When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Limoncello

Don't settle for overpriced store-bought swill: Whip up this classic Italian liqueur at home.

Perfect on the rocks or blended into cocktails, limoncello is a smooth, fruity digestif that makes a versatile addition to your holiday season bar. Done right, it’s the dessert-friendly booze that will dial family antics down a notch, and leave you as satisfied as a slice of pie.

This Italian classic might seem like the type of liqueur crafted by wizened old crones whose intimate knowledge of its creation was passed down through the generations. That’s not the case. Heck, for years I kept a bottle gifted to me by an Italian cousin in the back of the freezer, tucked away for wee nips on special occasions. Until I discovered how simple it is to make. Here’s how to concoct a killer vintage of your very own.

Ingredients (makes approx. 2.5 liters)

  • 12 organic lemons (Meyer if possible)
  • 2 750ml bottles Everclear or another 180-proof neutral spirit (Skyy is a good substitute)
  • 2-4 cups of sugar
  • 2-4 cups of water


  • Vegetable peeler
  • Strainer
  • Coffee filter / cheesecloth
  • Large mixing bowl
  • 2 sterilized quart jars with lids
  • 3 sterilized 750ml bottles (or different containers of equal volume)

Wash and dry the lemons. This is particularly important as the flavor is derived solely from the skin. Nobody likes waxy booze. Use the vegetable peeler to remove the zest in thick strips, aiming to leave as much pith on the fruit as possible. Discard the naked lemons (or use to make jam’s distant cousin, lemon curd).

For any remaining pith on the strip use the small blade to slice it free. If you want to do it Goodfellas-style, use a razorblade. Be extremely careful during this stage; it should take you awhile. A six-pack of your favorite beer can help take the edge off the hand cramps. Likewise, binge-watching can distract you from the still massive pile of un zested lemons before you.

Crack open the booze. Place the peels in the quart jars. You can use an alternative storage method, depending on what’s in your kitchen. A pitcher works fine. I use a massive glass sun tea jar with an airtight lid. Pour the alcohol into the container, making sure it completely covers the peels. Once that’s set, place the concoction in a cool, dark place or throw a dark cloth over it.

At this stage it’s up to you how long you let it rest. Leaving it for longer allows the alcohol more time to infuse with the peel, resulting in a more potent lemon flavor. Some folks suggest as little as four days, which is perfectly fine if subtle notes are your preference. Leave it for a week or two if you’re planning to ready it for holiday frivolity. (I prefer a full-bodied flavor and plan to leave my current batch for four weeks. If it’s not to my liking, then it won’t make it into any stockings but it’ll be even brassier by New Year’s Eve.)

Waking up the ‘cello. Set the strainer over a large mixing bowl lined with either a coffee filter or cheesecloth. Pour the limoncello through the strainer, allowing the peels to sit on the lattice and drip every last drop into the bowl. There’s something else you need to do now, so you can leave the rest of the straining to gravity.

I recommend this method for the ease provided by the spigot. Perfect for parties.

Stir 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar in a large pan on a medium heat. Let it come to a simmer and continue to mix it until the sugar dissolves. This is called a sugar syrup. It’s very important that you allow it to cool at this stage: moving onward beforehand results in a cloudy limoncello. Yes it’ll taste the same, but when you’ve gone to all the trouble, what’s a few more minutes to achieve perfection?

Once cooled, add the sugar syrup to the limoncello and taste it. This part all comes down to personal preference. If it’s too bitter then continue to add syrup (1 cup sugar, 1 cup water) until you reach the desired balance of flavors. Luckily, seeing as there’s two bottles of alcohol in the mix, you don’t run the risk of diluting the limoncello immediately. Unless you add a preposterous amount of sugar syrup, which again, is absolutely fine if you’ve got a sweet tooth. Store-bought varieties tend to err on the sweeter side anyway — perhaps because water and sugar are cheaper to bottle than grain alcohol.

It’s bottling time! Carefully pour the limoncello into your chosen receptacles. Mason jars and swing-top bottles are handy and affordable options for gift-giving, and you can always buy a job-lot and keep your own stash in them too. Just remember, whatever you decide must fit in the freezer. Limoncello has to be served chilled. The drink will to keep for a year but I guarantee you this: It won’t last longer than a week. It’s simply too much fun to say salute.

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