What Is Limoncello?

Production, Types, and Recipes

Bottles of limoncello. Sorrento, Campania, Italy, Europe
Russell Mountford / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Limoncello (sometimes called "lemoncello") liqueur is made by soaking lemon zests in neutral grain alcohol for a month or more. The result is a thick, sweet dessert cordial with an intense lemon flavor. It is traditionally an Italian liqueur but is also produced in other countries, including the United States, today. The two countries also consume it most often. While limoncello is customarily enjoyed on its own for dessert, it also makes a brilliant cocktail ingredient, prized for its sweet, citrusy flavor that makes equally delicious mixed drinks.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Lemon
  • Proof: 56–64
  • ABV: 28–32%
  • Calories in a shot: 103
  • Origin: Italy
  • Taste: Sweet, citrusy
  • Serve: Chilled, on the rocks, cocktails

What Is Limoncello Made From?

Limoncello originated in Italy over a century ago and is most often produced in the southern part of the country, including the Naples area. Today it is made in the U.S. and other countries as well.

Limoncello is made by steeping lemon zest in a grain alcohol that is similar to vodka. This extracts the oils and infuses the lemon flavor into the liquor. Sorrento lemons are common in Italian limoncello while American-made versions tend to use California lemons. Since lemon peels are used, organic fruit is often preferred in order to avoid possible contamination from pesticides and other chemicals. Once infused, the liquor is then blended with simple syrup to obtain the desired balance of citrus flavor and sweetness. It's also common to clarify limoncello to make it less cloudy, though even this method retains limoncello's signature yellow color. Most limoncello is bottled between 28 percent and 32 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 56 to 64 proof).

It is possible to make your own limoncello using high-proof neutral grain alcohol (Everclear and vodka are popular choices). The process is very easy, though it does take a considerable amount of time (a month or more) for the flavor to develop. Like commercial versions, simple syrup is added for sweetness.

What Does Limoncello Taste Like?

Limoncello is a very sweet liqueur with an intense flavor of lemons. It lacks the tartness of lemon juice and is more like a spiked, highly-concentrated, citrus-flavored syrup that's very delicious.

Where to Buy Limoncello

Italy offers the largest selection of limoncello and it's a favorite purchase for travelers to the country. You can also find limoncello in many liquor stores, particularly those that have a diverse stock. Shopping online will increase your limoncello options, though shipping regulations vary greatly by country and state so that is not a viable option for everyone. For the most part, limoncello is affordably priced, similar to other liqueurs and bottles of wine. You will find some luxury options, too.

How to Drink Limoncello

It's traditional to serve limoncello well-chilled as an after-dinner drink, or digestivo (digestif in French). In parts of Italy, particularly the Amalfi Coast, well-chilled small Capodimonte ceramic cups are the preferred drinking vessels. Limoncello is best stored in the freezer and also makes a delicious topping for ice cream. In cocktails, it's used as a sweetener that adds a bright citrus flavor to the mix.

Cocktail Recipes

Cocktails that employ limoncello are not numerous but they are delicious. It's often found in dessert drinks and adds a nice sweetness to martinis and spiked iced tea, pairing best with tequila, vodka, and whiskey. You can also use it as a substitute for simple syrup and other sweeteners in recipes where the lemon flavor will add a nice touch. When doing so, you may need to reduce or eliminate any other citrus ingredients to maintain balance.

Popular Brands

Exploring the limoncellos available is a delicious adventure and it's hard to make a bad choice. Italian limoncellos will rarely let you down, though there are some impressive options from the U.S. Some craft distilleries offer the cordial as well.

  • Averna Lemoncello
  • Caravella Lemoncella
  • Fabrizia Limoncello
  • Giori Lemoncello
  • Limonce Limoncello
  • Luxardo Limoncello
  • Pallini Lemoncello
  • Rossi d'Asiago Lemoncello

Cooking With Limoncello

The sweetness of limoncello makes it a popular ingredient for dessert recipes. It's often employed in cakes and sweet sauces or glazes. Drizzling it over a bowl of ice cream or mixed fruit is a deliciously simple way to enjoy it as well.

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