A few years ago, several of our family took a few weeks tour of Northern Italy and on occasion were fortunate to be invited into the homes of some of the very friendly and charming countrymen. One thing that we noticed about Italy was that if their home was on a piece of land, seemingly no matter how small, there would be room enough for a lemon tree. If the plot was a bit larger, there would also be an olive tree and somehow, they most often found space for a couple of grape vines. After a very delicious dinner, served with superb wine, made on the premises, we were invariably offered a glass of the host’s own limoncello. Also, one would find in the inviting kitchen, a jar of olives picked from the home tree, slowly aging to perfection. This impressed me immensely and upon returning home I decided to try my hand at the art of making limoncello.
It seems that Limoncello is the National beverage of Italy and the feeling is that the lemons from the west coast of southern Italy make the best limoncello. Be that as it may without regard as to where they live in Italy, most Italians make lemincello, using their own lemons for making the beverage. Considering that limoncello consists of alcohol, lemon peelings or zest of lemon, or both, and sugar and water, there is not much one can do to change the taste. The proof and thus the taste of the finished product can vary depending on the proof and proportion of the vodka and grain alcohol used. The amount of sugar, the amount of lemon peel used, and the length of time that the peels, or zest, is left in the alcohol, serves to change the taste of the beverage - at least in my opinion.
We have several lemon trees on the Paynederosa and soon after returning from Italy, we planted some olive trees. I determined that the Paynederosa kitchen would take on an Italian look and that we would have bottles of limoncello aging to perfection as well as a jar of olives on the counter. We still have a year or two for the olives to get into production, but the limoncello project was ready; the necessary ingredients were at hand.
The first step was to hand-pick the lemons, being sure to find those with out blemish or discoloration. The lemons should be used soon after they are picked. If they are permitted to get soft, getting a thin peel with no pith is vastly more difficult. Even though we do not use insecticides on the Paynederosa lemon trees, the lemons must be scrubbed to ensure that they are clean.
The next step is the most time consuming and also a most important step in the operation: the peeling or zesting of the lemons. I find that using a potato peeler gives me the thinnest peel and thus the least pith, although a very sharp paring knife does very well in a skilled hand. A very thin peel is very important as you only want the yellow colored part of the peel. The white part, or pith, is bitter and you do not want any of it to be in your mixture.
Normally, I make two gallons at a time and unless one gives a lot away, which I do, that amount would last normal people a very long time. Walmart has large glass jars that serve very well. The smaller one holds a tad more that a gallon and the larger one a bit more that two gallons. The jars were probably made to contain a liter measurement. In any case, for the larger jar, I use two 1.75 liters of grain alcohol and two 1.75 liters of an inexpensive vodka. This does not fill the jar, leaving room for the lemon peels, or zest and later for the addition of the water/sugar mix. The grain alcohol is normally 151-153 proof and the vodka can be either 80 or 100 proof. One can use 100 proof vodka, for a stronger beverage, but with the 80 proof, you will end up with a 115 proof mixture and after adding the sugar water, it will be close to 100 proof - still plenty strong.
After putting the alcohol in the jar, skin a dozen lemons if using the smaller jar, or two dozen for the larger and either wrap peelings in cheese cloth or put them in as strips if you prefer. Some people zest the lemons to get the peel and in such case, using the cheese cloth would be desirable. Also, the cheese cloth tends to help the peelings stay submerged. Not important---purely a matter of choice.
At this point, you have completed the first part of the production, so cover the jar and keep in a dark, cool space. It doesn't have to be too dark; an obscure corner in your kitchen will suffice. You may leave the alcohol/peel mixture to marry for a period of not less than one week or several weeks. I let my mixture set for six weeks or so to leech the oil out of the peels, giving it a little stir once in a while, say every two weeks. Many people feel that the leeching process only takes a couple of weeks, but my feeling is that a little longer does a better job. In any case, in six weeks or so, carefully remove the peelings/zest filter the mixture into another container.
I use coffee filters, doubling them up and also filtering the mixture as I remove it to another container and filter it again as I return the mixture to the original container. You may need to change the filters a few times in the process to hasten the filtering, particularly if you use the zest of your lemons.. While you are going through the filtering, boil 3 (or six) cups of water and use either 3 (or six) cups of sugar and boil that mixture for several minutes to completely dissolve the sugar. Let the sugar/water completely cool and add to the alcohol jar. Cover, and let the mixture marry for another six weeks, or less if you prefer, and once more filter before the bottling process. I dip the corked ends of the bottles in hot wax as some people will not open the bottles for a long, long time. If the Egyptians had placed a bottle of corked and wax sealed limonchello in the Sphinx it would still be the same as the day it was bottled, provided the seal didn’t disintegrate.
The newly made limoncello will have a slightly yellow greenish cast, but probably not as bright as commercial limoncello. I suspect that the Italians use a coloring mixture, but whatever, the color does not affect the taste. It is best to use clear bottles so that you can appreciate the color. Clear wine bottles work just fine, but as I give away souvenirs to visitors of the Paynederosa, I use clear, 8 oz bottles with the Paynederosa logo, for the gifts and the 1.5 liter wine bottles for in-house consumption.
In regard to the water/sugar addition, you can use just enough water to dissolve the sugar and that will result in a bit stronger limoncello. Also, the amount of sugar you use is strictly a matter of choice. If you like sweeter liquor, use more than three cups, or conversely, less. It is your choice and such choices are what makes each limoncello different. In the same sense, a "dozen" lemons is not set in concrete. Ten, or even twenty may serve your tastes quite well.
The final step to ensure enjoyment of your product is to place the limoncello in your freezer for some time before you serve it. It will not freeze, at the alcohol level you find here and most people just leave a bottle in the freezer all of the time. I also use little ceramic jiggers or glasses (Japanese stoneware tea cups work well), which I also keep in the freezer to use in serving the limoncello.
One last point. Because our jars are usually in the quart/gallon measurement mode and we buy our alcohol by the liter, there will be a bit of extra space in the jars I have referenced. That is not a problem during the production phase, or first step, but after you have removed the peelings and added the water, if there is still space left in the jar, I simply add more vodka (grain alcohol) to fill it. This is done purely for cosmetic reasons and has no effect on the quality of the beverage.