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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Our Holiday Gift to You: A Limoncello Recipe and Story

Where we learned to love the Roman Limoncello custom
It’s holiday season, and so we’re thinking of Limoncello – that great sweet and not very expensive liqueur from Sorrento, south of Rome.

Lemon/alcohol infusion - steeping in our
basement bathroom shower
We had our first taste of our now favorite liqueur at a large, family trattoria in the Appia neighborhood of Rome – La Zingarella (the “little gypsy”).  We had finished – we thought – a wonderful dinner when the waiter plunked a large bottle of yellow-colored liquid on the table.  Wait, wait, we said, we didn’t order that.  Sure, I know, he responded.  And, we said, we couldn’t possibly drink all that.  Of course, he responded again, just drink what you want.  And so we were introduced to the Roman restaurant custom – at least of some Roman restaurants – of a free after-dinner Limoncello.  And we were hooked.

It’s not an expensive drink in Rome, and it’s usually made by the restaurant.  So it must be easy to make, I thought.  I scoured the Internet for recipes for Bill’s birthday, not knowing I was engaging in a 4-month process.  So what Bill got for that first birthday was a look at the large glass jar of lemon/alcohol infusion steeping in our basement bathroom.  So classy.

Buona festa!
But that first batch convinced me to do another, for which I got some great help from Bill at critical times – zesting and filtering.  And yet another. 

In the spirit of the holiday season, we offer you Dianne’s recipe – derived from some Internet sources and experimentation. 

Buon natale e buon anno,  Dianne and Bill

Dianne’s Limoncello Recipe

Note: This is at a minimum a 90-day process.  So if you are thinking Christmas gifts, you have to plan ahead.

One Bottle (750 ml) Everclear (95% alcohol 190 Proof) (see below – some prefer a lower proof)

One Bottle (750 ml) good but not necessarily premium vodka (100% proof).  Note some recipes call for only grain alcohol.  Some purists don’t like the use of vodka at all.  Some like 80 proof mid-grade vodka.  Some creators of Limoncello don’t like the high proof grain alcohol and prefer 151 proof.  I’ve given you my combination.  You can try your own.

15-17 large thick skinned bright yellow lemons – organic, without scars or flaws in the skin if possible.  Use organic because the skin of the lemon is what you are using, and you don’t want those pesticides in your Limoncello.  Thick skinned, smooth skins – means easier zesting.  15 if they are smooth and large; 17 if they are not so smooth and smaller.

1 liter (1000 ml - about 4 cups) filtered tap water or distilled water (not mineral water)

4 cups pure cane white sugar (for thicker and sweeter Limoncello, increase sugar by 1-2 cups)

Microplane Zester

Very clean and dry glass jar, at least 1 gallon

Brita filterer and filters (if you use a Brita filter to filter the alcohol and water)

1 box each of #2 and #4 unbleached cone coffee filters

Some of the equipment: #2 and #4 filters; swing-cap bottle
and large and small funnels

10 250 ml bottles that seal tightly.  I found mine online; swing tops are preferable.  I bought 20 for $4 each with shipping from Specialty Bottle Supply (  You also can bottle smaller amounts – e.g. 22 100 ml bottles; or larger – several 500 ml or 750 ml bottles.

One large glass pitcher – ideally at least 1 gallon

Metric measuring cup

At least 2 funnels – one to fit the #4 , the other the #2 filter (i.e.,  one for your gallon+ jar, the other for your final bottles)

STEP 1: Wash the lemons and scrub them under very warm water with vegetable or other plastic brush.  You want all the stuff off the skin, including any wax.  Dry them thoroughly, or let them dry.

Zest the lemons.  You will want a Microplane Zester for this. Try not to get any of the white pith in with the lemon zest.  The pith is bitter.  If your lemon is bumpy, don’t try to microplane as much yellow zest as you can while getting white pith.  Instead, leave some of the yellow peel on and avoid any white pith.  It’s better if your partner helps with this, but basically you can do it in under an hour.

STEP 2: Filter the liquor.  I use a Brita pitcher that I clean out and use.  I use the filters only for this purpose and then toss them.  I don’t use filters I’ve used for water or will use for water.  Filter each 750 ml of alcohol 4 times.

STEP 3: Combine the zest and filtered liquor into the clean 1+ gallon jar and screw the lid tight (or add plastic wrap under the lid to make the seal tight).  Count this Day 1.

Leave the jar in the kitchen for a week or so and shake it up every couple days.  Then put it away – preferably in your basement (ours goes in our downstairs basement bathroom shower, which we generally don’t use – as we said, how classy).

Labeling is crucial
Mark your calendar, with Day 1 the day you first combined the zest and filtered liquor and put a label with the date on it on the jar.  On days 8, 22, and 36, open the jar and gently stir your mixture (or shake it).  This 45 day period is a minimum – it’s where the lemon flavor infuses.

STEP 4: Day 45 or later:  Add the simple syrup.  I use an equal amount of sugar and water: 4 cups each.  Other recipes list 5 cups water and 3.5 cups sugar or 3 cups water and 4-6 cups sugar.  The 4:4 seems to work for me; frankly, I can’t imagine it sweeter – but it’s a question of taste.

To make the simple syrup – Filter the water to get rid of any odd tastes (use your Brita filter again – cleaned out from the alcohol 45 days ago); dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to boil over high heat.  Boil for 5 minutes.  Set the syrup aside to cool to room temperature. 

Ladle your infusion of zest and alcohol into a large pitcher using the #4 filters.  Have patience; change filters as needed.  If you moisten your filters with water first, you will waste less of your infused lemon and alcohol. Then put the filtered infusion back in the jar and add the cooled syrup.  Another option is not to do any filtering here, but simply add the simple syrup (cooled) to the infusion in the jar.  Others filter 2x.  Your call.

The multi-step final filtering process; yes, messy
Mark your calendar again and add this date to the label on the jar,  because you need to put your Limoncello back in the basement and wait another minimum 45 days.  Again, the longer the wait, the smoother the Limoncello .

STEP 5: Day 45 or later (in the second wait period): Filter the Limoncello.  First filter it as you did on the first Day 45 (if you did it then), into a large pitcher.  Again, moistening the filters with water saves infusion.

Filter it at least 3x using the #4 filters. In the last (3rd) filtering before the final bottles, you can filter into a large metric measuring cup to get your 250 ml (or 100 ml if you are using smaller bottles).  The final step is filtering into your final bottles using the #2 filters and the small funnel.  Of course, you can make 500 ml or 750 ml bottles – use the bottles you bought the alcohol in (well cleaned; ideally in a dishwasher).  I don’t recommend using a cork to seal them.  They breathe too much. A partner is an asset in this step too.

Seal your bottles tightly and label them with at least the date.  I put simply “Dianne’s Limoncello 12/__/__” and mine are usually Christmas gifts.  I’m told if you are giving them away you should put something on the label, such as: “This liqueur is homemade for private use only.  Not intended to be sold or served commercially.” Consider yourself informed/warned. 
Not lost in the freezer

Limoncello keeps perfectly in the freezer and can be served directly from the freezer.  It smooths with aging.  So if you – or your friends – can wait, that’s best.  And that’s a good reason to put the date on it.  You really shouldn’t sample Limoncello until at least a week after you’ve bottled it, and ideally wait a couple months before drinking it.  The only bottles in our house that have lasted more than 6 months are those that got lost in the back of the freezer.


I acknowledge indebtedness to several recipes, but particularly Deborah Horn’s on the slowtravelitaly Web site -, and Ben, who has an elaborate recipe (and you thought mine was elaborate) at  You might also enjoy his Limoncello-obsessed blog where this recipe is posted.  I looked at a lot of other recipes, but these 2 stand out, in part for their detailed instructions and explanations and also for their lack of short-cuts.