Limoncello, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is an Italian liqueur made with lemon peel. It is a very sweet, syrupy beverage served ice cold in tiny glasses, and is delightful as an aperitif or digestif. Being not much of a dessert person, an espresso and a limoncello might be my perfect way to end a nice meal–a little bit of sweet, a little bit of booze, and a little bit of caffeine.
It turns out it is also pretty easy to make yourself at home. All you need to do is steep lemon peels in high-proof, neutral spirits for a week or two and then cut that liquor with syrup to reduce the percent alcohol and take the edge off. As a huge fan of experimental homemade alcohols, I thought I’d give it a shot. But why stop at limoncello? If I’m trying one citrus, why not try the others as well?
On this occasion, I used store-bought fruits. I’ve never foraged limes, but I have climbed trees for grapefruits in Florida and snagged lemons and oranges in California from overladen trees hanging over fences. I’m sure that all of these can be found in neighborhoods somewhere in this country.
Disclaimer: don’t be a jerk about foraging citrus. If you know someone with a citrus tree, there’s a good chance they have too much fruit and would happily pass a few your way. Don’t go hopping any fences. But trees on public land are fair game, and anywhere you see a tree overhanging a fence into public space, I’d say go for it. Or anywhere you see neglected fruits falling and going to waste. Rescuing those is practically a public service.
These experiments met with mixed results. The limoncello (lemon) and arancello (orange) came out great. The pomecello (grapefruit) has a strong bitterness to it. And the lime-cello (don’t know what that would be in Italian) is just strange–it has a strong musky flavor to it. All of them need to sit for about a month and all are becoming more pleasant as they age, so it could be that the lime will be delightful a little bit further down the road. If so, I’ll write about it then. For now, we’ll focus on lemons and oranges. But the principles ought to work for any citrus fruit that you might find yourself with an abundance of.
2 cups everclear (or high-proof vodka if you can’t get everclear in your state)
2 cups simple syrup (1:1 water and sugar)
~1.5 cups water
2 cups everclear or high-proof vodka
2 cups simple syrup
~1.5 cups water
Begin by washing and peeling your citrus. I used a typical vegetable peeler, which is very quick, but it tends to take a lot of the pith (that white inner layer) with it. The general wisdom is that having pith in your limoncello will make it very bitter. I didn’t worry about taking the pith off, and mine came out bitter at first, but after about 8 weeks of aging, that bitterness has faded. The alternative is to use a zester or painstakingly remove the pith, but both of these take a lot more time, so I skipped them.
Take these peels and drop them into a 1 quart mason jar. Pour in two cups of everclear, close it, give it a shake, and put it on the shelf for a week or two.
After a week , your liquor will have changed color and will be quite fragrant. You can now strain it through a coffee filter to remove the peels and any small particles.
At this point in the process, you will add the simple syrup. To make the syrup, bring 2 cups of water to a boil and add in 2 cups of sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves, and then remove from heat and allow to cool.
Once the syrup is cool, you can add it to the liquor. If you add hot syrup, it will cause a cloudiness, which some dislike. Combine equal parts syrup and citrus liquor–2 cups each.
Now you taste. I think that the 1:1 everclear to syrup is still too alcoholic, so I added a bit of water to tone it down. I believe I added 1 cup, which makes it a nice sipping drink, but it still packs a bit of a punch. It also increases the overall volume of product a bit, which I can’t complain about. Below I will lay out the proof and ABV for your different options (assuming you are using 95% ABV [190 proof] everclear as your spirit). Remember, liquor is typically 40% ABV (80 Proof), and liqueurs can be as low as 27% or so.
2 Cups Everclear, 2 Cups syrup, and:
No water = 47.5% ABV (95 Proof)
1 cup water = 38% ABV (76 Proof)
1.5 cups water = 34.5% ABV (69 Proof)
2 cups water = 31.5% ABV (63 Proof)
I would suggest that you add the water a little bit at a time, testing with tiny sips throughout. Be careful though, this stuff is pretty strong before you dilute it, and is liable to get you a bit tipsy. Also remember that it needs to age, and as it ages some of that harsh alcohol flavor will subside.
As for aging, I would suggest no less than 2 weeks, but a month is better. And in my experience, 2 months is even better than that. So, make a bunch, put it up, and try it throughout the aging process until you find your sweet spot.
To serve, put it in the freezer overnight. Limoncello is meant to be consumed ice cold before or after a meal as an aperitif or digestif. Pour a tiny serving, a shot or less. This stuff is very flavorful and is meant to be sipped.
Good luck, and let me know how it turns out!