Homemade Limoncello

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Lemonade ... For Adults Only

Limoncello is a traditional Italian liqueur made from four ingredients: lemons, spirits, sugar, and water. Traditionally served cold, if the alcohol percentage is low enough it can even take on a slushie-like consistency if kept in the freezer. While limoncello is normally served straight, it can be mixed with sparkling water, and is a wonderful addition to cocktails (the Lemon Drop being the most obvious).

The liqueur itself can be clear or cloudy, largely depending on what sugar you use: rawer sugars tend to lead to more cloudiness, while more refined sugars tend to lead to clearer batches. For the spirits, you can use vodka, or go for something a bit stronger, like 190-proof spirit, used in the making of these two test batches.

There are a couple of ways to make limoncello: For years I have made limoncello through what I lovingly call the “labor-intensive peeling method,” which consists of putting on a movie and peeling lemons for two hours, then discovering every cut on my hands I didn’t know I had. However, I came across an article profiling a method to make limoncello without any peeling, or really much effort at all. In the spirit of making the best batch of limoncello, I put both methods to the test.

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Lemon Peel Method
Like the name implies, be prepared for a lot of lemon peeling: most recipes call for at least ten lemons, but it all depends on the size of the batch you are doing. When peeling, you specifically want just the yellow skin, not the white pith — the skin is loaded with limonene and other terpenes which make up the essential oils you are trying to extract. 

After you’ve got your lemons peeled, place all the peels in a large jar (a carboy works great) and cover them with the spirits. Then, depending on how strong you want it, leave it in a dark place for anywhere between one week and three months. At the end of the steeping, make a simple syrup (a 1-1 or 2-1 ratio of sugar and water heated on the stove, or shaken at room temperature) and combine the syrup with your lemon-spirits infusion. Let sit some more, and then strain the results into whichever bottles you are going to be keeping the final product in. Stow away in freezer or somewhere cool until use.

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Extremely Easy Hanging Method
Unlike the labor-intensive peeling method, this traditional method of making limoncello doesn’t require any peeling. Instead, you take all your lemons, wrap them up in a big cheese cloth hammock, and suspend them above your alcohol (high enough that it won’t splash up to touch the fruit). Let sit, and then combine it with a simple syrup.

Similar to how steam distillation of water pulls out the essential oils of plants, the repeated evaporation and condensation of the high-potency spirits pulls out not just the flavors of the citrus but also the color. Overtime, the color of the liquid will get darker, ranging from a pale yellow to amber.

Limoncello Taste Test
You may be wondering, out of these two methods which produces the better brew? To answer that question I gathered some friends for a blind taste test and we spent a sunny afternoon talking and drinking in the redwoods. At the end of the afternoon, I didn't even need to check my tallies, the suspended batch was everyone's favorite, though no one disliked the peeled batch. The peeled batch did have a better smell, color, and mouthfeel, but the actual flavor was not as clean. To my surprise, my girlfriend was even able to taste the rind in the peeled batch. I am happy to say that I am now done peeling my lemons, and my lemons and I will be enjoying some time relaxing in hammocks. — Mitch Colbert