Our lemon trees are constantly producing lemons, so keeping up with harvesting them to make lemonade, add to dishes, use as an astringent, etc., is a never ending chore- especially for one like me, who can’t stand to see anything go to waste. Naturally, the next lemon endeavor would have something to do with alcohol: Limoncello!
Limoncello is a favorite Italian digestivo originating in the southern region of Italy, around the Gulf of Naples. Our Eureka lemons would be perfect for this. Not only is it my favorite lemon tree in our citrus orchard, Eureka lemon trees originated in California from seeds that came from Sicily in the late 1850s. Limoncello is made from the zest of lemons (peels without pith) and is steeped in a high alcohol spirit such as vodka or Everclear until the oil is released. In Europe, it is often steeped in a rectified spirit which is lethally distilled at or above 95% ABV- yikes! The sieved yellow liquid is then mixed with simple syrup. With the simple syrup and waiting periods between 4 to 6 weeks or more, you can determine the limoncello’s clarity, strength, and flavor.
Makes 4 (750 mL) bottles
17 to 20 organic lemons
2 (750 mL) bottles high-proof pure grain alcohol (I use Everclear, but Vodka will work/ save the bottles for storage later)
6 cups filtered water
4 cups organic sugar
You’ll be using the zest of the lemons, so make sure you choose high quality organic lemons with smooth thick skin free of wax and pesticides. Keep in mind; the best lemons make the best limoncello. I chose the smoothest skinned lemons from my Eureka tree to make zesting them easier.
It’s important to wash your lemons thoroughly and scrub with a fruit/vegetable brush. After making sure lemons are sparkly clean on the outside, dry them well.
Using a microplane, zest your lemons, taking care to zest only the peel and not the pith. The pith is the bitter white part of the rind, which will give an unpleasant flavor to your limoncello. The peel is the yellow part of the rind that contains the oils which give zest its lemony flavor. If the lemon is bumpy and you can’t get all of the zest without the pith, just let it go- it’s not worth adding bitterness to your limoncello for all the time you put into it.
Invest in a microplane, trust me! It’s such a simple, useful tool that will save a lot of time. Anything else, such as a peeler or paring knife, will most likely peel off the pith along with skin, which is what you don’t want. A microplane also produces fine shreds of zest, rather than long strips. These fine shreds have more surface area and therefore more pockets of lemon oil that can infuse the alcohol.
You’ll pretty much have 17-20 whole lemons left with just the surfaces scratched a little. You can juice them and freeze them as juice cubes, slice and freeze them, make lemonade, or get creative with making your own beauty product or household cleaner. Don’t let them go to waste!
You’ll end up with about 2-3 cups lemon zest. Pour the zest into a clean 1-gallon glass jar.
Pour both bottles of alcohol into the 1-gallon jar with the zest and tightly seal with a lid. Stick a label on the jar noting the time and date it’s going into its first hibernation period.
Now that your potent mixture is sealed, stash it away for three weeks (or up to six weeks if steeping in vodka). Keep the jar in a cool, dark place and let it infuse.
Resist the urge to open the jar and take a deep whiff- trust me!
After 3-6 weeks, examine the jar. The alcohol will have taken on a bright yellow hue by this point. Scoop up a spoonful of zest; if the zest has become white and brittle, its job is done and all the oils have been released.
Now it’s time to make the simple syrup. In a medium saucepan, dissolve the sugar in water over medium heat. Let the syrup cool to room temperature before adding it to the lemon-infused alcohol.
Give everything a stir, seal the jar again, and let it sit for at least another week, two, or, if you can stand it, even more. Some of the best batches have sat for 2-3 months longer. If you can stand the wait, place the jar somewhere out of sight and forget about it for a while. Set a calendar date at some future point to remind you it’s there. Remember to mark the time and date on the label.
If you simply must have it a week after the simple syrup is added, it will be pretty potent, and would be best used for mixing into cocktails rather than sipped as a digestivo. The longer you let it sit, the more mellow the alcohol. It will also become a brighter yellow with a citrusier flavor.
After a week or two (or with a lot of patience, even longer), the limoncello is ready for its final stages. Strain the limoncello through a fine sieve to catch all of the lemon zest.
Then, strain the limoncello again using an ultra fine sieve such as a coffee filter or layers of cheesecloth. Make the effort to do the second straining to give your limoncello a beautiful clear quality; you’ve come so far already! Once the limoncello is free of any zest debris and radiating clear and bright like sunshine, it’s ready to be bottled.
Funnel your limoncello into the Everclear or Vodka bottles you saved, as well as two or more other bottles, depending on the sizes. Give each bottle some extra room from the top in case you’d like to add more simple syrup- it’s up to your sweet tooth preference.
Once everything is bottled up neatly, store your limoncello in the freezer, along with a couple of cordial or shot glasses so that you’re always ready for a special little treat!