Courtesy of Jacqueline Kirby, sommelier and blogger, The Sporty Sommelier
We’ve all seen home brewing and winemaking kits, but do you want a project that doesn’t require any special gear and yields a flavorful spirit? Then consider DIY limoncello, an Italian classic made with just a few easy-to-obtain ingredients (and a healthy dose of patience).
What is limoncello?
Limoncello hails from Southern Italy, where it’s usually a homemade beverage with little standardization. That lack of “rules” contributes to its charm.
“The history of limoncello is said to have started well over 100 years ago in Italy, but it’s hard to know the exact origin, because it is very commonly and traditionally made at home and passed down through generations and generations,” says Brynn Smith, bar manager of The AllBright in West Hollywood, California.
Limoncello takes a high-proof clear liquor, usually vodka or Everclear, and infuses it with lemon peels and lemon zest. Simple syrup and water are added to balance texture and flavor. Smith emphasizes the importance of lemons in southern Italian culture.
“The amazing IGP [a.k.a. sfusato] lemons of the Amalfi Coast [make] the best limoncello I have tasted,” she says.
Here’s for a simple limoncello recipe that’s both perfect as-is and with your choice of imaginative tweaks.
- 1 (750-ml) bottle vodka
- 12 lemons
- 2 cups sugar
- 10–15 large basil leaves (optional)
Peel rinds off lemons into strips. Scrape off pith, or white part, with paring knife until only rind remains. Place lemon rinds in two-quart jar and top with vodka. Let sit in dark space for three days.
On Day 3, add sugar and 3 cups water into saucepan, and heat until sugar dissolves. Pour simple syrup into lemon rind-vodka mixture. Return jar to dark space.
On Day 5, strain liquid and discard lemon peels. For optional flavor boost, blanch basil for 5–10 seconds and add to jar one hour before straining. Store limoncello jars in the refrigerator and rest for three more days.
On Day 8, your cold limoncello is ready to be served.
Like many iconic homemade dishes and beverages, limoncello lends itself well to interpretation. Creative hobbyists can build on its fundamental formula with new flavors and blends that suit their unique palates. If you need inspiration, try these suggestions from bartenders.
Limes & Tequila The basic elements of limoncello include clear liquor and citrus, but according to Rebecca DeVaney, owner of The Somm School in Scottsdale, Arizona, there’s room for flexibility.
“I swap out lemons for limes, and the vodka for Tequila,” she says. “I use a quality silver Tequila and organic limes.”
Buddha’s hand A citrus fruit popular in South and East Asia, Buddha’s hand makes an excellent replacement for lemons in limoncello. At least, that’s the opinion of Jay Beard, head bartender of Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado.
“I love working with Buddha’s hand,” he says. “It’s very, very citrusy in aroma and taste, and [you shouldn’t] be put off by the name and unusual shape. You can put in as much as you like. The more, the merrier. You can’t add too much.”
Balsamic vinegar If you want to add a subtle je ne sais quoi, add a small amount of balsamic vinegar.
“I like to add a small drop of high-quality balsamic vinegar to a [two-ounce] pour of limoncello to add a unique sweetness and tang,” says Anthony Gargano, owner of Osteria Bigolaro in Geneva, Illinois.