Maybe you’ve spotted a bright yellow bottle of limoncello at the ABC store or behind a bar. Limoncello is a delicious and fruity drink that’s sweet (but not cloyingly so) and possesses a smoothness that belies its relatively high alcohol content.
As is true of many liquors, the history of limoncello is a cloudy mixture of fact and legend. What is certain is that the drink has its origins in southern Italy more than a century ago. The most widely accepted story is that Lady Maria Antonia Farace tended her garden of lemons and oranges on the Italian island of Capri, and according to an essay on the Florence Inferno blog, she concocted limoncello as a refreshing drink to welcome home soldiers returning from World War I.
Whatever its provenance, limoncello’s popularity spread quickly; today — as Dream of Italy editor Kathy McCable reports — the spirit accounts for a full 35% of liquor sales in Italy. The first commercially produced limoncello didn’t come onto the market until the 1980s, but now retail brands are available in most every liquor store; Asheville ABC shops stock several brands.
But because it’s so simple and easy to make, there’s no reason not to whip some up limoncello in your home kitchen. And while — strictly speaking — limoncello is made from lemons, there’s no reason you can’t make ’cello with other citrus fruits. At home, we’ve made tasty individual batches created with the skins of limes, grapefruits, blood oranges, Meyer lemons and tangelos. Each one has a distinctive and delightful flavor all its own.
And one can go further. As John Wilson, wizard (that’s what it says on his business card) at downtown Asheville’s Tupelo Honey Cafe, says, “I would define a ’cello as any organic fruit or vegetable or substance that is used in conjunction with high-strength alcohol to create an extraction alcohol base, and then blended down with simple syrup and water.”
That’s it, really. At its most basic, traditional limoncello is made by stripping a bunch of peels from lemons (you can make juice from the rest of the fruit, so there’s nearly no waste in the process), soaking them in high-proof Everclear, and then combining the strained alcohol with a sugar-water mixture and additional water. It’s really that simple.
Wilson makes several flavors for the bar at Tupelo Honey, and beverage manager Mishelle DeTillio says that the restaurant’s other locations across the country are following his lead. “The varieties we currently offer are lemon, basil, jalapeño-ginger, cacao, coffee, cinnamon, marshmallow and beet-carrot ’cello,” Wilson says, nearly out of breath. “And … I feel like there’s one more I’m forgetting.” We can personally vouch for the sublimity of almost all of those.
As it happens, Wilson’s personal limoncello journey reaches back to Lady Maria. “A lifetime ago, I worked with a gentleman whose wife was from Capri,” he explains. Whenever the couple visited family in Italy, they would bring back and share homemade limoncello. “It took me about three years to get the recipe out of her,” he says with a laugh. “But when I did, the story she told me was that her aunt had actually got the recipe from Lady Maria.”
Wilson is happy to share that recipe (see box), but he encourages DIY-ers to go beyond the basics. “Years ago, I started experimenting with other things and found out that you can pretty much do it with almost any vegetable or fruit,” he says. “From there, it’s really just a matter of what your imagination can come up with and what you’re willing to put in the time and patience to see if it works out.”
A quick and perfectly drinkable ’cello — like Giada De Laurentiis’ vodka-based recipe found on Food Network’s website — can be ready to consume five days after you peel the fruit. The result will be superior to most commercially available brands. But there are advantages of following the classic recipe and letting time do its work. Digging deep into science, Wilson explains spontaneous emulsification, the chemical process by which the combination of the ’cello mixture and sugar water makes the finished product take on a uniquely cloudy character. Always served chilled; ’cellos taste great straight up or as a component of a mixed drink.
Wilson cautions that some fruits with a high water content — watermelon, for example — don’t yield good ’cello. But when it’s suggested that perhaps dried fruits might work, one can all but see the idea light bulb radiating above his head. He mentions that he has some dried Montmorency cherries on hand already. “And we’ve got dehydrators here,” he enthuses. “I’m going to dehydrate all of the strawberries I can and make a strawberry ’cello!” Stay tuned.