by Lisa

Ever since we’ve had a lemon tree, and more lemons than we knew what to do with, I’ve been making limoncello–a lemon liqueur made from steeping the zest of fresh lemons in grain alcohol, then mixed with simple syrup and more alcohol. It hails originally from Sorrento in Southern Italy.  It’s strong and fragrant and a gorgeous bright yellow. Served ice cold in warm weather, it’s just about one of the best things you’ll ever drink.

When we bought our house, it came with an excellent old orange tree, so orangecello was added to my spring brewing. ThenI discovered crema di limoncello and crema di orangecello (in which sweetened milk is added to the steeping zest; think: creamsicle for adults) and my house in spring began to look a bit like a small artisinal distillery.  The word spread.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I like parties of any kinds, and that we live in an Eichler, which is pretty much designed for entertaining.  So it was natural that last year, when lemons were in full season, I held a brewing party for my girlfriends, who also like a good party, all the more if it can provide them with delicious hooch for the year–which also happens to make really excellent gifts for Christmas if you can manage to keep it in the house that long.   So, what was our family tradition became a communal event, and because of when it takes place, it really does feel like we’re welcoming spring and looking straight into the mouth of summer  There are so many of us now, that the brewing has taken on a life of it’s own.  My kids know that the recipe will be passed on to them when they’re (much) older, the husbands and siblings and grandparents look forward to the fresh batches, which we all drink at holidays and family dinners or just whenever.   There’s more than one story of a batch mysteriously “disappearing” after a relative’s visit.  And for now Ella and Finn know that limoncello season means lots of fresh lemonade and orange juice for them, and one of my Italian friends got her kids in on the zesting action in her home.  Even Finley, this year, when he saw me zesting oranges instead of lemons wondered, “You making limoncello with oranges? Yum!”

For the party, I supplied the recipe and know how, as many oranges as my friends could pick off my tree, the last of my previous year’s limoncello for tasting, some prosecco for mixing and drinking straight, and my friends brought their lemons and alcohol and a dish to share and we zested and juice and ate and drank all afternoon.

It’s an excellent party:  easy, fun, productive.  This year  my friends branched out:  some started a batch of crema, some added vanilla beans (which I always do to my cremas and meyer lemon batches), they use different vodkas, etc.  There’s basically a recipe for every family, which is how it should be.


I set up one zesting station, with 6 zesters, where everyone took turns zesting into their large glass jars.  At another station, set up with 3 juicers (2 were mine, one brought by a friend), we juiced the zested citrus and brought the juice home in freezer ziplock bags, which I provided.  I freeze my lemon juice in ice cube trays, then the kids can mix it with simple syrup and bubbly (or plain) water all summer long for fresh lemonade.  Call it the recessionary party, but we’ve been doing it this way for years.


I also laminate the recipe cards, with the recipe on one side and serving suggestions on the other, which is what I’ve reproduced below.  It’s not too late for you to brew.  Especially with friends.


Italian Limoncello

20 organic lemons

2 bottles (750 ml) 100-proof vodka or Everclear

4 cups sugar

5 cups water

Note: Don’t be afraid of the Everclear if you can find it.  It’s stronger than regular vodka and has less flavor of it’s own. This means it extracts more of the flavor and essential oils from the zest and imparts less of its own taste to the finished product. It also doesn’t get slushy in the freezer. Organic, unsprayed fruit is essential. You don’t want to be drinking chemicals.

Step One: Wash the lemons with a vegetable brush and hot water to remove any residue; pat the lemons dry. In a large glass jar (1-gallon jar), add one bottle of vodka.

Carefully zest the lemons with a zester or vegetable peeler so there is no white pith on the peel. Add the lemon zest to the vodka as it is zested. NOTE: Use only the outer part of the rind. The pith, the white part underneath the rind, is too bitter and would spoil your limoncello.

Cover the jar and let sit at room temperature for at least 10 days and up to 40 days in a cool dark place. The longer it rests, the better the taste will be. (You can shake or stir a little every few days, if you like.) As the limoncello sits, the vodka will slowly take on the flavor and rich yellow color of the lemon zest. When the color is no longer deepening and the rinds look whitish, it is definitely done.

Step Two: In a large saucepan, combine the sugar and water; cook until dissolved, or until thickened if you want a thicker, sweeter drink, approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

Let the syrup cool, then add it to the Limoncello mixture from Step One. Add the additional bottle of vodka. Allow to rest for another 10 to 40 days.

Step Three: After the rest period, strain the liquid through a cheese cloth or coffee filter and bottle: discard the lemon zest. Keep in the freezer until ready to serve.

Limoncello variations…

  • · To original recipe, add zest of 1 lime
  • · To original recipe, made with either lemons or oranges or meyer lemons, add one whole, split vanilla bean during steeping
  • · Substitute lemon zest with zest from Meyer lemons or 10 oranges or blood oranges
  • · Substitute lemon zest with dry, unwashed organic basil leaves to make basilcello (wipe dust off leaves with dry cloth)
  • · Use zest of 30 lemons & 5 vanilla beans (insides scraped, beans and seeds used) for initial steeping
  • · Experiment with vodkas and the amount of sugar in the simple syrup, you can make a mellower or sweeter or less sweet liquer
  • · Try Crema di Limoncello/Orangecello, a creamy version of this drink: steep 2 vanilla beans in 750 ml. warm milk, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Cool completely. Substitute this milk mixture for the simple syrup. Or, steep the zest right with the vanilla beans, then add the milk/sugar mixture. Don’t use the second bottle of alcohol. Many other variations for this recipe for this are available online. When I make my crema, I just split, scrape and steep one vanilla bean with the first bottle of alcohol and zest.  I love the flecks of vanilla in my drink.

& Serving Suggestions

  • · Drink ice cold
  • · Drink ice cold with ice chips
  • · Drink ice cold mixed with mineral water or prosecco or any other sparkling beverage
  • · Drizzle over shaved ice
  • · Drizzle over ice cream
  • · Drizzle over pound cake or fresh summer berries
  • · Mix with prosecco and vanilla or lemon gelato to make a Venetian shake
  • · Mix with iced tea
  • · Label & “brand” to give as gifts

My batches thus far for this year:  lemon, lemon for crema, meyer lemon w/vanilla bean, double batch of orange w/vanilla bean for crema di orangecello: