This is a long-form of the standard recipe that omits no details or explanations. If you plan to make limoncello (also incorrectly spelled "lemoncello" or "lemonchello") at home and have never tried it before, you should read this very closely.
Step One: Select Lemons
Cut a hole in the box. (Just kidding.) The first step is actually to select your lemons. Whenever possible, select organic lemons because it’s actually the skin (zest) you use in making limoncello and that’s also where all the pesticide is.
Organic lemons also aren’t waxed, which is more crap that ends up in your liquor. Try to choose thick-skinned lemons with smooth skin. The reason for this is that it’s a heck of a lot easier to zest a lemon with smooth skin. And it kind of goes without saying that you should pick ones that don’t have stickers on them if possible.
Step Two: Wash Lemons
Wash the lemons. You’ll need to do this whether or not they are organic but if they aren’t organic it’s more of an ordeal. You need to scrub them under very warm water with a vegetable brush or some other plastic scrubber. Remove all stickers or stamps and as much of the wax as possible. Then dry them with a paper towel.
As an optional step, I like to also use a vegetable wash on the lemons to really get them squeaky clean and remove any wax or debris. It's an extra step, but worth doing in my opinion. I do this for any fruit or vegetable when I intend to eat the skin.
Step Three: Zest Lemons
Zest the lemons. Doing this step quickly and doing it well requires a Microplane Zester because anything else just doesn’t work as well in my experience. I like to put a cutting board or a large piece of aluminum foil down to catch all the zest. Then you just use the zester to remove a thin layer of zest from the whole lemon.
If you get even a little bit of the white pith just below the zest, it will make your liqueur bitter. So don’t take chances, if the lemon is bumpy and you can’t get all the zest without hitting the pith elsewhere, let it go. The lemons in the picture below have been zested. Notice how it is still yellow because I just removed the outer skin without touching the pith anywhere. This step is all about quality over quantity.
My recipe calls for 2 more lemons than what you typically see (~50 grams of zest) because it is so important not to worry about not having enough zest here and digging into the lemon for more is not allowed. This step used to take me a really long time when I used other types of zesters or peelers but with the Microplane I can zest all 17 lemons in about half an hour.
Step Four: Filter the Liquor
Filter the liquor. This should actually be done simultaneously with the zesting to save time. I use a Brita pitcher that I bought for this purpose, but any similar water filtration pitcher will do. I pour one bottle in, let it filter, pour it into a regular clean pitcher, then back in the top and I repeat the filtration four times for each bottle of liquor.
I’m still testing how worthwhile this is and how many filtrations are optimal but four is my current standard. I filter regardless of what kind of liquor I use. My standard recipe calls for 1,500 ml of liquor and many people have loved this recipe over the years but I’ll admit that it is pretty strong.
If you’re using 151 proof grain alcohol like I do, then 750 ml is more than enough for most people. Better yet is to use my alcohol percentage calculator (which factors in the strength of your alcohol) and target 30% as the final alcohol percentage. Adjust from there to taste.
Whenever possible I use grain alcohol for authenticity. It’s difficult to get because many states don’t allow it to be sold. I’ve found though that vodka has a flavor of its own that is imparted and I’m not a big fan of that.
However, it is much better than nothing so the next best thing is 100 proof, mid-grade vodka. If you must, use the 80 proof but more potent liquor is better. Use my alcohol percentage calculator to get it right on the first try.
Step Five: Add Zest to Liquor
Combine the zest and the filtered liquor into a very clean one gallon glass jar and screw the lid on tight. If the lid isn’t tight enough, put a piece of plastic wrap on the top before screwing on the lid. You can use any glass jar of sufficient size and I have different ones for different purposes.
The one on the above is a basic one that holds an entire batch. I’ve also found good jars at Marshall’s and online. Put a label on the jar that tells you at least the date of when you made it, and include other details about how you made it. I use a label maker to number my batches and track in an Excel sheet what I do differently each time but that’s probably more anal than most people need to be.
Step Six: Let the Infusion Rest
Wait. I tend to keep each batch in my kitchen for the first week to ten days and I shake it up about four times during that initial period. After that I put it in my basement because of the “out of sight, out of mind” factor.
It’s easier to wait if you don’t see it sitting there all the time. I let the mixture sit and infuse for a minimum of 45 days, longer if I can stand it or if I forget about it. This is where all of the lemon flavor comes from so don’t short-change yourself here. If you absolutely must have it sooner, reduce wait times from later steps first.
Step Seven: Filter the Infusion
This is one of the most important steps and by far the most laborious. My process is to filter less than some people recommend but I’ve found that it’s enough to get the job done and this is one job you’ll want to keep as short as possible. However, you should never skip it. I’ve skipped the filtration and the result resembles dirty bath water more than limoncello. The filtration actually gives it the color, clarity and flavor you expect.
My first filtering pass is with a flat-bottom permanent coffee filter that you can buy at the grocery store. I put it right in the funnel and the funnel in the pitcher or whatever container I’m using. Then I ladle the infusion out of the storage jar and through the filter. This first pass removes all of the zest and other large debris. Then comes the tough part. I take flat-bottom disposable coffee filters, the ones with the fluted edging, and put them inside the permanent filter. This is basically double-filtering and I repeat this step a second time. Then on the last pass I just put it through the permanent filter by itself just in case any debris or zest gets back in there during the filtration process. So, that makes two filtrations with just the permanent filter and two filtrations with the permanent plus disposable filters.
When filtering, you want to be patient and preserve as much of the liquid as possible but there will come a point when it looks like there’s more liquid at the bottom but no more liquid is dripping through. Do NOT try to salvage that liquid. Throw it away along with the filter (or wash the filter) because that stuff is exactly what you’re filtering in the first place. There’s some great info on filtering liquors here.
Step Eight: Add Simple Syrup
Add the simple syrup. My standard recipe is to bring 5 cups of water just to a boil and then remove it from the heat and stir in 3.5 cups of white sugar. Then let it sit until it comes down to room temperature. I use filtered water for this and I now always use regular white sugar. I don't attempt to calculate the exact proportions needed. Sugar and water are cheap and simple syrup has many uses so I just make too much and measure out what I need.
I’ve tried other types of sugar but raw sugars tend to have subtle flavors of their own (most notably molasses) that will show up in the final product. If that sounds ok to you, give it a whirl, but I didn’t like it. I’ve also heard that you should not stir the sugar but rather let the low boil mix the two instead. I’ve tried it both ways and never noticed a difference. Once the simple syrup cools down (completely, to room temperature) you can just add it to the lemon/liquor infusion, screw the lid back on and shake the jar. Mark on the label the date you mixed the infusion with the simple syrup.
Step Nine: Let It Rest
Wait some more. I now put the mixture back in the basement and wait for at least another 45 days. The longer the mixture rests, the smoother the flavor of the final product. I am convinced of this fact. Though I’ll leave this step in as the official recipe, in practice I usually filter and then let it sit longer in the bottle.
Step Ten: Bottle the Limoncello
Because I’m anal about this, I wash, dry and then sterilize the bottles first. You can sterilize them by putting aluminum foil over the top and baking them in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour. Then just don’t take off the aluminum foil until they are ready for use. This isn’t really necessary for this purpose (it is for beer) but it makes me feel like the bottles are clean enough. I often use either the bottles the liquor came in (if it’s for my own use) or some smaller and better-looking bottles (if I want to give them away). I have a very thorough post on choosing limoncello bottles here. I also wrote a post on how best to find and apply the labels.
I’ve also heard that if you give it away you should put on a label saying that it is a gift and not intended for resale to pacify the ATF guys. I’ve yet to give much away outside of the family so it hasn’t been an issue for me.
Lastly, serve it to your friends! Get some lovely limoncello glasses like the ones below and show off your creation! You can also create other cocktails with it, and I've gone to great lengths to help you with that here.
You’re done! A few bonus tips for you though. In my experience the limoncello mellows a lot in the first week. I realize this is torture but if you’re not in a tremendous hurry, I recommend doing the first tasting a week or so after bottling. The longer it sits, the smoother it gets (within reason of course, the flavor can decline with age). This is more important if you’re making it with grain alcohol than vodka but it still holds true. I taste a given batch at one week, six months and one year of age. Never has a batch been around longer than that or I’d taste it at later intervals as well. Enjoy!