How to make Limoncello

Food & drink
How to make Limoncello

We went on holiday to Sicily this year.

It was roasting hot, in the mid forties most of the time. The Italians sweltered, and complained that they’d never experienced anything quite like it. We were thankful for an air-conditioned apartment and hire car.

One day, we drove out of Cefalù to a town in the hills, up and around a series of death-defying hairpin turns and on roads that seemed to have an unrealistic view of how capable an average family car is at climbing very steep inclines. There was a restaurant up there, and we wanted to try it for lunch.

The meal was excellent, a menu based simply around what the kitchen had been able to get hold of fresh that morning. Lot’s of seafood, all scrawled out on a big blackboard lugged around from table to table and propped up on an empty chair for people to read. The terrace, overlooking the sea, was closed because of the heat. Everybody was glad to be in the shade of the building.

As we finished eating, the owner and general whirlwind of the place produced a freezing cold bottle of his home-made limoncello and insisted we try some. It was sweet and sharp, a perfect balance, potently alcoholic, but not overpoweringly so. It had a greater depth and smoothness than limoncello I’ve had before, which, really, I’ve always lumped together with Bailey’s in the ‘too disgustingly cloying to drink’ bucket.

So, here I am, back in Yorkshire, with autumn closing in fast, attempting to recapture some of that Sicilian heat. It’s just not the same, but the results aren’t too bad.

Lemons are obviously important in this game. Get the best you can, preferably unwaxed, organic if you must. The zest is key, so lemons without blemishes are best. You need ten lemons.

Use a vegetable peeler to peel the fruit, taking off just the zest and leaving as much of the bitter pith as possible, and dump the peelings into a large jar, at least a litre in capacity, with a lid that you can close.

This process obviously leaves ten naked lemons behind. Lemonade is the answer. Juice the lemons, add a simple sugar syrup to taste, and let the concentrated mixture down with water. I managed to tinker around and fill a big, three litre water bottle with a quite delicious lemonade that disappeared from the fridge alarmingly quickly.

Next, vodka. Use the strongest vodka you can find. It doesn’t have to be absolute premium stuff, a good, stiff supermarket own brand is a perfectly reasonable choice here. A 750ml bottle will do nicely.

Pour the vodka over the lemon peels and clip the lid closed. Leave the peels to steep for at least a fortnight, swirling them around in the jar every now and again. Most of the extraction happens in the first few days, but the longer the peels are left, the deeper and more mellow the flavour becomes.

After two weeks, separate the vodka from the peels. The best, and probably the only effective way to do this is to use a paper coffee filter, a big V60 dripper or similar will do. It’s important to filter the vodka very thoroughly to remove all the lemon peel and any other bits that might be floating about. A paper filter will also trap any wax that might have been on the lemons. It’s a tedious job, and the filter will get clogged up – just sit it over a suitable container and let it drip away for as long as necessary. The odd nudge here and there with a wooden spoon won’t hurt, but resist the temptation to mash the peels down into the filter.

Now for the sugar. The amount of sugar to add is entirely a matter of taste, but the various recipes I looked at for this generally started with a sugar syrup made from a cup of sugar and a cup of water.

Measuring things by volume seems mildly insane and wildly inaccurate to me, but maybe that’s because I’m British and used to measuring things under a precise and accurate system of metric measures. Who knows? For everybody who isn’t American, a cup of sugar seems to be something around the 130g mark.

Heat the sugar and an equal amount of water until the sugar dissolves, and add it to the vodka mixture. It’s safe to add this first batch, but taste carefully from there. I ended up adding another 80g of sugar, dissolved in 80g of water before I was happy. You may choose to add more – some recipes really pile the sugar in.

When it’s just right (I don’t know how you tell … you just do), decant the limoncello back into the original vodka bottle and don’t forget, as I did, that you’ve added quite a bit more liquid in the form of the sugar syrup and you’re going to need another bottle to hold the excess.

Store in the fridge and serve ice-cold.