Limoncello

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Introduction

Limoncello is an infusion of spirits with lemon oil. Conventional recipes involve peeling the lemon, ridding the lemon peel of any white pith whatsoever, and then infusing the vodka or grain alcohol with the trimmed, sliced, or zested peel for a few weeks or months. Later, one filters out the peel or zest, adds a sugar syrup, and ages the mixture until it's ready. Afterwards, most guides suggest chilling the limoncello in the freezer, and serving cold, perhaps with biscuits or other sweet snacks.

I have used many of these recipes myself, and of them, I prefer Jeffrey Morganthaler's method from his The Bar Book, which specifies zesting only the part of the peel that isn't white. It's painstaking, but the zest you get from the lemons is purely lemon and not bitter (which is a sign of having pith involved) and it makes a lovely limoncello.

The Mystical Approach

After noodling around with these more well known methods of making limoncello, I found out about a relatively less well known method which is apparently all the more traditional and almost lost, which is a lot less persnickety.

It leverages the property of oil slowly (fractionally) dissolving in alcohol, and the property of partial pressure in gases and liquids (more conventionally, the way a terrarium works with water).

To put it simply, if you put a pool of Everclear at the bottom of a big-ass jar (I use 5L jars with rubber gasket seals and that metal wire leverage latch), and suspend lemons (I use a fabric bag for infusing beer and other brewed things) at the top, and seal the vessel, the alcohol will vaporize and flux up, then condense on the lemons, and drip down, slowly infusing the lemon oil into the alcohol almost as if you had zested the lemon instead.

It's a very simple method, very quick once you have the supplies and the washed lemons. Just set it up and let it run until the infusion is as strong as you like it. It's kind of revolutionary compared to the other methods.

The recipe is from the Cooking section of the New York Times. Their commentary/research article is here.

Recipe Transcription

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¾ liters of Everclear, or other strong or overproof spirit
  • 18 lemons, whole, well washed, preferably organic
  • superfine or white sugar
  • food-grade cheesecloth, rinsed and wrung out
  • strong butcher’s twine
  • large sealable glass vessel or urn, with lid.

Method:

  1. Pour the spirit into the well-cleaned urn. Drape the cheesecloth in crossing swaths, making sure to gauge the length so that once the weight of the lemons is pending, they cannot reach the spirit. Bind the cheesecloth tightly in place on the outside edge of the urn with the butcher’s twine, wrapping it under a lip to make certain it is well held. Place the lemons into their hammock and cap the whole with the lid. If the lid has a plastic or rubber gasket, you may wish to remove it, lest it leach any off-flavors into the mix. Store in a stable environment out of sunlight for nine weeks. Given variables like temperature and humidity, your limoncello may be ready before then. Warmer climates will speed up the process. Avoid opening the jar, as it will set the curing process back, but do pay attention to the color of the mix; you want it rich with a kind of varnished yellow, but it can actually go too far, overextracting into a brown color with an intensity that can be too much for some people’s taste.
  2. At the end of the aging period you should have roughly 1 4/10 liters of unsweetened lemon spirit at roughly 60 percent alcohol by volume, or 120 proof. Make a simple syrup of ½ liter water and the same of sugar. When dissolved fully, add to the lemon spirit and mix well. Taste for strength, balance and sweetness and adjust water for dilution and/or sugar if necessary. Be cautious not to drown the lemon’s bite and aromatics with too much sugar, but also bear in mind that if you’re serving your limoncello from the freezer, you will perceive slightly less sweetness in the frozen mixture.

Commentary

To be honest, the amount of lemons we're talking about here is massive. I end up using 6 or 8 lemons. I guess maybe if I were going to open the lid part way through and replace the lemons it might come to 18 lemons, but for one hanging, it's too much.