Drinks Week #1: Limoncello

For the inaugural week of the libations section of the blog, I decided to post my ongoing experiments with making limoncello from scratch.  In case you’re not familiar with it, limoncello is an Italian liquor made from lemon zest, a clear alcohol, and sugar water.  I’ve been making batches for about four years now, and have tried lots of variations.  It’s great in the heat of the summer – like drinking essence of lemon.

My interest in limoncello was sparked by a 2008  article in the Star Tribune that gave a recipe that was developed by Shelly Culver.  I used her recipe, and enjoyed the results.  Since then, I’ve changed a number of aspects to that recipe, including the type of alcohol used, the type of lemons, the amount of each ingredient, and the sitting time for each step.  For this blog entry, I’m going to detail my basic approach, and I’ll follow up with some alternatives that you might want to consider trying at some time.

I start with about a dozen lemons.  Pick ones that are nicely colored, without blemishes.  Scrub them well.  Remove the zest (the bright yellow part of the skin) with a microplaner.  Don’t go too deep – the off-white portion below the yellow skin shouldn’t be used. The leftover lemons can be juiced and the juice frozen for use in other recipes – no need to waste them!

Mix the zest with four cups of good vodka.  Place the mix into a glass bottle, cap and put in a cool dark location.  Shake it as frequently as you can remember to do so – once a day is fine, but I’ve left it for a few days occasionally without a problem.

Once it is done sitting, pour the zest and alcohol through a fine mesh strainer.  Squeeze out any liquid from the zest, and then discard it.  At this point the alcohol is likely to be cloudy.  Put a coffee filter into the mesh strainer, and add the alcohol.  Catch the filtered alcohol in a large pot.  When the run-through starts to slow down, change the filters, being careful not the get any of the residue from the filter into the strained alcohol.  I usually go through a half-dozen filters for a normal batch.

Heat six cups of water in a large pot, and slowly add two to two and a half cups of sugar, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar.  Once it is fully dissolved and the sugar water is clear, remove from the heat and allow it to cool.  When it is cool, add the alcohol to the sugar water.  Put into bottles, and store in the refrigerator.  I often let my batches mellow for a few weeks before sampling.  Serve nicely chilled!

Some notes:

Some recipes call for filtering after mixing the sugar water and alcohol, rather than filtering the alcohol before mixing.  I’ve done both, but I prefer filtering initially, as it takes a lot less time and filters.

I’ve left the zest sitting with the alcohol for a minimum of a week up to a maximum of about two months.  Longer sittings may lead to a bit more bitterness in the final alcohol portion, but this is offset by the sugar water and doesn’t appear to be a problem.

Some of my batches stay clear, while others turn opaque when the alcohol and the sugar water are mixed.  Stronger alcohols usually turn opaque.  Longer sitting times before straining also seems to promote cloudiness.  I suspect it’s related to making a louche with absinthe and sugar cubes.  It doesn’t affect the taste, as far as I can tell.

I usually use store-bought lemons, which are likely to be Eureka lemons.  However, we have a small potted Improved Meyer lemon tree, and got enough lemons one year to use for limoncello (it’s hard to get lemon trees to grow in Minnesota!).  The taste was distinctly different.

I’ve tried a number of brands of vodka, and each imparts a different taste on the final product.  I’d recommend starting with a brand that you like, but stick with one that isn’t too strongly flavored on its own.

The classic version calls for grain alcohol.  I’ve tried a version with grain, and it came out well, although it was very strong – drink with caution!  In a blind taste test with a half-dozen friends, the grain version was favored over two other batches with vodkas.

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