80 days/eight nights

After our trip to Italy in 2007, we became quite enamored of limoncello, the sunny, lemony digestive native to the Amalfi Coast.

Online research showed that making limoncello was simple.  Set some lemon peels to steep in either grain alcohol or vodka. Strain out the peels and add some simple syrup. Bottle, chill, drink.

The only difficult parts were having the patience to properly peel the lemons (you don’t want any of the white pith…it imparts an unpleasant bitterness) and the wait for the steeping period to finish.  Every one of the recipes and process descriptions I came across in my initial search said the infusion must sit for from 30 – 40 days in order to extract the full load of essential oils from the peels.  There was an underlying assumption that the longer the infusion sat, the better the end result.  It played into the romance of making an artisanal after dinner drink in small batches as in “the old country.” 

“This,” everyone said, “is the ‘traditional,’ ‘authentic’ way to make limoncello.”

After filtering out the peels and adding the simple syrup, I was directed to let the mixture mellow for anywhere from a few days to over a month before chilling and consuming.

So, on December 31, 2007, I put up my first batch of limoncello.  I used Meyer lemons and a mixture of grain alcohol and 100 proof vodka.  And I dutifully began to count down the 40 days.  Occasional checks showed the peels turning pale as they gave up their color to the spirits, which took on a pleasing yellow tint. 

My life got quite busy as spring arrived. The infusion sat until early April before I could get to the next step.  A check of the peels showed that they had indeed turned brittle as the oils were extracted from them. According to all accounts, this was as it should be. 

I was half way there.

For the next step, I made a up a large batch of simple syrup with 16 cups of water and 16 cups of sugar.  Here again, recipes varied as to the ratio of sugar to water in the syrup.  Not wanting the end product to be too sweet, I opted for the 1:1 ratio.

The infusion was filtered to remove the peels and the strained liquid was mixed with the syrup.  Back down to the basement it went for another 40 days that turned into more like 80 as my spring stayed quite busy.

Finally, it was time to bottle. The limoncello went into 1 liter swing cap bottles, one of which went immediately into the freezer for chilling.

By now we were into mid-June, just a year after our last sip of limoncello as a night cap in Roma.  One Sunday evening after a fine dinner on the patio, we pulled that first bottle out of the freezer and poured a couple of glasses.

“Sweet lemon goodness with the peppery punch from the alcohol,” was how I described it in my notes on the project.  It was good.

Encouraged by the success of the first batch, I immediately set about making a second. This time I used the standard Eureka lemon.  And I played with the sugar syrup using a higher water to sugar ratio.  Results were still good.

Subsequent batches were tweaked here and there; sometimes a mix of vodka and pure grain alcohol, sometimes all pure grain; organic lemons; regular lemons; lighter and lighter ratios of simple syrup.

They were all good, just different.

On Halloween of this past year, we had two couples over for a hands on lesson in making limoncello. 

The six of us got together for dinner just after New Years.  We tasted the finished product just after New Years…slightly ahead of the 80 day production schedule.

During the interval between starting the infusion and adding the simple syrup, I happened to catch an episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on the Food Network.  In three minute segment  near the end of the program (go about 7 minutes into this clip), he described a process for making limoncello in a week. Due to some distraction or another, I didn’t catch all the details of the process, but I was sure he said seven days. 

Alton Brown’s Seven Day Limoncello

  • Zest the rind from two pounds of lemons and place in a non-reactive container with a tight fitting lid.
  • Add 750 mL of 100 proof Vodka
  • Seal, shake well to mix. Place in cool, quiet place out of direct light for seven days.
  • Make a simple syrup of 2/3 cup water with 2/3 cup sugar. Let cool to room temperature.
  • Strain lemon zest out of infused vodka into another container (the empty vodka bottle works).
  • In large container, mix simple syrup with strained vodka infusion.
  • Bottle, chill, enjoy.

Back to the internet I started searching specifically for limoncello recipes that could be completed in a week’s time.  Amongst others, I found this one  (note the word “Authentic”):

Recipe from Ron Carducci. Ron says, “I have relatives in Italy and they make limoncello the same way it is made all through Italy. Additionally, almost without exception, every limoncello I order as an after dinner digestive in ristoranti all over Italy, is made and tastes pretty much the same (I speak Italian and I ask the chefs how it is made and they almost always give me a recipe that varies only slightly from the one I am including below).  It is made with 95% pure grain alcohol, lemons, and simple syrup. That is it! The same is true for arancello. One bonus feature of the legit Italian recipe is that it only takes one week to make. 

Folks from the Amalfi coast that I have spoken with (that’s where it originated) tell me that legit limoncello, when you sip it straight, ice cold and without ice (Italians never put ice in their limoncello), should be very lemony, and smooth but have a “jolt” in the middle of it; i.e., a spreading warmth with a friendly kick. Recipes made with vodka, not Everclear Alcohol, are smooth but do not have the jolt. Plus, the vodka taste is alien to the Italian limoncello taste. Try this recipe – you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”    

Authentic Italian Limoncello1 liter (1000 ml) of Everclear alcohol

10 medium to large lemons

1 1/2 liters of water (6 1/3 cups)

3 pounds of sugar (6 1/2 cups)

Wash the lemons with a vegetable brush and hot water to remove any reside of pesticides or wax; pat the lemons dry. Using a potato peeler, take all the lemon rinds off of the lemons so there is no white pith on the peel. Place the rind-peelings in a large container with the Everclear alcohol.  Cover the container and let it sit for seven days. 

On the eight day, strain the peels from alcohol; discard peels. 

In a large saucepan, make a simple syrup by combining the water and sugar; let it simmer “fast” for 15 minutes.  Let simple syrup cool to room temperature. Add to alcohol. 

You are now finished and can drink it right away. 

NOTE:  This same recipe works for arancello also. Use 10 large oranges.

Makes about 2 1/2 liters.

So, what could I do but try it…with a couple of small changes.  I picked up a dozen lemons at the supermarket (if 10 are good, 12 must be better, right?) And I only used 5 cups of sugar rather than the 6 ½ cups (I just don’t like it too sweet).

I started the infusion on Monday morning, the 18th of January.  I made my simple syrup up just before going to bed on the 25th so it would cool down overnight.  On Tuesday, the 26th, I filtered the infusion and mixed in the syrup.  Then I bottled it.  A sample of the warm limoncello indicated a drinkable result.  The proof came later that night when we cracked open a bottle that had been in the freezer for about 11 hours. 

Three of us tasted samples from the 1 week batch and a prior batch made with the 80 day method.  Since I poured the liqueurs, I knew which sample was which but did not reveal that information to the other tasters.  There was a difference in taste, but we all agreed that the “short cut” version was the more pleasant of the two and certainly better than just “ok.”

Now, I fully recognize that this was far from a scientifically sound comparison.  To be completely proper, we would have to make two batches as nearly identical as possible save for the length of the steeping time.  But this is an artisanal craft.  There are bound to be some fluctuations in process and product from batch to batch.

The taste test

The real question being asked was, can you make a satisfyingly drinkable limoncello in 1/10th the time?

We say, “Yes.”


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One Response to “80 days/eight nights”

  1. Michelle Says:

    One of your fellow tasters confirmed the 1 week version is quite tasty. We’ll definitely be trying this one week version.

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