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


History of Limoncello

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.

Related: Wedding Venue Recommendation

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.

Showing Off Your Limoncello: Bottles, Mini Bottles, Corks & More


Limoncello Bottles

If you engage in the labor of love that is hand crafting limoncello—and you’re giving some away as a gift—you should probably go the extra mile and make it look incredible. The best way to do that is to put it in bottles that properly display the liqueur, and even enhance the beauty of it. I’ve been making and gifting limoncello for over a decade, so I have some advice for you on how you can make your limoncello look amazing. 

Where Can I Buy Limoncello Bottles?

Limoncello bottles are just regular liqueur bottles that happen to contain limoncello, so you can buy them from Amazon as well as from specialty glass companies such as the Bottle Store or Berlin Packaging

Limoncello bottles come in various shapes; there isn’t one standard appearance for a bottle of limoncello. The glass is typically either clear or frosted so that you can see the attractive yellow color of the liqueur.  However, there are a few important considerations when choosing bottles for showcasing your home-made limoncello. 

We’ll address those considerations below and show some examples of good limoncello bottles from Amazon so you can visualize the different types. You can also just buy them there of course. Amazon loves it when you do that and I even get a small commission (woohoo!). So without further ado…

Clear or Frosted Limoncello Bottles?

This choice is really a matter of preference and I have two distinct use cases for my own limoncello. The first is for when I’m creating my own limoncello for my own experiments or for my own enjoyment. If it’s just for me, I always use clear bottles.

The reason is that I want to have an unfiltered view of the color and clarity of the limoncello. Some people simple prefer the way limoncello looks in a clear bottle as well. The ones below are reasonably priced on Amazon and they are square, which I think looks nice:

The second use case is giving limoncello as a gift or favor. If I’m giving the limoncello away, I’ll often use frosted bottles. This is a bit of a hack to make it look like it “should.” Limoncello is usually (and properly) served directly from the freezer, so the bottle has a frosty appearance.

If you want to maintain that look at room temperature, then a frosted bottle is the solution. Some commercial limoncello producers use this trick and I do think it makes the limoncello look better in the bottle. The one drawback is that frosted bottles are pretty much uniformly more expensive than clear bottles.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you as one isn’t decidedly better than the other. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Limoncello Bottles with Corks or Swing Tops

Another issue is how you cap the bottle. It is pretty common for smaller limoncello bottles to come with corks and those typically work fine. Sometimes they can be too loose so I generally don’t trust them as much unless the bottle remains upright. Sometimes mine end up on their sides in the freezer, so I don’t use corks that much. The last thing you want is limoncello all over the bottom of your freezer. Corks are cheap though, and they have a distinctly home-made appearance if that’s the look you’re going for.

Plastic caps with corks are a better option for securely capping the bottle. This is the type of cap that typically comes with commercial limoncello and they work well; I’ve never had one of these spill in the freezer. They also look more professional which is a different and more modern aesthetic. This is the route I usually go because I just prefer my limoncello to look like it was professionally produced. You can even shrink wrap the top if you want to go crazy:

Lemoncello bottle cap

The last option is a swing top. These are a little fussy to use; they can get twisted up such that you’ll think you’re trying to solve a Rubic’s Cube, but they are extremely secure. They have a rubber gasket and lock down tight so nothing ever escapes. I use these for my experimental batches but I never give them away because they have a home-brewed beer look to them that I don’t care for. But again, that’s personal preference. 

Where to Buy Mini Limoncello Bottles

A very common use case for creating your own limoncello is to use them as party or wedding favors. If this is your use case, then you’ll be looking for some bottles that are smaller than the standard 750ml or 375ml bottles. The 250ml size is also fairly common and I like this size if the group isn’t huge. If you want 100 of them for a wedding, that size will likely be too large and costly though. A 100ml bottle is perfect for larger groups as it is around 3 shots worth of liqueur and the bottles are less expensive (though there are generally fewer options in that size). 

You can get these and others at Amazon:


Q: Where can I buy limoncello labels to go on the bottles?
A: Click the links above, Amazon has these and other glasses so you’ll almost certainly find what you need. 

Q: What are the common limoncello bottle sizes?
A: A full bottle is 750ml, and a half bottle is (quite sensibly) 375ml. Smaller 250ml bottles are very common and you’ll find bottles at 100ml, 50ml and 30ml pretty commonly as well. 30ml is roughly one ounce of liqueur.

Q: Can you get custom limoncello bottles?
A: If you mean “custom-looking” then all you need is a bottle, a cap and a label. This is how most people customize their bottles and it’s good enough for me. If you mean you want a bottle shaped like a lemon, then yeah, you can do that but it’s going to be very expensive. A specialty glass manufacturer can do that. 

Limoncello Glasses: Here’s All You Need to Know


Limoncello glasses

A key element of properly serving and enjoying limoncello is the glassware that you use. That’s true of nearly any alcoholic beverage and limoncello is no exception. I have served a lot of limoncello in my day, so I have a lot of advice when it comes to choosing the limoncello glasses that will maximize your enjoyment. 

What Kind of Glass Should You Use to Drink Limoncello?

Limoncello glasses are typically just clear shot glasses. They may come with handles or insulation to keep the liquid cold longer. You can buy shot glasses of this type at home goods stores in your area and there is a good selection on Amazon as well.

There are a few important considerations when choosing glasses for serving your limoncello. Below we’ll go through those concerns and show some examples of good limoncello glasses from Amazon so you can visualize what I’m talking about. You can also just buy them there of course. Amazon loves it when you do that and I even get a small commission (woohoo!). So without further ado…

Does the Color of the Glass Matter?

One of the factors that I assess when determining the overall quality of limoncello is the color. Wine-lovers do the same thing. Does it really change the flavor? No, it’s typically not an indicator of flavor unless the color is really off in some way. For example, a brownish color can mean that a sugar was used that carries too much of its own flavor (typically a molasses taste).

This is pretty much what my own glasses look like:

So, if you want to fully enjoy your limoncello and appreciate the color, you’ll need a clear glass. It’s easy to drink too much limoncello too quickly on a hot day (or any other day) so a small, clear glass is also in order. Limoncello glasses tend to be shot glasses or at least some very close riff on a shot glass. You’ll see a few that are opaque, but even those tend to be white so you can look inside the glass and see the color against a white background. 

For a classier look, grappa glasses also work:
A delicate whiskey glass is also a great choice:

With a Handle or Without?

Limoncello—it should be said in case it isn’t obvious—is a sipping liqueur. It’s meant to be enjoyed as a digestif (after-dinner drink to aid digestion). So it’s intended for slow consumption. It’s also great for enjoying with friends, like pretty much any other liqueur. All of this puts it a bit at odds with the thermal dynamics of the limoncello itself. 

Standard shot-glass-with-a-handle:

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, limoncello should be served ice cold—directly from the freezer. That freezing temperature is a core part of the appeal and it creates a color and consistency in the limoncello that is different from the same liqueur at room temperature. 

Great for keeping that "homemade" vibe:

Therefore, it can be very useful to have a limoncello glass that somehow helps you maintain a cold temperature while you enjoy it. That’s another reason to have small glasses, but even with small glasses a sipping liqueur can use some help staying cold. That’s why some limoncello glasses have handles on them or have some insulation to maintain a cooler temperature while you enjoy it. 

No handle, just elegantly insulated:

Limoncello Gift Sets with Glasses

The reason for seeking out limoncello glasses is often to give them as a gift. This makes sense. Because while I love limoncello, I have never bothered to purchase myself a gift set of limoncello glasses and a carafe because it seems a little over-the-top (even for me, which is saying something). But would I enjoy them? Sure! Therefore, they make a great gift for the right person. Here are a couple examples of limoncello gift sets for that special limoncello lover in your life. 


Q: Where can I buy limoncello glasses?
A: Click the links above, Amazon has these and other glasses so you’ll almost certainly find what you need. 

Q: Does the carafe make any difference to the taste?
A: No. It makes sense to aerate some wines before you drink them but that makes no sense for limoncello. It’s just for looks.

Q: Does the limoncello need a cap in the freezer?
A: Yes, not having a cap in the freezer is just kind of gross. 

Buying Limoncello: Where and How to Find a Great Bottle


Where to buy limoncello

I’ve purchased quite a bit of limoncello over the years. I’ve hand-crafted far more, but I have been on a mission to test out as many commercial limoncello brands as I can get my grubby hands on. So I know a thing or two about buying limoncello and will share that with you lovely readers.  

Where Can I Buy Limoncello?

The widest variety of Limoncello is available from online vendors such as Total Wine and More. However, that only works if they can legally ship to your state which is very often not the case. If you live in an area where they can’t deliver, it’s best to find the largest liquor store in your area and look there.

Aside from price, which we’ll address, there aren’t a lot of concerns here—but there are a few. Read on for my semi-professional limoncello acquisition tips.

Don’t Assume You Can’t Buy Online

The very first thing to check is whether you can buy liquor online. Liquor laws vary from state to state in the US so check the rules in your local area. If you’re able to purchase online, that’s definitely where you’ll get the best prices and also where you’ll find the largest selection by far.  

There are plenty of states where it’s fine to purchase limoncello online and have it delivered to your house. Unlike wine, beer and other perishable items, it’s kind of hard to hurt limoncello in transit unless you break the bottle.  

If You Can’t Buy Online…

The next best thing is to purchase in your local area. Depending on how rural your area is, this may be more or less difficult. If you have a large liquor store in your area, they will usually have at least a small selection of limoncello brands. I’ve found that small to medium stores often carry two to four brands of limoncello, and some super stores might carry a dozen. 

If there’s a certain brand of limoncello you’d like to try, you can always ask the liquor store in your area to acquire it for you and they might be able to do so. The trick will be how to sell the rest of it in a small rural store, so they may insist that you buy a case or something like that. If you’re truly in a rural area, it may also make sense to wait until you travel. Airport liquor stores often have at least some limoncello on hand. 

Freshness Matters

The other big consideration with local limoncello from small stores is how long it’s been sitting there. Many times I’ve seen bottles of limoncello in small stores that literally had dust on them. So how long did they sit there? How long did they sit in the storage room before that? Limoncello lasts a long time but not forever—it loses some of its character over time—so you want a bottle produced in the past year or two. 


Q: Can I get (fill in the blank) brand of limoncello in my area?

A: If you can order online, then almost certainly yes. If not, then it may be quite difficult. Your best bet is to try to get your local liquor store to order it for you.

Q: Where can I get the best deal on limoncello?  

A: Online, for sure. Again, if that doesn’t work for you then price shopping probably won’t be an option. You’ll be lucky enough just to find it. What you can sometimes find are “nip” sized bottles of limoncello as samples. This is a great way to try different brands.   

Q: Where can I find the best selection of limoncello?

A: The best selection I’ve seen thus far is from Total Wine and More. That’s a fairly regional chain and operates in my area. I’m sure more research would turn up others if you do some Googling.