What Is Limoncello and How Is It Made?

Here’s everything you need to know about the lemon liqueur with a divisive history.

limoncello in cordial glasses with cut lemon
Photo: Allrecipes Video

The second most popular Italian liqueur (after Campari), limoncello is almost as rich in history as it is in flavor. But just how did the bright and sunny apéritif come to be — and how is it made today?

What Is Limoncello?

Limoncello is an Italian liqueur made from lemon zest. It's mainly produced in Southern Italy, particularly in Sorrento, Capri, and along the Amalfi Coast. Traditionally, limoncello is made with Femminello St. Teresa lemons, a vibrant lemon variety native to the Sorrento Peninsula of Italy.

The liqueur is served chilled in small ceramic glasses as an apéritif or digestif (a drink served before or after a meal) to aid in digestion.

Limoncello is made by steeping lemon zest (peels) in highly concentrated ethanol or vodka until oil is released, then mixing the resulting yellow liquid with simple syrup. Its alcohol content varies — especially among homemade varieties — but is usually measured somewhere in the 25-30% range.

close up view of Limoncello in closed jars
Christopher Martinez

Limoncello Origins

Depending on who you ask, limoncello's roots can be traced back to Sorrento, Amalfi, or Capri. This topic is actually a point of great contention among limoncello producers, and origin stories involve everyone from fishermen in the Middle Ages to thirsty monks.

According to Federvini, the Italian Association of Wine/Liqueur Producers, however, the yellow liqueur was born in Capri about a century ago. According to Federvini, a local woman named Maria Antonia Farace was known for her garden of lemons and oranges. After World War II, her grandson opened a restaurant that specialized in his nonna's lemon liqueur.

Her great grandson, Massimo Canale, registered the trademark and began producing and marketing the drink around the world.

Limoncello Recipes

It's pretty easy, if not a bit time consuming, to make limoncello in your very own kitchen.

Get the recipe: Homemade Limoncello

The lemon-based liquor is also a popular ingredient in cocktails and desserts, as it has a strong lemon flavor without the sharpness of pure lemon juice. Check out a few of our favorite limoncello recipes.

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