Like pasta, pizza or cheese, it’s hard to visit Italy and avoid an encounter with limoncello. The brightly colored yellow liqueur is seemingly everywhere, and as with many regional specialties, visitors who might never buy it at home inevitably try it, in many cases love it and often come away wondering just what exactly it is.
A relative newcomer among members of the Italian gastronomic pantheon believed to be no more than about a century old, limoncello gained much of its global popularity as recently as the Nineties. Yet today it is the second most popular liqueur in Italy, but unlike number one Campari, limoncello is not a brand but rather a class of liqueurs made by many different producers—and famously, in people’s homes.
Choosing the ‘Right’ Lemons
Made from neutral spirits, sugar, water and of course, lemons, it is primarily a product of Southern Italy, because that is the part of the country famous for its larger than life lemons, most importantly the Femminello, which comes in two main sub-varieties, St. Teresa and Ovale. These are especially synonymous with the Amalfi coast, where trees are terraced down the steep cliffsides almost to the waters of the Mediterranean, and the lemons can be huge, sometimes closer to grapefruit size than what most North Americans are familiar with.
While the lemons in the US and Canada are typically the sweeter, smaller Eureka or Lisbon varieties, perfect for lemonade or squeezing over seafood, these native Italian lemons—and Italy is the world’s top lemon producer—are considerably more tart, have a unique richness to them, and are the very definition of bittersweet. Similar types of lemons particularly well suited to producing high-quality limoncello grow all across Southern Italy, including the Messina and Siracusa lemons from Sicily, the Sorrento from Campania, and the Sfusato, also from Amalfi. These regions, along with the island of Capri, are generally considered the best places where limoncello is produced.
How Limoncello is Made
Like gin, it is the flavors added to, not part of, the spirit itself that makes limoncello better or worse, and it typically begins with rectified spirit, also known as neutral spirit or natural spirit of ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, (as opposed to the sometimes-poisonous denatured ethyl alcohol). This is basically the plainest, blandest, most flavorless form of consumable alcohol, similar to traditional vodkas, and in fact, many do-it-yourself limoncello recipes call for more easily available vodka. Like vodka, rectified spirits can be made from almost any plant material containing starch, including grains, corn, beets, sugarcane, or potatoes, and are repeatedly distilled to purify the final product. This neutral base is then used to steep lemon zest, which releases its wealth of concentrated natural lemon oils into the spirit, turning it yellow. After a week or more this then strained and mixed with simple syrup, or sugar dissolved in water, diluting the alcohol to obtain the desired final proof as well as sweetness level. The most important steps from a quality perspective are the excellence of the lemons chosen and the amount and ratio of sugar and water added. The final average is around 50-60 proof, or 25-30% alcohol, strong but considerably less so than most hard spirits.
Because making limoncello uses readily available ingredients and requires no science, distillation, casks, special equipment or aging, it is a very popular homemade drink made by anyone who grows lemons, and the most colorful way to enjoy it in Italy is without a label at all, in a self-produced host’s version. Residents of places like Amalfi, where just about everything grows spectacularly, don’t stop at lemons either; in this area, I have tried delicious homemade ‘tangerinecello’, and ‘cantaloupecello’, and some people are known to use strawberries and even pistachio nuts as the main flavorings. There is also a cream version made with milk instead of simple sugar, which is lower in alcohol and much less widely consumed, known as crema di limoncello.
What to Look For
Lemon remains the original and most popular version, and while one of the most popular brands is also the first trademarked one, Limoncello di Capri, there are dozens to choose from, and Italian liquor stores will have a full limoncello section. Because some of the lemon varieties have European Union geographic designations of protection (IGP, PGI, etc.) looking for these official seals on the label is a good indicator of high quality, ensuring that only the specific varieties of locally grown lemons are used. Also, because of its surging recent popularity, versions of limoncello are now being made all around world, including in the United States, but in these cases, it relies on the wrong types of lemons, so if you fall in love with the drink on your holiday, it’s still worth looking for “Made in Italy” once you go shopping upon your return.
How to Drink it
The traditional way to drink it in places like the Amalfi Coast or Sicily is straight and very cold (keep your bottle in the freezer at home) in a shot-sized glass after dinner as a digestif, and in these places, it is as popular as coffee for this purpose. If you go out to restaurants in much of Southern Italy you will almost always be offered a cold limoncello as standard post-dinner operating procedure. In places like Amalfi and Capri, you may even be able to find “homemade” limoncello in restaurants. In recent years with the rise of “mixology,” it has also become a highly preferred bartender’s ingredient in cocktails. An easy one to try at home is using limoncello instead of orange juice in a mimosa, simply mixing the liqueur with prosecco, champagne or other bubbly, and the result is very well balanced. One easier to try when out, because it is more complex, is a Tom Collins, a summery gin cocktail usually made with canned lemonade or lemon juice and sugar. Substitute limoncello and you instantly upgrade the results. In a similar vein, Italy’s favorite neon yellow beverage will also greatly improve a lemon drop or any similar lemony variation on a martini.