South of Naples, in and around Sorrento, the Italians have had citrus groves for centuries, and continue to make a wonderful liqueur called Limoncello, which involves taking the yellow zest of the local Femminello St. Teresa lemons and steeping them in clear spirits for a period of time, and then introducing an admixture of simple syrup before bottling.
Limoncello is big business in southern Italy; a lot of shops specialize in it for the tourist crowd, and trattorias and families make their own homemade versions. There are different varieties, including opaque, clear, and with cream. There are other citrus liqueurs too, including blood orange.
For limoncello, typically no actual lemon juice is used to make the drink; rather, the lemon flavor, aroma, and yellow color comes from the oils contained in the zest, which are released into the alcohol. Depending on the amount of sugar and water added in the form of syrup, the final alcohol content ranges between 20 and 30%.
Limoncello is reputed to aid in digestion, and anecdotal evidence confirms this. We frequently bring out limoncello at the end of our large dinner gatherings, and a dose or two encourages guests to undertake an attempt at dessert. Limoncello is stored in the freezer, and (ideally) served in frosted aperitif glasses, and it is refreshing. Sambuca is another nice (Italian) liqueur, but is not as refreshing as limoncello.
Apart from drinking as a digestif, it can be used to make other cocktails, flavor desserts (I use it to make a dessert similar to tiramisu, with limoncello and white chocolate in place of espresso and semisweet), or poured over berries and fruit salads.
I have an uncle who supplied a couple bottles of homemade limoncello made from his Meyer lemon tree, and we enjoyed the fact that rather than the opaque, emulsified commercial limoncello typically found for sale, he left some of the zest as sort of a textural counterpoint in his version. His version tasted a bit more “fresh” and lemony than others we have sampled.
Rather than trying to score some more bottles of my uncle’s limoncello, I decided to go ahead and attempt making some myself. Recently I zested nearly 70 lemons from local (California) lemon trees belonging to friends — some Meyer and some the more ordinary lemon variety — which I added to 9 liters of potato vodka sourced from Trader Joe’s. Within minutes, the spirits had already taken on a tremendous yellow color.
The vodka and lemon zest will “steep” for over a month, before a 1:1 simple sugar syrup (approx. another 9 liters) is added, to steep for another month or so before bottling. I’m planning (since I’m going to get 18-20 liters of this stuff) to make two versions — one “with zest” and one “without” — and if it’s any good, we’ll give some of it away to our favorite friends at Christmastime.
In terms of cost, the finished product is about $4 per 750 ml bottle to make, along with a few hours worth of time, and even if we give a few bottles away, we’ll be stocked with limoncello until 2017 or so.