What Is Limoncello?
As briefly described above, limoncello is essentially a liqueur that is made by macerating lemon peels in neutral grain spirit alcohol for several weeks. The peels are removed and the alcohol is diluted with water and sugar. You can even learn how to make limoncello with our own guide!
Where Is Limoncello From?
Traditionally, limoncello is produced in southern Italy along the western coast. As it’s traditionally made from Femminello St. Teresa lemons, which are also known as Sorrento lemons (“limone di Sorrento”), it is mostly associated with the Sorrentine Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast.
However, limoncello is produced as far north as Naples and as south as Calabria and the island of Sicily. Nevertheless, limoncello production is not strictly regulated or geographically protected. Therefore, there are numerous distilleries that produce it abroad such as both Spain and the USA.
Limoncello’s history is a hotly-debated topic and its origins are fully well-known. A single limoncello trademark wasn’t registered until 1988 when it was first commercialised by Italian businessman Massimo Canale. Nevertheless, limoncello is undeniably far older.
Indeed, limoncello was often produced as a homemade liqueur and some recipes have been passed down several generations. As it was a local delicacy, it was never really commercialised for external markets.
Furthermore, limoncello was supposedly common in affluent Sorrentine households. At the dawn of the 20th century, limoncello was typically served to guests and each family would have competing recipe traditions.
However, there are other claims that suggest it wasn’t always so luxurious. In fact, it is often believed that limoncello was used by both fishermen and monks to either warm up on a cold morning or in between prayers.
Finally, British journalist Lee Marshall, who has resided in Italy since 1984, published a contradictory article, “L’invenzione della tradizione“. Meaning “The Invention of Tradition” in English, it was printed in the Internazionale in 2013 and claimed that limoncello’s history is largely mythical.
According to Marshall, few people consumed limoncello before 1988 and even then it was known as “limoncino” that quickly spread in the early 1990s by word of mouth.
Unfortunately, the lack of historical evidence makes it difficult to prove limoncello’s heritage. That being said, Luxardo disputes this by claiming that its limoncello recipe dates back to 1905. However, Luxardo’s limoncello also uses the pulp and juice in its production.
Whatever its backstory, though, it doesn’t stop it from being a drink that is now cherished around the world.
What Does Limoncello Taste Like?
By using only the outer peel of the lemon’s skin and not the bitter pith, limoncello is naturally oily and rich in fresh citrus aromas. Indeed, limoncello is bright yellow and sometimes almost fluorescent in appearance.
Furthermore, limoncello is usually heavily sweetened and a single bottle may contain as much as 300 grams (10.5 Oz) of sugar.
As a result, a well-made limoncello has a distinctively syrupy mouthfeel with a balanced contrast between the tart citrus zest and caramelised sugars, which both deceitfully conceal the alcohol’s kick. Consequently, limoncello is very easy to drink when well-chilled and its lemon flavours are pleasantly delicate.
Meanwhile, it limoncello is tasted at room temperature, it may taste remarkably cloying and overly sweet in a similar way to a warm Coca-Cola.
Limoncello Alcohol Volume Percentage
Despite being easy to drink, limoncello is deceptively strong. Indeed, the sweet and syrupy flavour conceals an alcohol concentration typically between 25% and 30% ABV.
Under EU law, the minimum for a liqueur is 15% ABV. However, limoncello is rarely much more than 30% ABV despite having no legal definition itself.
Different Types of Limoncello
Limoncello’s international acclaim has inspired a variety of similar beverages. The practice of macerating fruit in alcohol is arguably as old as distillation itself as it used to be one of the best ways to preserve it. However, until the commercialisation of limoncello, it didn’t have a name and heritage nor did it have a market.
Today, there are a variety of liqueurs that will use the “-cello” suffix to capitalise on limoncello’s success:
- Arancello: Orange peel liqueur
- Fragoncello: Strawberry liqueur
- Meloncello: Melon liqueur
- Nocino: Liqueur made with green walnuts
- Pistachiocello: Pistachio nut liqueur
Indeed, the limoncello family is quite large and continues to grow in a very short time. Needless to say, it’s an affordable beverage that’s easy to produce so it comes as no surprise!
Finally, there is also crema di limoncello, which is produced by using milk instead of sugar and water to dilute the limoncello. Usually, this liqueur is retailed at a lowered 17% ABV rather than 30%.
How To Drink Limoncello
While limoncello may finally be a young beverage, it didn’t take long for Italy to have embraced it with supposedly time-honoured traditions.
Firstly, limoncello is typically served as a digestif or “digestivo” either after a meal or with a dessert as it’s quite sweet. Usually, it is regarded as a summertime drink but it may be enjoyed in colder months after dinner. Otherwise, it tends to be particularly pleasant on a hot sunny afternoon.
Given that limoncello is very sweet it is almost always served very chilled. If drunk when warm, it tends to be a little too sweet and quite cloying.
A good-quality limoncello can be stored in the freezer and is often brought out with a coating of ice and condensation on the bottle.
However, it may also be kept in the fridge instead. Yet, some families will claim that once the frost no longer covers the limoncello, it has become too warm to drink.
In most cases, limoncello is served in a shot glass or a small stemmed glass to avoid it from getting warm.
In some of its native regions, limoncello may be served in a ceramic cup that is chilled beforehand to ensure that the limoncello stays cold when it is being sipped.
Otherwise, limoncello can be served as part of a cocktail. Although it’s typically diluted with a basic mixer like tonic water, we have highlighted some of the best ones in our best limoncello cocktail guide.
Finally, limoncello is often a key ingredient in a variety of desserts such as sorbets and ice cream.
Limoncello Substitutes & Similar Drinks
Although limoncello has a distinctive flavour, there are several substitutes depending on what you wish to produce. Firstly, if you prefer a non-alcoholic alternative, you can simply use a lemon syrup like the one made by Torani.
This concentrated drink consists of just water infused with lemon peels and sugar, which is essentially limoncello but without the alcohol.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for another Italian digestif, both grappa and sambuca are celebrated beverages that are prized for their digestion qualities. However, they’re somewhat stronger and tend to be drunk alongside coffee.
Finally, if you seek an alcoholic drink with similar qualities, you can also consider the limoncello variants that are listed above.
Are There Health Benefits To Drinking Limoncello?
There are many claims that limoncello is a healthy beverage thanks to the natural properties of lemon. For instance, it may be suggested that lemons are a natural appetite suppressant so they can help you lose weight.
If you take into account the number of calories in a shot of limoncello as listed below, you’ll probably realise that it’s not quite as effective as you’d hope!
Limoncello is served after a meal as it’s believed that lemons help with digestion. Similarly, lemons are a source of vitamin C and antioxidants. In fact, lemons on their own have many significant health benefits.
All these benefits may certainly be true with whole lemons, it might not be particularly effective when you are only drinking the oils that have infused from the peels! Nevertheless, limoncello may provide you with a limited amount of the health benefits listed above.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Limoncello
Given that limoncello is loaded with sugar, it isn’t particularly light on calories. Indeed, a typical shot contains over 150 calories as well as 17 grams of carbohydrates! Compared to similar alcoholic spirits, it’s pretty nutritional, to say the least.
Otherwise, a good-quality limoncello made from grain spirit that has been properly distilled multiple times should be fine for people with a sensitivity to gluten. After all, the ingredients are similar to vodka but with just lemon peels and sugar as well.
However, if you have already had issues with grain alcohol in the past, it’s probably best avoided.
Now that you have learned all about limoncello, why don’t you check out some of our related spirit guides?