the jars, bottles and lids in there, bringing them out only when you are ready to fill. Be careful, as they’ll be hot.
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Images from LinsFoodies
Homemade Limoncello Recipe
- 1 large preserving jar that will hold 1.5litres (6 cups)
- Sieve and muslin cloths
- Bottles to strain the final mix into, after 4 weeks
- 1 litre (4 cups) grain alcohol, Everclear, 75.5% (150 proof) – if using vodka, read my explanation and formulae above
- 15 lemons
- 500 g (2 1/2) cups sugar
- 1 litre (4 cups water
You will also need
- Rinse and dry the lemons. Peel or grate the skin, carefully. We only want the yellow parts, the white is bitter.
- Place the lemon peel into your preserving jar.
- Top with the alcohol, cover, and keep in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks. Stir every 4-5 days.
Day 15 (Week 3)
- At the end of 2 weeks, make a simple syrup with our water and sugar, by simmering it for 10 minutes.
- Cool completely, then add to the lemon peel mix. Stir well. Cover, and return to the cool, dark place, this time for a minimum of 4 more weeks, but ideally, 10 more weeks, so that your grain alcohol can mellow out, and so you’ll have a smoother drink.
If you are making your limoncello with no water, that is, with 37% or even 40% vodka, just add the sugar now, along with the lemon zest/peel. NO WATER NECESSARY.
Straining the Limoncello (minimum 1 month. 3 months is good)
- Strain through a fine mesh sieve into your bottles. For a crystal clear drink, strain through a coffee filter (which takes forever), or line your sieve with a double layer of muslin or cheesecloth.
- Place the bottles in the freezer and serve in ice cold shot glasses for the best experience.