Experimenting with homemade limoncello, pt 1

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Yeah, right. Maybe until you turn 21. Then it’s time to drown your sorrows in something a little more potent. For instance, a batch of homemade limoncello…

Limoncello is an after dinner lemon liqueur produced around the Gulf of Naples in Southern Italy. I was turned on to the drink by my friend Chad Wilcox, who had enjoyed it on a trip there several years ago. Tracking the stuff down was one of my goals on my own vacation there last summer, second only to gulping down as much espresso as humanly possible.

I didn’t have to look hard to find it; bottles of it were positively unavoidable by the time my travels took me to Amalfi. The region’s uniquely huge and flavorful lemons abound along the terraced coast, finding their way into countless fruit stands and limoncello stores. The drink is served chilled in small glasses. It’s tart, sweet, and strong, a delicious refreshment on a summer night.

I didn’t expect to have limoncello again anytime soon once I was back in the US. But inspired by a recipe published in the current issue of Imbibe magazine, I decided this weekend to try my hand at making a homebrewed version.

If you want to try this at home, here’s what you’ll need for the first part of the process:

  • A big glass jar (mine’s a little too big) with a tightly fitting lid
  • A bowl
  • A citrus zester (bottom left) or Microplane (bottom right)
  • 1 750 ml bottle of 100 proof vodka. I used Stolichnaya, Imbibe also recommends Absolut.
  • A dozen lemons

Later on you’ll also need two cups of sugar, water, cheesecloth, a second bottle of vodka, and some bottles to store the finished product.

Notes on ingredients: There’s no need for high end vodkas here because their subtle nuances will be swamped by the other flavors. Some limoncello recipes call for grain alcohol instead of vodka. Feel free to search online for those if you prefer or still have some Everclear left over from that party you threw in high school when your parents were out of town.

As for the lemons, I went with the conventional ones available at the grocery store and cleaned them well. According to the LA Times, authentic Sorrento lemons are now being grown in very limited quantities in California. They’re only available for restaurants at the moment, but someday we may all have access to them.

Once you’ve cleaned the lemons, the next step is to zest them. The goal is to remove zest, the bright yellow part of the skin that holds all the flavorful and aromatic oils. Avoid the white bitter pith beneath it as much as possible.

I’d planned on using a lemon zester for this part of the process. That’s the item on the left in the picture below. It has several small, bladed holes that remove thin strips of lemon zest. It’s great for creating attractive cocktail garnishes, but not so efficient for heavy zesting. As you can see in the next photograph, it creates valleys of zest that would be difficult to remove without taking pith along for the ride.

Fortunately, at the last minute I also bought a Microplane. This thing is much easier to use. The irregular pattern of holes ensures that all the zest is removed and it requires much less pressure to remove the skin. Considering that I had to zest a dozen lemons for this experiment, I’m very glad I invested in this handy tool.

Each lemon produces enough zest to nearly fill the Microplane. By the time the work ends, the bowl is filled with an aromatic pile of skin.

For the final step in part one, drop the zest into the glass jar and pour the bottle of vodka over it so that it’s all covered. The liquor turns yellow right away, but it still needs at least two weeks to fully infuse. Store it in a dark place and give it a gentle shake each day until the pigment of the zests has been fully leached out.

At this point there are a dozen lemons left over with which to make lemonade. If that doesn’t lift your spirits, there will be plenty of spirits to lift when the limoncello is ready.

For now, we wait. I’ll post again in two weeks when it’s time to add the remaining ingredients and bottle the product. Then there’ll be a wait of one more week while the flavors marry in the bottle and the limoncello finally becomes ready to drink.

Will the limoncello be delicious? Did I just waste two perfectly good bottles of vodka? Can I retire from work and barter limoncello for all my material needs? Will I ever use my microplane again? Come back soon to find out!

[Update 8/30/06: Part 2 is now up.]

[This post was originally published on EatFoo(d) on 8/08/06.]