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Great gift: A five-ingredient, aromatic, not-so-sweet Meyer limoncello recipe (*chef’s kiss*)

A bottle of limoncello contains some contrasts. It looks like summer in a glass, but due to the ripening schedule of our lemon trees, we make it in late fall and winter. A limoncello recipe can take over a month to complete (and years to perfect) in a time-consuming process, but when limoncello finally does make it to the table — it goes down fast.

(Ever been in a “how to make limoncello” comments section? An ongoing gag is when a noob asks how long their limoncello will last on the shelf/in the fridge/freezer, a seasoned comedian will zest in a zinger like, But never lasts that long in my house! or Hmm I think yours has gone bad…send it to me!)

Sunshine in winter, hard work yet instant gratification. In other words, a bottle of limoncello makes a great DIY gift and project for the holidays. And a bottle of Meyer limoncello is an extra-special floral spin on a classic.

Jump to limoncello recipe!

First of all, what is limoncello?

Limoncello (pronounced lee-muhn-CHEH-lo) is a liqueur that originated at the start of the 20th century in southern Italy, either in Sicily or on the Amalfi Coast. It’s made from the peels or zest of lemons (avoiding the pith), a high-proof neutral spirit like Everclear, and a simple syrup of water and sugar. The lemony flavor comes from the oils in the skins.

How do you make limoncello?

The lemons traditionally used are Sorrento lemons, known for their abundance of oils and thick peels that make it easy to avoid the bitter pith. To that end, peels are usually peeled with a very sharp vegetable peeler or grated with a Microplane. In the US it’s often made with common Eureka lemons.

Those peels or gratings are then steeped in grain alcohol at room temp and shaken regularly for typically three to five weeks, strained, combined with room-temp simple syrup, and strained again. Some people like to let it “settle,” “mellow” or “rest” for another week or two at room temp before drinking. (We didn’t.) Limoncello can be stored in your fridge or freezer for an after-dinner treat. Folks also love pouring it onto ice cream, adding it to pound cake, and making a limoncello spritz — 3 parts prosecco, 2 parts limoncello and 1 part soda water on ice. Sources vary, but if you’re using a high-proof alcohol, your limoncello should be good for two years. That’s according to LimoncelloQuest, a blog and internet treasure dedicated to the intense trial and error and troubleshooting of limoncello life.

The Meyer lemon tree on the old patio has an elegant trunk shape. Here it is in December 2021, in fruit while the camellias are in bloom.

POV, under the lemon tree. (The yellow leaves beyond are on the fig tree.)

Can you make limoncello with Meyer lemons?

I’ve been perfecting my Meyer limoncello for the last three years. When I moved into my last place, the duplex, I couldn’t keep up with the amount of fruits the eight-foot-tall Meyer lemon tree was plonking down.

Limoncello isn’t typically made with Meyer lemons (their thin skin makes it hard to separate the peel from the pith), but I was determined to try. And I arrived at something delicious.

Jump to recipe to see how to do it.

Wait, a Meyer lemon is what exactly?

The Meyer lemon is a cross between a citron and a mandarin/pomelo hybrid, originating in China. As an ingredient, Alice Waters helped it go mainstream in the late 1990s. Compared to common supermarket Eureka lemons, Meyer lemons are perfumey, rounder, slightly sweeter, less tart, and ripen to a darker yellow. Meyer lemon trees are also smaller and can be grown in containers – perfect for a sunny patio or balcony. They only get as tall as 10 feet or so. Dwarf Meyer lemons meanwhile grow to just 5 to 7 feet.

If you’re looking for a Meyer lemon or dwarf Meyer lemon tree near you, search OfferUp or Nextdoor. These apps have a surprising number of plants for sale, not to mention people giving away the fruits for free. Also, a nursery that carries edible plants might have some Meyer lemon trees or be able to order one for you.

Our own Meyer lemon tree here in USDA Zone 10B starts flowering in the spring, leading to ripe fruits by November. Meyer lemon flowers are the most angelic thing I’ve ever smelled.

Don’t you hate when pollen gets on your butt? A Meyer lemon blossom in March.

Sneaking a few blossoms into the formula added extra aroma to the final mix.

Meyer lemons ripen to a deeper yellow than common Eureka lemons.

Washing the lemons and one of the blossoms for the infusion.

Quartered lemons and a few blossoms stuffed into a half-gallon jar get a pour over of Everclear 120 proof.

Stash in a dark cupboard for a month, and shake it every day.

For a canary-diamond translucent limoncello — so with limited cloudiness — use a coffee filter twice in the process: (1) before combining the Meyer/Everclear infusion with the simple syrup and (2) before you add the final combination to its final growler/bottle. Ngl, it’s tedious but worth it.

Patience is key.

How to make Meyer lemon limoncello

My first attempt had a ton of pith in it because I used the vegetable peeler and couldn’t separate out the skin, because the skin is so thin! Not surprising!

There’s ample pith on the underside of the peels, which will lead to an unpleasant drink.

In my second attempt a year later, I threw in quartered slices (that’s right, no peeling or grating) and used a 1:1 sugar to water ratio. Too sweet. It was like syrup. I might have a lower-than-average tolerance for sweet drinks, but… Do people really drink it like this??

But my third attempt, in February 2022, was it.

My recipe is adapted from this Meyer limoncello recipe by Voodoo Lily on Tablespoon. My variations included doubling the initial infusion time, adjusting the simple syrup to make it much less sweet — 1:3 sugar to water — and throwing in some of the blossoms that were blooming alongside the lemons. Why? To make this limoncello extra aromatic. A more aromatic limoncello in my mind would be a nod to one of the things that make Meyer lemons so special — their pleasant perfumeyness. Instead of being an apologetic runner-up to regular lemon limoncello, this concoction would bask in its Meyerness.

The result of this limoncello recipe was delicious. It hits the tongue like silk. Smooth, fragrant, lemony, not too sweet. It even tastes a little flowery, but in a wonderful not-soapy way.

There is a tiny boozy bite to it that makes me think I could add another half cup of sugar next year. And unexpectedly, this version got icy in the freezer. Why? Could be due to the lower sugar content, or some of the Everclear infusion could have spilled during the making. But I don’t know; I got a C in high school chemistry. So I keep my bottles of limoncello in the fridge and it still tastes great several months later.

When I want to drink some, I pour it into these bodaciously petite grappa glasses, pre-chilled.

 

Fragrant low-sugar Meyer limoncello recipe

 

Ingredients

 

12 Meyer lemons

3 to 5 Meyer lemon blossoms with stamens removed

750 mL Everclear

1 to 1 1/2 cup white granulated sugar

3 cups water

 

Directions

 

1. Thoroughly rinse and dry Meyer lemons and Meyer lemon flowers, using a veggie scrub brush on the fruit if needed. Trim and discard the tips of the lemons.

2. Slice the lemons into quarters. Remove and discard any seeds. (Optional: We’re interested in the skins, not the juice, so you can squeeze the juice into ice cube trays and freeze it to use however you like so it won’t go to waste.)

3. Stuff the slices and flowers into a half-gallon jar. Fill the jar with Everclear.

4. Place the jar in a dark cupboard at room temperature and leave it there for a month. But try to shake the contents every day.

5. After a month, strain out the liquid and discard the Meyer lemon slices and flowers. If you want a somewhat clear lemon-yellow liquid (think J.Lo’s canary diamond from the 2000s), use coffee filters. But keep in mind this will take a long time — a couple hours. Also, the coffee filters will clog after a while, so you’ll have to swap in fresh ones.

(For the comprehensive guide to filtering while making limoncello, do check out this page on LimoncelloQuest.)

6. Make simple syrup by heating the water and sugar in a saucepan. Stir until dissolved.

7. Let the syrup cool completely to room temperature. (This is important for minimizing cloudiness.) Pour the syrup into your strained Meyer/alcohol liquid. Shake to combine.

8. Now it’s time to strain your limoncello a second time (we said it was time consuming!) for max clarity. At this point, you might as well. Repeat Step 5, coffee filters and all, this time straining your limoncello into clean growlers or charming little gift bottles.

9. Store your limoncello in the freezer or fridge.

Pour into chilled grappa glasses and cheers.

Get the recipe pdf.

—TH