How To Make The Best Limoncello You've Ever Had

How to Make the Best Limoncello You've Ever Had

Limoncello! That sweet, tart, and refreshingItalian after-dinner digestif can be a wonderful thing. But, typically, when you go for the store-bought stuff it's cloyingly sweet, and doesn't have any of that fresh zip to it. Here's the good news: It's simple to make at home and customise it to your own taste, giving you the perfect balance of sweet, sour boozeroo.

It's Sunday afternoon, you've made it through the long week about to start another, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. It's like a lemon playing a cello.

What Is Limoncello

Limoncello is an Italian liqueur, traditionally served after meals, or sometimes as a welcome drink. It's typically served chilled at the very least, and occasionally it may be so cold that it borders on Slurpee consistency (though it has to be a lower-proof version or an extremely cold freezer to make that happen). While it's typically served straight, it also makes for a killer cocktail ingredient.

Generally speaking, there are only three ingredients in limoncello: sugar, spirit, and lemon. Occasionally you might find one that adds a dash of rosemary or another herb to the mix, and, if that's your thing, we won't judge. Some also use grapefruit, orange, pomelo, or other citrus, but then it's not actually limoncello (you need limone for that). It's generally clear with maybe a little cloudiness, and yes, it's super easy to make, you just need a little patience.

The best limoncello I've ever had was at Franny's in Brooklyn. It came after a large meal full of pizza and pasta, and it had that eye-opening, rejuvenating effect. Later, when we went back to Franny's to get the scoop on which glasses you use for which drinks , I happened to catch a glimpse of the limoncello being made. It utilised a technique I'd never seen before, and luckily, they were happy to share the recipe with us.

How to Make the Best Limoncello You've Ever Had

How It's Made

As we said, there are typically only three ingredients: sugar, spirit, and lemon. For the spirit, grain alcohol is generally used, and while I've seen recipes that call for a grape-based spirit (like grappa), grain alcohol will typically give you the cleanest lemony flavour. There is a lot of disagreement out there about what proof to use, with many arguing that a high-proof spirit like Everclear is the way to go, because it will extract the flavours most efficiently. That said, in many states, it may be impossible to find anything over 100 proof, and even your typical 80 proof vodka will work; it will just take a little more time.

Most recipes you'll see go like this: "Peel 900g of lemons. Use a sharp knife to remove the white pith (to prevent bitterness). Put peel into the vodka. Seal in a glass container and let sit for four weeks. Then you strain out the peel and sweeten with sugar syrup." Now, there's nothing wrong with that. America's Test Kitchen goes that route, and surely it can yield tasty results, but the stuff at Franny's had an element to it I've never tasted before, and it's achieved by using a different process.

A couple of years ago, the New York Times wrote about a technique used by Italian restaurant Nostrana in Portland, Oregon, where rather than peeling the lemons and immersing said peels in the spirit, the lemons hang in little cheesecloth hammocks, suspended above the spirit. Because alcohol volatilises pretty easily at room temperature (see the sweat on the inside of the glass jar?), essentially what is happening is that the alcohol vapours are macerating the lemon peel. Because it's doing it from the outside in, you're just getting the lovely, whole zesty flavours, with none of the bitter pith. This is actually a very old Sicilian technique for making citrus liqueurs.

What Franny's does is a clever hybrid of the two techniques.

How to Make the Best Limoncello You've Ever Had

Franny's Limoncello Recipe

What You'll Need:

  • 1 bottle Skyy Vodka (750ml.)
  • 2 lemons, rinsed (ideally organic, Meyer lemons)
  • Cheesecloth
  • Twine

To Finish:

  • 1.5 cups simple syrup (50/50 water and sugar by weight)
  • Zest of two lemons (new, fresh Meyers)


  1. Pour vodka into a clean glass jar.
  2. Wrap lemons in cheesecloth and suspend over vodka (using the twine to secure them).
  3. Seal tightly, and let sit undisturbed (in a cool, dark place) for one month.
  4. After one month, discard lemons, then add syrup and the fresh zest of two new lemons.
  5. Let sit for 15 minutes, and strain through a fine mesh sieve (or more cheesecloth).
  6. Chill and then drink up.

Sounds simple, right? Luckily, it is! I found that this technique gives it the the pure lemony essence that you get from the suspension technique, but it also adds just a but of the satisfying oils, from the quick dunk of the zest. I've also found that limoncellos that use the typical technique (soaking the peels for a month) generally have a heavier, less vibrant flavour and aroma, whereas the suspension technique is incredibly light and vibrant. Franny's technique is, to me, the best of both worlds.

How to Make the Best Limoncello You've Ever Had

Other Considerations

First off, while we aren't always stickler for this kind of thing, in this case, using organic lemons is very important. Why? Because the alcohol is going to strip out everything that's in the peel. That means that if your lemons were sprayed with pesticides, it's going to end up in your limoncello. Nobody wants pesticides in their limoncello.

Another thing to consider is the spirit. I was really surprised to learn that Franny's uses regular old 80-proof Skyy vodka. Like I said, Franny's is the best I've ever had, so I'm hesitant to mess with success, but I can't help but wonder what kind of results you might be able to achieve using 100-proof vodka, or even Everclear (which isn't typically available in New York). I think it's worth experimenting with -- BUT, if you do, keep in mind that you're going to have to adjust the amount of simple syrup and/or water that you use. If using a higher-proof spirit, I'd say start with the 1.5 cups of simple syrup that Franny's recommends, then give it a taste. The balance of sweetness and lemon might be right, but the alcohol content will likely be way too high. In that case, don't add more simple syrup, start adding water, just a little at a time, until you get to the balancing point you're looking for.

Oh, and a quick note on simple syrup. Most places just use a 1:1 ratio (by weight) of white, granulated sugar and water, then they heat it up and stir it until it's dissolved. While the 1:1 ratio by weight is solid, personally, I've found you get better results and much, much richer flavours if you use raw sugar (the dark, coarse stuff) and don't heat it at all. Simply combine the sugar and room-temperature water in a glass bowl, and stir it until it's dissolved. It takes a little longer, but it's worth it. The syrup is usually a bit sweeter and thicker, so you may not need to use as much of it. Generally, it's best to add a little less and then taste as you go.

Anyway, you now have all the knowledge you need to utterly blow even your most-jaded Italian grandparent's mind. We hope to hear stories of cupboards filled with jars of this stuff for the month of March, only to be regaled with success stories come April. Until then, check back next week for another boozy-sciencey Happy Hour.

Gigantic thanks to Ms. Jillian LaVinka and to Franny's in Brooklyn for the recipe!

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    Definitely giving this a go tomorrow. Both with skyy and whatever 100proof grain alcohol I can get my hands on. Considering using 'Canadou Cane Sugar Syrup' I already have on hand. Will report back in a month or so.

    Limoncello + Lemonade = the unmistakable flavour of a lemonade Icy Pole!

    finally, a use for that godawful Smirnoff I keep being given!

    Sounds familiar to that deliciousness of vodka, milk, citrus & sugar from a while back.

    made a double batch and it was beautiful and tasty-- better than the commercially made stuff. It was crystal clear with a pretty yellow tint, not all cloudy.

    I'm going to give this a go using the lemons from the tree in the back yard.

    In some of the photos it looks like there's three lemons in the cheese cloth.
    Is this an illusion? I'm thinking three is better than two.

    Hi there
    your recipe sounds great will try.
    your recipe state to use 2 lemons for 750ml however the link to New york times article states they use 18 lemons? which shall i use for 1 litre of everclear
    thanks so much

    I've got two batches in with 95% grain spirit. Exactly as above but with three lemons in one and four in the other.

    I'll do one batch after a month as per above but my concern is that it might be too dilute once the amount of water necessary goes in. I'll make it and see what happens. If it doesn't go so well, my idea is to change over the lemons in the pure batch and leave it for another month then make and blend with the other batch.

    It could just be that they used a 1l bottle of vodka, so they added an additional lemon? Not too sure though.

    So I used some 70% ABV spirit to make a batch of this and found that the problem is something akin to louching. The higher ethanol content means that more oils can be dissolved, but when you add more water to dilute it to a reasonable level for drinking it stays cloudy. It may be neat for ouzo but I find it quite unattractive with limoncello. In hindsight my recommendation is to always use a spirit that's near your final ABV so that you don't have problems with cloudiness.

    If you've had the lemons suspended over the booze for a while and you're worried that it's still very clear, with just the slightest tint of yellow, don't be. About thirty seconds after you add the lemon zest it'll look like the commercial stuff.

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