Pouring limoncello. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

Have you always wanted a lemonade for grown-ups? Limoncello might be right for you, and it is easy to make for yourself with a few lemons and a bit of time.

Limoncello — or limoncino, as it is sometimes called— is an Italian liqueur made from lemon zest. It tastes like a boozy lemon gelato and is often drunk as a digestivo to cleanse the palate after a meal. Homemade limoncello also has a long legacy in Italy.

Rebecca Pirone, owner of My 3 Sisters Italian Cookies in Portland, said that she has a homemade limoncello recipe that has been in her family forever.

“I’m Italian and basically I make it every year,” Pirone said. “I make it for my business clients at the end of the year.”

Limoncello is beginning to make inroads in Maine, too. Bruce Olson, founder of Tree Spirits Winery and Distillery, began making limoncello about three years ago, inspired by a trip to Italy he took with his wife.

“It’s very simple to make,” Olson said. “You can make limoncello at home much easier than you can make just about anything else. The four ingredients are alcohol, lemon zest, sugar and water. That’s all there is to it.”

Limoncello usually has a slightly hazy appearance, which originates from the presence of small essential oil droplets suspended in the drink that are extracted from the lemon. The alcohol content can vary widely, especially among homemade variants, but averages between 25 percent and 30 percent alcohol by volume.

Crema di limoncello is a version of the classic liquor made with milk instead of simple syrup. It’s often less alcoholic, at around 17 percent alcohol by volume.

“My relatives in Italy, theirs is made with a cream,” Pirone said. “They have a cream that doesn’t spoil.”

How to make limoncello

Homemade limoncello. Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Pirone

To make limoncello, you first have to gather your materials.

Olson said to start with a gallon or half-gallon jar or jug, made from a material other than plastic so the high proof alcohol doesn’t degrade it. You will also need a strainer or cheesecloth as well to finish the lemoncello when it’s ready to drink.

Start by gathering the ingredients: sugar, vodka, water and lemons.

You want the highest-proof vodka possible. Because Olson owns a licensed distillery, he is able to use 190 proof organic corn liquor, though that is not possible for the average person given legal restrictions.

“The higher the alcohol content the more effective it is at extracting the flavor out of the lemon zest,” Olson said. “You can legally buy 150 or 151 proof [vodka like] Everclear. I think there’s a high-proof vodka that people use for making infusions and flavored things like that.”

You also want to select fine, white sugar that will dilute in the vodka without coloring it.

“We just use regular cane sugar to tell you the truth,” Olson said. “I think that’s a pretty pure product. We had experimented at one point using organic sugar, but unfortunately it has a little brown color to it so it didn’t have a nice looking limoncello.”

Combine the vodka and sugar in your container until the sugar has dissolved. Pirone said that she will use four cups of sugar for a half gallon of vodka in a gallon glass jug. The extra room allows for space to shake the mixture until it is dissolved.

“You want to shake it so you don’t see any sugar anymore,” Pirone said. “It only takes 10 minutes. I’ll shake it a little bit and I’ll let it sit. The sugar will fall to the bottom of the jar. It dilutes really fast.”

For a less aerobic method, Olson suggested letting the alcohol and sugar sit for a day in order to dissolve, with some occasional stirring.

“It’s just what we do,” Olson said. “The sugar has no problem dissolving.”

Another option is to make the sugar into a simple syrup with water before adding it to the vodka. If you don’t take that route, though, you can add equal parts water into the solution after the sugar has dissolved.

Once the solution is prepared, wash the lemons to prepare them for zesting.

“Most fruit is actually waxed now,” Olson said. “That wax shows up your limoncello like a bathtub ring. You have to be careful about removing the wax by scrubbing the lemons with hot water.”

Then, zest the lemons, being careful to avoid the white pith just below the yellow surface which will impart bitterness to the limoncello. You can zest the lemon with a grater, but Pirone said that she will usually use about two quarts of lemon rind — about eight cups — for her gallon-sized jar, so it’s faster to remove the zest in larger pieces.

“I just take an apple or potato peeler and peel the rind off,” Pirone said. “I would not bear down hard when you’re peeling the lemon. You don’t want to bear down hard to get all of that white. A little bit makes it tart, but you don’t want all of that.”

Add the lemon zest (or chopped fruit) to the alcohol and sugar solution and let it sit capped off in a cool, dark place. Olson said that he will let his limoncello set for a month and a half, but Pirone said that she lets her set for three to four months.

“I think the longer it sits the better the results are going to be,” Olson said. “You’ll extract more flavor out of your lemon zest, especially if you’re using a lower-proof alcohol. 45 days is probably a minimum.”

You want to agitate the solution every few weeks, too.

“It’ll settle, [so] you want to give it a good shake so all of the juices are flowing through it and fermenting good,” Pirone said. “You can leave it, you can actually leave it in longer than six months. I know people who have left it there for a year. The vodka starts to mellow out a little more. It’s totally your preference how you like to drink it.”

If you aren’t into lemons, you can use whatever fruit is in season to make one of limoncello’s many variations: arancello flavored with oranges, agrumello flavored with mixed citrus, meloncello flavored with cantaloupe and fragoncello flavored with strawberry.

Pirone said that she makes her own variations based on whatever is in season, like sour cherry, peaches and nectarines. She uses two quarts of diced fruit instead of the zest, but said that the finished product is essentially the same.

Storing and enjoying limoncello

After all that patient waiting and regular agitating, the final step is to simply enjoy your delicious limoncello.

Once the limoncello is done, Olson said that it will basically last forever.

“There’s enough alcohol in it and it’s acidic enough that there’s not a medium for growth of any sort,” Olson said. “It’ll last until you’re done drinking it.”

Olson and Pirone both said to keep limoncello in the freezer. It is best served cold after a delicious meal, and it doesn’t freeze solid because of the alcohol content.

Though limoncello is traditionally served chilled as an after-dinner palate cleanser, it can also be used to make various cocktails, pastries or ice cream.

“People have gotten more creative,” Olson said. “There’s a ton of cocktail recipes online. It’s very tasty. You just have to be careful not to drink too much of it.”

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