Give Southern Italians lemons, and they’ll make the sunny yellow liqueur known as limoncello (sometimes called limoncino). Since lemon trees thrive in the Mediterranean climate, it seems as if each household at the bottom of the boot has its own recipe to make the most of the citrusy abundance.
Limoncello isn’t difficult to make, and it can be a satisfying endeavor for those who enjoy a DIY project. It requires a base spirit (most of the bottles reviewed this month use neutral grain spirit or grape brandy), sugar and, of course, lots and lots of fresh, fragrant lemon zest.
However, it also requires time and patience—most recipes call for a one-week to two-month resting period to allow the spirit to fully infuse.
Luckily, a number of liqueur producers provide instant gratification, offering limoncellos that showcase fruit grown along the Amalfi Coast and Sicily. Although we’re partial to Italy’s versions, several non-traditional limoncellos showed well in this month’s reviews, including lime and grapefruit (as well as lemon) spirits from California, and variations made with thin-skinned Meyer lemons and even USA-grown etrogs—small, wrinkly citrus fruit common in Israel.
Once you have a bottle in hand, how to enjoy it? Italians typically enjoy it chilled as a digestivo after a meal. It’s also refreshing poured over crushed ice for a grown-up version of a snow cone. Bartenders sometimes regard it as a higher-proof take on lemon syrup, using it to round out cocktails made with white spirits—gin, vodka and even white whiskey.
Ready to try it for yourself? Use one of the bottles below in this easy springtime sipper: In a tall glass, pour one ounce each of limoncello and gin (try Plymouth, or any other brand that takes a lighter hand on the juniper). Top up with a scoop of ice and club soda, then garnish with a fresh sprig of rosemary or thyme.
Recommended Limoncello and Domestic Citrus Spirits
CelloVia Coconut Lime (USA; CelloVia Inc., Wheeling, IL); $20/375 ml, 95 points. Made with Persian lime rinds, it’s not a traditional limoncello, but it’s delicious nonetheless. Straw-colored and bright in the glass, it’s slightly sweet and bursting with lemongrass and fresh lime peel.
Arvero Limoncello Liqueur (Italy; Vias Imports, New York, NY); $25, 91 points. Refreshing and ideal for sipping or mixing, this lemonade-like liqueur is cloudy yellow in the glass, with a sweet lemon-lollipop flavor and mouthwateringly tart finish.
Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog Liqueur (USA; EAFD, Los Angeles, CA); $25/375 ml. Nodding to Jewish heritage, this liqueur is made from lemon-like etrog fruits sourced from a California farmer. It reads like a lighter version of limoncello, featuring a bold lemon-zest aroma and clean finish sprinkled with ginger and white pepper.
Caravella Limoncello Originale (Italy; Sazerac Company, Chicago, IL); $20, 90 points. This clear, pale-yellow spirit combines candied lemon peel with delicate, subtle fresh-herb notes on the nose and palate. Though sweet up front, it finishes clean and fresh, teasing faint hints of celery and tarragon. The producer recommends mixing one part limoncello to three parts vodka for a “limontini.”
Battistella Orangecello (USA; Six Mile Creek Vineyard, Ithaca, NY); $25/375 ml, 89 points. The base spirit of this limoncello-style liqueur is a vodka distilled from Seyval Blanc wine. It appears pale orange and cloudy, with a juicy tangerine-like aroma. The refreshing oranges-and-honey flavor echoes the scent, finishing slightly resiny and with a trace of alcohol heat.
Glaser Distillery Limoncello (USA; Glaser Estate Winery, Roseburg, OR); $20/375 ml, 89 points. Shake well before pouring, since sediment can settle to the bottom of the bottle. Once mixed, this liqueur is pale yellow and cloudy, with lots of bright, true lemon aroma and tart, lemon-curd-like flavor. The alcohol feels balanced.
Re:Find Handcrafted Limoncello Liqueur (USA; Paso Robles Craft Distilling, Paso Robles, CA); $25/375 ml, 89 points. Made from California-grown lemons and a base spirit distilled from wine grapes, this sweet-tart liqueur appears cloudy and dull yellow, with a juicy aroma that evokes just-cut lemon slices. It’s slightly viscous, with a mouthwatering, astringent citric zing and a fair amount of alcohol heat on the finish.