The Art of Darkness

Chasing the Yellow Fairy

February 25th, 2010 by Cobwebs

Lemon CelloI have a tendency–certain members of my family that I happen to be married to would call it “an unfortunate tendency”–when encountering any large quantity of really cheap produce, to buy it and figure out what to do with it later. Not infrequently that seems to involve a good soaking in alcohol. Thus, when I scored a giant bag of lemons a few months ago, I decided to try my hand at limoncello.

There are a number of recipes floating around, including several variations obsessively documented at Limoncello Quest. My approach to the whole undertaking was somewhat more relaxed but it turned out splendidly. It’s pretty hard to truly screw up homemade liqueur, so don’t be afraid to experiment.


  • One 750ml bottle of high-proof grain alcohol, such as Everclear (which is 151 proof). I’ve seen recipes that call for vodka instead, but the much lower alcohol content means that it’ll be pretty low-octane once you dilute it with sugar syrup.
  • A buncha lemons. You can decide how many this is; recipes vary wildly. You should probably use at least 10. In the end, I used about 30 (but not all at once).
  • 1-3/4 cups sugar
  • 2-1/2 cups water


  • A glass jar large enough to hold about six cups of liquid (a bit larger is better), with a tight-fitting lid. I used a big canning jar.
  • Something to remove the peel: A microplane grater is best; I used a regular kitchen grater. You could probably use a vegetable peeler or paring knife in a pinch.
  • A strainer for removing the peel; you could use a slotted spoon in a real pinch, but strainers are cheap.
  • A filter: Coffee filters will remove pretty much all particulate matter; a few layers of cheesecloth is fine.

Scrub the heck out of the lemons, preferably using fruit wash. Commercial citrus is often waxed, and you want to remove both that and any chemical residue such as pesticides. Pat dry.

Zest the lemons (I used about 15 initially). If you use a microplane grater it will take off just the top bit of peel with none of the bitter white pith. I didn’t have a microplane grater and I happen to like a slightly bitter edge, so I just used a cheese grater. (You can squeeze the juice and freeze it in ice cube trays; they’re great to have on hand when a recipe calls for a tablespoon or so of juice.)

Put the zest in the jar and pour in the alcohol. Note that if you don’t have alcohol on hand, you can also moisten the zest with a squeeze or two of lemon juice, wrap it up airtight, and freeze it until you get some. (I wound up having to do this because when I went to the liquor store to buy the Everclear, I was rather astonished to discover that it’s banned in Virginia. My dad was scheduled to visit from California a few weeks later, so I asked him bring me a couple of bottles. I felt so clandestine.)

Seal the jar and put it somewhere dark (if possible) and room temperature for about six weeks; a corner of the kitchen away from the stove is fine. Give it a good shake when you think about it.

If you want a strong lemon flavor (which I did), you can continue to add zest whenever you have a lemon or two handy. (Remove the zest before you squeeze the lemon; it’s harder to get the zest off a floppy used lemon half.)

Eventually the liquid will be a rather astonishing shade of yellow and the zest will be almost white. Set a strainer over a large nonreactive bowl and pour the proto-limoncello through it. Discard the zest and return the liquid to the jar.

Now make a simple syrup: Mix the sugar and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil for 5 minutes, then remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

Add the syrup to the liquid in the jar. It will taste very harsh if you sample it now; it needs to mellow for a while, so re-seal the jar and let sit for another six weeks. I couldn’t leave well enough alone, so I continued to add lemon zest periodically. Shake it whenever you happen to think about it.

If you’ve added more zest, pour the liquid through a strainer and discard the solids. There will still be little particles in the liquid, so it should be filtered: Pour the liquid through a few layers of cheesecloth or, if you want it to be sparkling-clear, use coffee filters. I skipped the filtering step and after the limoncello sat for a couple of days it developed a thick layer of particulate gunk at the neck of the bottle, so filtering is definitely worthwhile.

Pour into bottles with tightly-fitting stoppers, and you’re done! Serve chilled for sipping, mix with champagne for a cocktail, or use it in place of rum in your favorite rum cake recipe. Before you know it, you’ll be looking around your kitchen for other things you can turn into liqueurs.

(Photo Credit)

Posted in Doom It Yourself | 3 Comments »

3 Responses

  1. Pam Says:

    This was SO YUMMY!!! I used mine to help get my taxes done during a blizzard. It was amazing.

  2. Janice Murphy Says:


  3. xJane Says:

    The first batch (of limon- and fortunellacello) I did with He Who Shall Not Be Named and now I’ve a batch of bitter arancello awaiting syrup. Thanks for the recipe!

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