Origins of Limoncello: A Drink of Disputed Origins But Indisputable Flavor

The History of Limoncello – A Drink of Disputed Origins But Indisputable Flavor

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Picture this: an awning shields your shoulders from the summer sun and a breeze from the coast cools your skin, ruffling your loose, cotton button-down.

A server smiles and hands you a small cup; the ceramic is cool against your palms and you savor it only for a moment before bringing the cup to your lips to drink. Although the glass is the size of a shot, you take a first, small sip and bask. It’s icy, tart, and fresh, you feel invigorated with that first sip.

Limoncello: the drink that comes to mind when you daydream about visiting Italy in the summertime.

Although modern mass producers fool consumers with artificial colors and additives, limoncello lovers and liqueur aficionados alike know that true limoncello boasts just five magical ingredients: lemon zest, alcohol, water, sugar–and time. When made correctly, this drink stands alone as a refreshing and remarkable-looking digestif. 

The brilliant yellow of the best limoncello comes from the fruit rind itself, and its opacity is thanks to the ouzo effect – when certain kinds of oils like lemon essential oil or the oils found in absinthe react when exposed to water, rendering it cloudy and adding to its unique appeal.

In the 21st century, limoncello has crept its way around the globe, increasingly becoming a well-received digestif of choice. But how did limoncello rise to its stardom? And how long have Italians been savoring the liqueur in their homes and out on the town?

So, Like, Where Did It Come From?

The answer, it turns out, is about as opaque as the drink itself. Older–and, it’s worth noting, unverifiable–origins vary. Some say that monks along the Amalfi coast sipped limoncello to pass the hours between prayers. Others claim that fishermen imbibed in the mornings to warm up. Some versions clarify that it was sailors, not fishermen, and that they drank it to stave off scurvy.

However, there is no documented evidence outside of folklore and word of mouth of limoncello’s existence before the turn of the 20th century. And although the lack of documented instances doesn’t necessarily indicate the truth, where limoncello’s traceable history begins is somewhere along the Amalfi coast.

A Tale of Three Towns

Even this root, however, has its own conflicting claims. Three particular towns call themselves the birthplace of limoncello–Amalfi, Capri, and Sorrento. Confusingly, these areas are all in the region referred to as the Amalfi coast. Although only forty miles separates the three areas from one another–and they all technically fall under the Amalfi umbrella–don’t let their proximity fool you into thinking they are willing to share a communal parentage of the illustrious drink. Amalfi, Capri, and Sorrento each have distinct stories laying out limoncello’s origins.

Sfusato Lemons (Say that three times fast...)

The roots of Amalfi’s claims lie in their lemon orchards, where the sfusato lemon is grown. Sfusato translates to “spindle,” and they are called this because of their spindle-like shape and tapered ends. Sfusato lemons are one of two varieties that make what is commonly agreed upon as the highest quality limoncello.

Many Amalfi residents purport that the liqueur is as old as their lemon-cultivating tradition itself, which can be traced almost a thousand years back. The lemons in the region used to be sour and small, much like the ones that come to the average American’s mind today and garnish our iced teas and waters.

But when horticulturists cross-polinated those lemons with a local orange in the 11th century, the lemons were lent a pleasant flavor and became edible on their own. Even today, sfusato lemons are enjoyed sliced into salads or segmented at breakfast like an orange. This ancient heritage of sfusato lemons, locals argue, is at the heart of limoncello’s history.

Perhaps these ancient origins are where the older, anecdotal stories of medieval fisherman, monks, and sailors originate – apertifs and digestifs were, after all, abundant in the middle ages, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched that over those thousand years, someone thought that mixing the lemons with alcohol and sugar would be a wonderful way to preserve the health benefits and flavor of sfusato lemons to be enjoyed year-round.

Sorrento Lemons

Amalfi isn’t the only place, however, that uses their lemons as evidence of limoncello’s origins; sfusato lemons are one of two varieties that make a true limoncello. The other is the Sorrento lemon. Sorrento lemons are wrapped up in a meticulous harvesting tradition and are picked off the tree by hand to avoid any impurities that could come from touching the ground.

And as a true limoncello requires no preservatives or artificial coloring, limoncello also must be made with organic lemons, making the special care given to Sorrento lemons that much more particular. What sets the Sorrento lemon apart is its particularly fragrant rind, bursting with essential oils, and its incomparable flavor. Like the sfusato lemon, it can be eaten by itself and is in a class beyond the traditional lemons of the U.S.

The first recorded description of the Sorrento lemon dates all the way back to 1656, when a botanist named G.B. Ferrari described the rind as "rough, pleasantly scented with a sweet taste" and the flavor of the flesh as "pleasantly sour." The sweetness of the rind is what gives limoncello its distinct flavor.

Sorrento’s oral history of limoncello’s origins is far more recent than Amalfi’s medieval claims: as early as 1900, the wealthy of Sorrento were alleged to offer their guests a glass of limoncello as an apertif. These tales of the Sorrento elite arose almost simultaneously to the best documented of the three divergent histories of limoncello: the story of Capri.

Capri Stakes a Claim

Off the coast, just west of Amalfi and Sorento, lies the isle of Capri. Capri’s stake in limoncello’s origins may be the most recent, but it is also the only one with commonly available and verifiable documentation. At the beginning of the 20th century, a woman by the name of Maria Antonia Farace kept a small inn on the island, where she maintained an orchard of oranges and lemons and developed the liqueur, which she would share with her inn guests.

In the years following World War II, her son began selling it at his neighboring restaurant, using Farace’s recipe. Nestled in Capri, it remained a local delight until 1988, when Farace’s grandson Massimo Canale trademarked her limoncello recipe, marking the first time limoncello was prepared for true mass production in any way, shape, or form.

While all three stories tell a vivid tale of limoncello’s roots, only the story of Maria Antonia Farace has been corroborated and accepted by The Italian Association of Wine and Liqueur Producers, which lends it a measure of credibility in international circuits–although the folklore and oral traditions of Italian locals have made their way into virtually every article outlining limoncello’s background.

Regardless of the true seedling that gave rise to limoncello, Canale’s decision to trademark his nonna’s recipe started a snowballing sensation that continues to expand even today. What started as local and regional sales of Canale’s limoncello quickly became a nationwide phenomenon, until limoncello became almost on par with pizza in the minds of tourists exploring Italy through cuisine–and not just in the three competing towns of the Amalfi region. Limoncello further got a boost on U.S. foodie radars when it was included in a charming scene in Under the Tuscan Sun, a 2003 film starring Diane Lane about an American who moves to Italy.

Italy Gives Limoncello the Seal of Approval

Over the years, quite a bit has changed about limoncello. When it first became the apertif of choice in the Amalfi region, it was served at room temperature, but over the past few decades, its preferred serving style has been given a radical makeover: these days, it is a smash hit as a chilled drink to relieve you of the bulk of summer’s oppressive heat.

Not all changes, however, have been as pleasant as a chilled cup of the liqueur. Limoncello has become so popular that it has run into a few hiccups of its own as mass production ensues. Many companies brand themselves as lemon liqueurs or limoncello, yet fill it with artificial colors, additives to extend the shelf life, emulsifiers to mimic the iconic opacity, or harmful and cloying artificial flavors to replace the delicate flavors of sfusato and Sorrento lemons.

Although the name "limoncello" itself is not protected and can be used even by companies far exceeding the traditional four-ingredient recipe, in 2008, European Parliament enacted regulations that offer limoncello made within specific regions of Italy a location-based stamp of approval called a "Protected Geographical Indication," or PGI for short.

This Parliamentary seal of approval can be found on the limoncello bottles themselves–like with Villa Massa, a PGI-certified brand–so  look for it if you want to taste traditional limoncello. An added benefit of these guidelines is that artificial colors, emulsifiers, flavorings, and preservatives (with the exception of ascorbic acid) are prohibited.

Making Limoncello Outside of Italy

However, in this international age, one can’t discredit other places worldwide that are following the traditions of quality limoncello. California, one of the largest purveyors of lemons in the world, has seen a marked uptick in limoncello makers. Search for ones whose quality you can count on–their websites are typically more transparent and boast the lack of artificial additives, whereas companies whose sites are suspiciously silent on the topic generally have dumped chemicals in and sullied the joy of a delectable limoncello liqueur.

Limoncello has made its way across the globe as a contender on the alcohol scene–but not all contemporary foodies are putting limoncello on the same pedestal. In Melbourne, Australia in particular, there are two Italian restaurants with wildly different spins on Italian-Australian cuisine just down the street from one another–and limoncello is only served in the less contemporary, more traditionally family-style restaurant. However, hop on over to New Zealand, and you’ll find traditional-style limoncello made and sold according to family traditions rooted in Australia, like the award-winning Sovrano Limoncello.

DIY Makers Take Limoncello Back to Its Roots

Limoncello’s history hasn’t quite ended there, however. Like everything in this era dominated by crafty millennials and ambitious Gen-Zers, the DIY-savvy have swooped in to return limoncello to its roots: a homemade, simple liqueur to enjoy either by yourself or with guests–only this time, this treat isn’t reserved for the wealthy.

Homemade recipes vary in degrees–like this one made with stevia and agave–but most stick to the original five ingredients: organic lemons, liquor, sugar, water, and time. Additionally, many recipes for limoncello suggest opting for Meyer lemons, as their sweetness better embodies the spirit of hard-to-find sfusato and Sorrento lemons. (Ed. - It may be due to the quality of the lemons I get, but I haven't had much luck with Meyer lemons. The limoncello always comes out insipid compared to regular lemons.) 

Although at first glance a deviation from its roots, this emergence of limoncello as a small-batch endeavor is not a new chapter in its history but a return to its roots, one that arguably has wound its way closest to the heart of this renowned liqueur’s community-focused origins–whether that was with the monks, the sailors, or in Maria Antonia Farace’s inn.

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Tigerlily February 7, 2019

Great article, thank you so much for all the historical background of this iconic Italian treasure. I will think of it everytime I drink a little glass of Limoncello – whether homemade or at a restaurant or bar. Your writing is well researched and fun to read – your passion for the topic shines through every word. Gratzie!

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