Limoncello made easy

This year I stumbled upon a couple of Limoncello aficionados who knew of my amaro pursuits. They asked if I’d like to give it a go. So I did. It is truly one of the simplest liqueurs to prepare. It’s very refreshing and is supposed to perform the same digestif function for which amari were originally developed.

I live in the Pacific Northwest where citrus doesn’t usually grow, but I happen to have two lemon trees – a Meyer lemon and what I suspect might be a Bearss lemon, but I’m not sure. These trees winter indoors before the first frost and then move out to our porch in early Spring.

The Meyer lemons are a fairly common indoor variety, but they are fantastically mild with a very fragrant peel. The Bearss lemon is much more sour than the Meyer, but its peel fragrance is intoxicating.

My trees don’t produce that much fruit: maybe 15 lemons per year, and during some years the Meyer lemon stays on vacation.

Anyway, on to Limoncello. The ingredients are very simple:

Neutral spirit alcohol (often vodka)
Lemon rind
Simple syrup

I usually create quantities based upon the roughly quart-sized mason jars I keep in the house. So the process is very simple

1. Cut the peel from eight to twelve large lemons. Trim as much of the white pith as possible without making them fall apart – about 1/16th of an inch thick…OR use a zester and collect the zest from six to eight lemons (or more). The more oily the lemon rind, the brighter the flavor.

2. Fill a quart-sized mason jar with neutral spirit. I usually use grain alcohol at 95% ABV. Vodka produces some very good results – in some ways a bit more forgiving than grain alcohol.

3. Add the lemon peel and cover. Place in a dark cupboard.

4. Macerate for no more than 4 days if using grain alcohol. If using vodka, you can macerate up to 7 days.

This is very important: you will need to check on your jar every day. Naturally the lemon scent will be faint at first, but after 4 days it should be very fragrant. If the smell is overwhelmingly lemony, STOP!  Remove the lemon peel. The spent peel should appear to be almost waxy or plastic-like.

This is especially critical with grain alcohol.

If you leave the lemon peel in solution too long, your fragrant oils will begin to turn and become more unpleasantly pungent. That’s the point of no return!  Don’t be greedy with maceration. Lighter flavor can always be remedied with adding fresh peel.

5. Dilute to between 27% and 35% alcohol by volume with a solution of 1 part simple syrup and 3 parts filtered or distilled water.  Any more simple syrup and the result may be too sweet.

For a quart-sized mason jar, using 95% grain alcohol, that’s about 24oz of lemon peel and alcohol. To that, add about 14oz of simple syrup and 42oz of distilled water. That should give you a result that’s roughly 28%ABV or 56 proof.

Unlike amaro, limoncello is usually cloudy, so there is no need to spend a lot of time fining or filtering it (other than straining any lemon bits out).

Good luck!


On color, part II

As I mentioned in an earlier post, you can use homemade caramel coloring to get your liqueur a nice dark reddish brown color.  What I may not have stressed was that you may need to use a lot. Contrary to my earlier post, the good news is that you can make quite a bit of caramel coloring with no more than 1/2 to 1 cup of granulated sugar and boiling water. Prepare the caramel coloring as mentioned in the Valencia post.  To summarize: (Please wear protective gloves or oven mitts for steps 3 and 4 below)

1. Start a tea kettle or pot of water boiling – preferrably 3 cups or more.

2. In a saucepan, add the sugar and put it over a stove burner set to high

3. Over time, the sugar will melt and begin turning brown – begin stirring it with a metal spoon

Important! Turn on your exhaust fan or open windows because this is a very smoky process!

4. When the sugar has melted and browned to a nice dark reddish brown color, carefully pour as much as two cups of BOILING water into the brown water, while stirring constantly.  Keep stirring until the desired amount of water has been added and remove from heat.

The interesting thing about caramel coloring is that you can add quite a bit of water before the color starts to dilute.

Now, if you want a really deep caramel color to your liqueur – use this caramel color instead of water when you dilute your alcohol. I have begun combining my simple syrup and caramel coloring together to produce a dark brown syrup which I use to dilute my liqueur to the right sweetness and alcohol concentration, while adding a nice deep rich hue.

Another secret – black walnut!  That’s right. Ground black walnut husks are a very effective way of making your liqueur dark. Add about 1 tbsp per gallon of Black Walnut powder (it’s very fine and quite black) to your bitter base and shake well daily.  After one week, your liqueur will already be quite dark. Finish it up with the caramel coloring for a very deliciously appealing color.

Kurt’s Chartreuse Challenge

I know I’ve spent a great amount of real estate here on amari…and why not? The flavors that we get to experience through established and homemade amaro is what has created such a stir and enthusiasm for herbal flavors and DIY liqueurs. We’re all artisans and explorers in the great herbal liqueur adventure. Keeping with the spirit of adventure, I would like to move on to something different, and yet, perhaps not. If we’re talking “herbal”, then we must eventually cross paths with a mysterious liqueur produced in France…Chartreuse.

Ah, Chartreuse! That odd green liqueur surrounded by such secrecy and mystique. In case you don’t know, Chartreuse is a (naturally green) liqueur produced by the Carthusian Monks in the Grenoble region of France. It has been produced (in various locations) from a secret recipe handed down since the early 1700’s. Part of the mystique surrounding Chartreuse stems from its secret recipe of 130 herbs macerated in alcohol which is reportedly known only by two (or is it three?) monks at any one time. It’s reported to be the only liqueur with a green color that results entirely from its natural ingredients, i.e., no dyes. It was considered an herbal remedy at one time (though I don’t recall which maladies it was supposed to alleviate – digestion?). It is also a somewhat pricey liqueur. If you can pick up a 750ml bottle for less than $60, snag it!

Chartreuse is a really unique liqueur. It is very herbal, very vegetal. At first taste, Chartreuse tastes very much like its color – green. At my first experience, I couldn’t tell if I was tasting cut grass, pine needles or lemon verbena. (Actually, none of those individual flavors were apparent by themselves because my first taste occurred long before I had an inquisitive palate). In addition to its herbal bonafides, Chartreuse is incredibly intense. It’s 110 proof to start! Take a half jigger of Chartreuse and add it to two jiggers of gin (one of my favorite ways of enjoying it – the Green Martini), and your drink still tastes very much like Chartreuse. It helps an expensive bottle of Chartreuse last a reasonable amount of time. The other classic Chartreuse cocktail is the Bijou: 1 part Chartreuse, 1 part Gin, 1 part sweet vermouth. What’s interesting about either one of these is that the characteristic Chartreuse flavor refuses to be dominated. It is very much “present and accounted for”!

In Seattle, Chartreuse is not only expensive, but it is also a rare on-the-shelf bottle at liquor and grocery stores (or the few non-superstore liquor stores that still exist here). Consequently, for this Chartreuse enthusiast, there are lots of dry spells where I have to do without.

Being the DIY kind-of-guy, I began thinking about creating my own version of Chartreuse. I scoured the internet looking for recipes that might give me some idea of what to use, but they are not only very few and far between, some of them have very questionable ingredients – both in taste and in safety. The safest recipe I found was in an old Treatise on the Distillation of Alcohol book from the 1800s found in Google books, but it contained a few ingredients that weren’t very easily found (like Balm of Gilead, or genepi, a variety of wormwood). Alas, even it also contained arnica flowers which aren’t really considered safe for consumption.

I wasn’t easily dissuaded, however. I forged on, determined to create a copy of Chartreuse, and I am happy to report that I am 70% of the way there! What’s interesting is that the recipe I’ve discovered came about because I focused on ingredients that would keep the result green. The big problem is that my recipe isn’t entirely reproducible in its proportions.

That’s where my challenge comes in. What follows is the best list of ingredients and their approximate amounts that I can devise without the testing and assistance of any of you readers who would like to contribute your lab time. If you enjoy Chartreuse as much as I do and want to figure out the definitive recipe for reproducing it (as close as possible), let’s put our heads and palates together. I truly believe it can be done, because I am so close. I’ve enjoyed a green Martini made with my DIY Chartreuse, and it is SO close! If I can get other experienced palates to contribute to or modify my basic recipe, I think we could finally have THE DIY recipe that would provide us enthusiasts the Holy Grail, so to speak. Here it is…

Kurt’s DIY Chartreuse Recipe – made with tinctures.

Part 1 – create the essence using 75% ABV tinctures.

1. 80 ml of Wormwood tincture (note: if you can create a tincture using fresh wormwood leaves instead of dried wormwood – you’ll go a long way towards matching the original Chartreuse flavor, but it isn’t a make-or-break situation. Dried wormwood will also work.
2. 40 ml of Angelica tincture
3. 2ml peppermint tincture
4. 3ml lemon verbena tincture
5. 2ml juniper tincture
6. 10ml sage tincture
7. 8ml rosemary tincture
8. 8ml saffron tincture
9. 0.5ml clove tincture (substitute allspice for a more faithful rendition)
10. 3ml lemon peel tincture
11. 4ml star anise or fennel seed tincture
12. 4ml mace tincture
13. 1ml cinnamon tincture
14. 1ml thyme tincture

Part II – Oak chips (the oak barrel)

1. Prepare the oak solution per the Valencia Orange recipe. Add 20ml of this mixture to the Chartreuse essence.

Applying oak barreling or aging may seem out of step or unnecessary, but trust me – it makes a huge difference if you’re wanting that je ne sais quois of Chartreuse!

Part III

1. Honey or Simple Syrup – add enough honey to make the resulting mixture moderately sweet
2. distilled water – add 1/2 the amount of distilled water as sweetener.

Part IV
Adjust to taste.  Extend as desired.  Create a base spirit by diluting 1/2 liter of Everclear or a similar neutral spirit with water and sweetener (preferably honey) to around 50-55% ABV for authenticity, or use a nice neutral vodka at 40%. Bear in mind that vodka will be further diluted by the addition of honey or simple syrup.  Carefully add this to your Chartreuse essence, 1/2 cup (4 oz) at a time.  Once the flavor begins to weaken, STOP! Or don’t stop – it’s up to you.

Get this right! If you have the opportunity to taste this alongside real Chartreuse, use that opportunity to add ingredients (or new proportions) that you think will match those flavors in Chartreuse.

Part V
What is NOT IN Chartreuse (according to my palate)!

1. Orange Peel
2. Neroli Oil (in fact, do not use any essential oils – only tinctures)
3. Vanilla – this is disappointing because vanilla fixes EVERYTHING!
4. Food coloring – okay, this isn’t a big deal. If you want to add a drop of green, I won’t tell!

And that’s it. If anyone wants to start here (or revise my recipe completely), please do so and check back. If we can arrive at this destination, it will be well worth it!

DIY Amaro – the easy way!

Okay, there are a lot of recipes online for amari, and some of them are incredibly simple. As I review this blog, I realize that most of these recipes here are quite involved – they’re well worth the trouble, but if you want a delicious amaro WITHIN A WEEK, follow me!

The secret is the simplest ingredient – tea! That’s right. Green tea, black tea, orange pekoe tea, sage and ginger teas – you name it. There are very interesting teas out there – Republic of Tea, Stash, Tazo, Bigelow and Twinings among others. If you have a favorite tea, grab it and let’s get started!

Amaro Semplicistico (Simplistic Amaro)
1. Your favorite tea (loose or tea bags)
2. Neutral Spirits (preferably 75% ABV Everclear, but vodka will work too) – 4 cups
3. Simple syrup
4. Bittering component (optional, but recommended) such as gentian root, angelica root or wormwood.
5. Optional flavoring agents (cardamom, green herbs like rosemary, lemon peel, orange peel, vanilla, anise, etc.)

Method: (note – if using vodka, the resulting amaro will be approximately 40 proof – if using grain alcohol, it will be closer to 60 proof)
Create your bitter base: Take 1 tbsp. of each bittering agent in a mason jar and add 2 cups of your neutral spirit. Let sit for 4-5 days (or longer if using vodka).
Boil 2-1/2 cups of water and add tea and any additional optional flavoring agents. Allow to cool to room temperature. Strain off liquid and reserve solids.
Add leftover solids to 1 cup of neutral spirit.
Take 2 cups of brewed tea, 2 cups of bitter base, 1 cup of neutral spirit and combine them together in a larger container.
Add 1-1/2 cups of simple syrup.
Shake or mix well, taste.

Add additional simple syrup (if needed) to taste. Strain and add half of that amount of remaining neutral spirit (containing tea solids).

Strain the entire mixture through a coffee filter.

You’re finished! If your concoction is a little harsh, add some oak chips and let it sit for 1 – 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, you should have a nice amaro for sipping or adding to your favorite cocktail.

It goes without saying, you have every prerogative to further adjust flavors using tinctures, sweeteners and coloring of your choice. Have fun!

*** Some final notes *** The fermented leaves of teas impart their flavors much better in water. You can try and steep them in alcohol, but the flavor changes and seems less mellow. Other flavors such as orange peel and other dried substances tend to work better in alcohol. A basic rule of thumb is if the item in question contains any oils like citrus peels, or is in coarse form (such as cardamom or juniper berries), macerate in alcohol instead.

How much ingredient is used in macerating herbs?

This is the one question that has plagued me throughout my experiments and I have to admit that I am still experimenting with this. I purchased exactly one ounce of every herb or root I was going to use, but began every batch of amaro macerating only 1 teaspoon or tablespoon of each ingredient. While this has produced some very nice amari, the process hasn’t been entirely organic. I’ve ended up having to play doctor with the resulting infusion, by adjusting flavors with tinctures I’ve made (from the same ingredients). In a year, I’ve made 8 batches of amaro, producing as much as ten 375ml bottles per batch, but I still have much of the herbs from my original purchase sitting in my cabinet. Reflecting on that, it just doesn’t seem right, does it?

Most of the herbal components of these amari aren’t that cost-prohibitive and I suppose there is a strong argument to be made about freshness. So why not use the entire ounce of each herb for your creation and buy new herbs to replenish them for the next? Why not, indeed?

The one lesson I’ve learned is that if your resulting infusion is so overpowering and strong, you have no prohibitions against diluting it with a nice neutral vodka (or diluted grain spirits of a concentration that matches your desired concentration) and additional sweetener. If the flavor is off because one herb was too overpowering, compensate with the addition of some of the other herbs to balance it out. The cold, hard (and comforting fact) is that no resultant flavor is a throwaway. You can always compensate, and often discover a concoction that is not only amazing and unique, but provides some education on the marrying of different components.

I will nail the answer to this question down in a subsequent post.

Good luck!

Faux Brandy

In creating some of my amari, I have found that brandy is an excellent base spirit. It is mellow, it adds a little grape component to the whole process, producing results that measure up well along established amari.

But I don’t want to keep buying brandy to use it for a different liqueur. Since grain alcohol is more economical, here is a faux brandy recipe that I have developed. Side by side, the real brandy will win out, but this faux brandy base isn’t too far off.

1. Steep one cup of Thompson seedless raisins in 2 cups of 95% or 75% grain alcohol between 1 and 2 weeks. (1 week is probably enough, but see what your nose tells you.)

2. Separate the resulting infusion and discard the raisins.

3. Dilute the strength of the infusion to no more than 40% ABV. Assuming very little evaporation, you would add 2-3/4 cups of distilled water to the 95% alcohol, or 2-1/4 cup of distilled water for the 75% alcohol.

4. Pour the dilution into an oak barrel for aging (or add about 2 tbsp of toasted oak chips).

5. Let sit for 2 – 6 weeks, shaking the mixture once each day.

6. Discard oak chips or pour from the barrel and voila! You’ve got a nice base spirit for a delicious amaro.

Oaking your liqueur – don’t add it too soon! (A cautionary note)

Well, I’ve been playing with amari for well over a year now and I still have to remind myself to do things right!  My thinking always goes, “start with something that’s good on its own and then tailor it to make it fabulous.” Or to translate:  Try to make a delicious base by adding all the characteristics until you’ve reached a delicious base upon which to build your amaro.

Except… you know what?  Don’t.  That’s right.  Some steps should not be rushed.  This was a hard lesson for me.  But this is how it went:

I created several amari from pure neutral spirits – grain alcohol, vodka, etc.  And they were quite good.  I also created an amaro with brandy as a base ingredient and it was definitely a different flavor – a cut above? Perhaps, but more accurately, a bit more mellow and not as harsh.  I began to think that brandy might be the best way to go.  But being a DIY-er, I wanted to simulate a brandy by starting with neutral spirits and concocting my own.  It was a really good start. I’ll outline those steps in another post (note: it involved raisins).

But here’s where I went wrong.  My simulated brandy was still very high proof – over 180.  And thinking that oak mellows liquor, I added a few (very few) toasted oak chips to get that oak-mellowed vanilla noted brandy.  It did not work as desired.  After 5 or 6 weeks, nose to bottle smelled wonderful (if you were distant enough to where the alcohol fumes didn’t singe your sinuses). But the taste was an entirely different story. The flavor was charred.  It had that bitter, pervasive charred taste that is nearly impossible to conceal. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was enough to be obvious.  The alcohol content of my DIY brandy was way too high for oaking and pulled ALL of the flavors out – good and bad.  The only way to rescue it (other than discarding it) is to dilute it using more 80 proof neutral spirits and sweetener.

The lesson learned:

  • Begin with your base spirit (or create one if you must) – but do not add any oak chips!
  • Infuse, steep, flavor to your heart’s content.
  • When you have the right combination of flavors, dilute and sweeten it to a reasonable strength (I usually opt for no more than 40% (80 proof))
  • Finalize any flavors with tinctures or additional infusions
  • Dilute your alcohol to the desired strength (for amaro, that’s 21% – 40%)
  • Fine your liqueur
  • Now OAK!

Don’t use oak in your liquor if the proof is higher than 100.  You’ll regret it.

Addendum – if you’ve visited this site before and have taken note of the amaro recipe in an earlier post, you may notice that the third and fourth phases have been re-ordered. While past experimentation didn’t provide enough evidence of the importance of this order, this current post shows a hard lesson learned. The recipe has been revised and corrected. If this is your first time visiting, you have nothing to be concerned about. The recipe as it is shown now is the most accurate.

I live in Washington State. Can I purchase liquor online or from another state?

This is a question I had pondered when Washington State passed referendum 1183 which privatized liquor sales.  There is some contradictory information out there, but here is what the Revised Code of Washington states:


66.12.120 Bringing alcoholic beverages into state from another state  —  payment of markup and tax.

Notwithstanding any other provision of Title

66  RCW, a person twenty-one years of age or over may, free of tax and markup, for personal or household use, bring into the state of Washington from another state no more than once per calendar month up to two liters of spirits or wine or two hundred eighty-eight ounces of beer.  Additionally, such person may be authorized by the board to bring into the state of Washington from another state a reasonable amount of alcoholic beverages in excess of that provided in this section for personal or household use only upon payment of an equivalent markup and tax as would be applicable to the purchase of the same or similar liquor at retail from a state liquor store.  The board shall adopt appropriate regulations pursuant to chapter   34.05  RCW for the purpose of carrying into effect the provisions of this section.

[1995 c 100 § 1; 1975 1st ex.s. c 173 § 3.]


     Severability — Effective date — 1975 1st ex.s. c 173:  See notes following RCW  66.08.050.