Make Your Own: Limoncello

IMG_20131206_092742The first thing you need to know about limoncello is that it is delicious.  If you’re a fan of citrus vodka this is just the thing to move you away from the processed stuff and into a new section.  The next thing to know is that it’s even better when you make it yourself.

Classic limoncello uses a special lemon from Italy as the base, which given the season and location means I’ll have to improvise.

So I dug around a bit and came up with the following plan.

1. Buy Everclear

This was an interesting trip in itself as I had not seen it on shelves in any of the liquor stores I frequent.  A chance comment by a patron during a tasting I was doing led me to discover that they actually keep it behind the counter or in the back rather than on the shelf.  I’m not clear on how many brands they offer but when I went the option was simply Everclear, I went with the jug rather than the 750ml as I didn’t want to run out and had a lot of things to make with this.  I’m still not clear if Everclear is considered a brand or a type but the results are pretty much the same 95% alcohol.

2. Select Fruits

Having not done this before I took a trip to the Sheridan fruit Company where I knew I could obtain any number of items.  I bought about 5 regular California lemons and because they had them 10 Meyer Lemons.  I also bought a small container of dried bing cherries as I intended to make a cherrycello and the fresh ones were out of season.

Sideline- Meyer Lemons: For those not familiar, and judging from conversations I’ve had with people since I started this project in November that’s quite a few, a Meyer lemon is a verity of citrus that originated in China and was brought to this country by Frank Meyer in 1908.  It is smaller, sweeter and softer than the lemons you may be used to, and has a fragrant, thin zest.  The pith is a bit thicker but this isn’t really a problem.

3. Peel

Not a simple matter, the rind of a lemon has two parts, the zest and the pith.  Pith is the bitter white part of the rind and zest is the mostly clear yellow part.  In my case a simple potato peeler let me take off nice long strips with very little pith.  I followed this with a simple scraping on the back of the strips with a paring knife.  The meyer lemons took a bit more effort as their zest is thinner and the pith thicker but it is still soft and takes little effort.  Some people will suggest using a rasp or microplane to zest the lemon, this is not a bad idea as it gives you more surface area during the extraction process but it means you have to strain the limoncello afterwards to get out all the little shreds.  I’m ambivalent at this point but read on and decide after a couple more steps.

4. Containers

I made a fairly big error when I started this process.  I didn’t have a container in mind before I began.  Neither for the finished product nor for the extraction.  I thought that using spare empty bottles from my alcohol collection would be fine and up to a point it was.
extracts  The mason jar contains my somewhat abortive attempt to make cherrycello, the volstead vodka bottle my regular lemons and the bullett rye my meyer lemons.  Now getting the peel into the bottle was not a problem.  Getting the peel back out afterwards involved improvising a hook from a bent coathanger.  The mason jar was much more forgiving and I recommend having a selection of them where possible both for working and for the finished product storage.  You can decant into the fancy bottles when you’re done.

 

 5. Conversion

When I started this I had no idea what the final flavor would be like.  I’ve had good and bad limoncello before both store bought and homemade so there was really no one basis for comparison.  The two bottles above are still 95% alcohol and after about 4-5 days they had extracted enough of the lemon oils to turn a healthy yellow.  Now that I had the base of my limoncello I needed to make it drinkable.  You can start this process with vodka if you want.  Vodka, unlike everclear is usually bottled at 80 to 100 proof, the everclear was 190 proof.  As a liqueur limoncello is generally bottled at about 25-37% alcohol if you get the traditional stuff.  So starting with vodka you only need to add about half as much simple syrup as you have alcohol.  When you start with everclear you need to add twice as much simple syrup as you have alcohol.  I used this measure and brought my limoncello from 95% to about 32%.  Since I started with almost two full fifths that means I had about 3 times as much finished product.

6. Blending

For future reference I think I’m going to stick with only Meyer lemons.  The result of the pure meyer bottle was much more pleasing on the tongue than the regular lemons.  There was a bitterness involved that just wouldn’t go away no matter how thin I made the result.  Because I had so much of both types I resolved to blend the two and get something reasonable so that I could use up the less workable regular lemon liquor.  I was blending all of this in the kitchen at my mother’s house as I like their counter space and using my mother for tasting notes since neither of my roommates drink right now.  I wasn’t entirely sure what proof I wanted to put the final bottles so this is the point where I played with dilution and with pairing the two kinds of lemon.  Ideally you’re looking for something that has all of the lemon flavor without being cloying, bitter, sour or oily.  It’s a delicate balance and shifting the mix from 2:1 to 1.75:1 has some profound impact on the result.  Eventually I settled on a mix of 75% Regular Lemon to 25% Meyer.  This was the opposite of my original thought on how it would go but with feedback the results were undeniably better.  It also left me with almost half a bottle of meyer liquor that I could turn into crema.

Limon side

This was the finished blend.  I weighed out the proportions by taking the total amount of regular liquor that I had dividing that by 3 and adding the result in meyer liquor.  Once I had the total I had to weigh out the sugar and water and put in twice as much as the weight of the raw limoncello.  The picture doesn’t do the jar justice, when finished I had about 8 cups of liquid.  You can see the separation at the bottom where I haven’t stirred the whole thing.

The finished product was allowed to rest and blend for a few days before going into their presentation bottles.  I picked up little 8 oz bottles from Kitchen Kaboodle and printed my own labels.  They weren’t fancy but they were easy to manage and you can stick them on with a glue stick.  Add a little ribbon and a funny tag and you’ve got your own branded bottles for a little over 3 bucks each.

As a final note, when you’re bottling your product I recommend putting it into a slightly smaller container with a spout.  Pouring is an inexact science even at the best of times and going from a wide mouth mason jar to a tiny neck bottle is unnecessary when you can portion things out into a measuring cup or gravy boat first to reduce spillage.

 

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