Limoncello is really having its day. Wineries are peeling lemons in their thousands to make their own, it’s starting to steal Aperol’s place as king of the spritz and it’s even popping up in desserts. So why is the lemony Italian liqueur everywhere right now?
“I’ve been trying to work it out myself,” says Matt Houghton, founder and head distiller at Victorian brewery and distillery Boatrocker. “I think people are probably yearning for overseas travel. There have been some great shows on TV like The White Lotus, which is filmed in Sicily.”
Daniel Leuzzi and Thomas Giurioli of Melbourne restaurant Freddy’s Pizza make limoncello under the name Tommy’s. Leuzzi sees the Italian theme playing a role, too. “Look at Campari and Aperol,” Leuzzi says. “That wasn’t massive 10 years ago, but now everyone knows what an Aperol Spritz is, everyone knows Campari is in a Negroni. I think it’s that slow evolution of, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ And limoncello is something that’s easy and approachable to drink.”
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While Australians get more acquainted with the sweet, lemony liqueur, it’s long been a post-dinner tradition in Italy. Limoncello began popping up on Italy’s Sorrento, Capri and Amalfi coastlines in the early 1900s, but it was likely being produced long before that. It’s made by steeping lemon peel in a neutral spirit for weeks before adding sugar syrup. The trick is all in the peel. “You only use the peel – the white is bitter, which you don’t want,” says Houghton.
Commercial growers wax their lemons to keep the skins fresh, but this inhibits the natural oils. When Boatrocker made its 3195 limoncello last year, Houghton called on the local community to get around the problem. “We said, ‘If you bring five kilograms of unwaxed lemons from your backyard tree, we’ll give you a bottle of limoncello in exchange.’”
Houghton keeps a bottle in the freezer to drink straight, subs Aperol for a limoncello in a spritz, or adds it to flavoured soda. “We use one which is a grapefruit soda from Strangelove,” he says. “That adds a really nice acidity, which is the one thing that limoncello doesn’t have.”
So how are others serving it?
Anna Gallo makes Pietro Gallus Estate’s limoncello the same way her mother and grandmother did, and says she grew up drinking it the traditional way. “Limoncello is designed to sip, and in the household you would have it after the meal as a digestif,” Gallo says. “We were brought up drinking limoncello after our meal to help us digest.”
She sees the digestif tradition as part of limoncello’s recent appeal. “When we first started making limoncello, quite some years ago, it was quite slow,” says Gallo. “It keeps growing, and I think the reason is the Australian market now is more about drinking for health benefits, not just for the sake of getting tipsy. They’re more into the digestifs, the aperitifs.”
Her north-east Melbourne winery and distillery also makes a creamy variation, called Limoncello Crema. “It’s like a lemon Baileys,” Gallo says.
At south-side Melbourne bar Young Hearts, Leuzzi and Giurioli’s limoncello is available on tap. They also serve a Limoncello Sgroppino – something akin to a slushie. “Sgroppino, in Italy, is traditionally vodka, prosecco and a lemon sorbet and they whip it down,” says Leuzzi. “We thought we’d do a limoncello version, so we’ve got prosecco, limoncello and then our friend’s lemon sorbet.”
Here are nine more to try.
Zoncello is Zonzo founder Rod Micallef’s labour of love, taking 32,000 lemons and four months to make before its release early this year. The Yarra Valley winery is also making a pre-mixed spritz version that’ll save you come picnic season.
The Gospel/Yumbo Soda Co
Most limoncello is made with a neutral spirit, but you know that’s not happening when The Gospel’s involved. The distillery’s Solera Rye whiskey forms the base here, flavoured with spent lemon zest from Yumbo lemonade.
Full Circle Spirits
Innovative Adelaide Hills distillery Full Circle has a delicate take on limoncello. Hand-picked lemons are steeped in a grape spirit that’s best served neat with thyme, or as a sub for the sugar and lemon in a Whisky Sour.
Banks & Solander
This award-winning Sydney distillery makes its limoncello to an old family recipe. A couple of twists here: lemon myrtle is added alongside lemon peel, and then lemon juice is added at the end to brighten it all up.
Tamborine Mountain Distillery
Limoncello might be booming right now but Tamborine Mountain Distillery has been doing it for decades. Queensland’s third oldest distillery is highly awarded for its limoncello, a traditionally made liqueur with lemon juice for a potent lemon kick.
Adelaide Hills favourite Unico Zelo uses two types of lemons from what’s said to be South Australia’s oldest citrus plantation at Lennane Orchards, Montacute Valley. The team spends 12 hours hand-peeling the lemons to produce this drop, and ring in the whole family to do it.
This distillery from Sydney’s northern beaches adds distillates from local lemon aspen and lemon myrtle to its limoncello, giving it a zesty, tart lemon meringue kick.
Swan River Distillery
Following an old Italian recipe, the Western Australian distillery’s limoncello is packed full of lemon sorbet flavours. The team suggests serving it chilled on its own or paired with prosecco for a refreshing aperitif.
A relatively new Adelaide distillery, Threefold makes an Australian “Lemoncello”, pairing three kinds of native lime (sunrise, desert and blood limes) with its native gin for a zesty and refreshing summer drink.