Originally from Southern Italy, limoncello is a lemon-based liqueur that’s like drinking sunshine in a bottle. Its zesty, fresh nature makes it one of the most refreshing sips around.
Prized for its vibrant hue and citrusy flavor, like a grown-up version of lemonade, limoncello has a long but hazy history.
One origin story credits Italian monks, noted for applying herbalism to create medicinal alcoholic elixirs. The Italian association of wine and liqueur producers (Federvini) points to Maria Antonia Farace, who had a lavish garden of lemons and oranges on the island of Capri in the early 1900s. And a third, far less likely theory says Southern Italian fishermen sipped the lemon liqueur to keep warm after their seafaring expeditions.
While Italy deserves credit for creating limoncello, it’s worth noting that today citrus grows in a wide range of sunny locales, where they are made into worthy lemon liqueurs. Here in the U.S., some are looking to reinvent the old school category. For example, newcomer Chelly bills its snappy version as “new age limoncello,” while Indianapolis producer Hotel Tango makes a “new world limoncello” with Lemon Drop cocktails in mind. Elsewhere, New Zealand’s Sovrano introduces an herbaceous liqueur made with Yen-Ben lemons, a tart commercial variety that grows well Down Under.
Also of note are orangecellos, including a successful honey-sweetened arancello from Seattle producer Letterpress that suggests an orange glaze drizzled atop spice cake.
With all this citrusy bounty, it’s not hard to imagine that varieties like a rosy pink grapefruit-cello, a Japanese-inspired yuzu-cello or a West Coast-sourced Meyer lemon-based option might become future pours some day. Until then, we’ll look to Southern Italy and beyond for classically styled limoncellos fit to sip or mix.
Letterpress Limoncello; $36, 95 points. Richer than a typical limoncello, this golden liqueur offers roasted pineapple and toasted banana bread aromas. An intriguing butterscotch note opens the palate, rounding into a long, honeyed finish enlivened with nutmeg, cayenne and lemon pepper. Mix with rum or stir into cake batter. This is a honey-sweetened homage to the distiller’s grandmother’s village in the mountains outside of Rome.
Fabrizia Limoncello Cream Liqueur; $20, 93 points. A refreshing palate cleanser of a cream liqueur, look for a light yellow hue and mild lemon curd aroma. Plush and palate coating, moderately sweet lemon sorbet and lemon cream notes lead into a light finish braced up with ginger. Best Buy.
Chelly Limon Liqueur; $20, 92 points. At 80 proof, this is a bit stronger than most limoncellos. The pale straw hue and pleasing candied lemon peel aroma leads into a clean, snappy palate showing lemon peel and white pepper, finishing surprisingly long. Sip with a cube of ice or lengthen with sparkling water. Best Buy.
Jovis Limoncello; $34, 92 points. Cloudy, sunny yellow appearance and bright lemon peel aroma. The palate opens sweet and finishes brisk and mouthwatering. In between, candied lemon peel and lemon lollipop flavors mingle with white pepper and ginger heat. Made with Sorrento lemon peels, no preservatives or colorants.
Hotel Tango Lemoncello; $30, 91 points. Expect a cloudy, pale yellow appearance and mild lemon aroma with a savory tinge. Overall, this drinks like vodka mixed with lemonade: it’s light on the palate, mild and not overly lemony, with the faintest tinge of sweetness and finishing with an appropriate amount of citric pucker. Mix into Lemon Drops, as the producer suggests.
Lucano Anniversario Limoncello; $23, 90 points. A concentrated buttercup yellow and mild candied lemon peel aroma leads into a lemon lollipop palate. That flavor and sweetness follows through from start to finish, plus a bit of white pepper tingle into the exit. Made with Sorrento lemon peels.
Il Tramonto Limoncello; $20, 89 points. This is a distinctly herbaceous take on limoncello. Mild lemon verbena aromas lead into a light-bodied palate laced with lime peel, pine and tarragon. Best Buy.
Limoncino Bottega; $23, 89 points. This limoncello is vibrant yellow with a faint greenish glow and herbaceous aromas of lemongrass and tarragon. The honeyed palate is similarly herbaceous, with a pronounced fennel note that leads into a sticky licorice twang.
Pallini Limoncello; $25, 89 points. Cloudy pale yellow, with a mild lemon lollipop aroma, this viscous liqueur is on the sweeter side, reading as lemon candy layered with a piny hint. Each sip finishes with ginger and white pepper sparks.
Sovrano Limoncello; $13/375ml, 89 points. Look for a pale yellow, slightly cloudy appearance and astringent lemon peel aromas. The light palate opens with perky pine, tarragon and sage, leading into a mild lemony finish. Made in New Zealand using Yen-Ben lemons.