When the sunshine-filled days of summer start to creep closer on the calendar, that familiar instinct kicks in: It’s time to drink outside. One digestif in particular captures the vibrance of summer on the Amalfi Coast and puts it into a glass: limoncello. This striking golden liqueur isn’t just the color of sunshine — it also has a zesty invigorating flavor that pairs perfectly with those warm rays. The roots of limoncello trace back to the coasts of southern Italy in the late 1800s, where villagers picked fresh lemons, soaked their peels in a neutral spirit, and added a sugar syrup to create a refreshing beverage. Not only did the drink act as an aid to soothe the stomach, but it also preserved the fresh flavor of the region’s stunning Sfusato Amalfitano lemons (a.k.a. Sorrento lemons) indefinitely. The method for making limoncello today is still that simple.
When they think of limoncello, “most people think of Italy and an after-dinner liqueur,” says Tony Guilfoy, founder and master distiller at Noble Cut Distillery in Columbus, Ohio. “I think of it as far more versatile; it is much more than just a digestif.”
He’s right about that versatility. While it’s traditionally a sipper, limoncello can provide a base for spritzes or add sweetness to cocktails. Even less obvious: You can make a cello without lemons at all. In fact, it’s easy to make a cello out of your favorite fruit at home and bring the sunshine of the Amalfi Coast wherever you are this summer.
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All Cellos Have One Thing in Common.
Although there is plenty of room to get creative with which fruit you’ll use as the base of your cello, there is one rule all cellos follow: It has to be citrus.
“The fruit must be tart to work with the sweetness,” says Ben Chesna, the beverage director at The Banks Fish House in Boston, “Avoid anything not in the citrus family.”
Citrus fruits are ideal for making these liqueurs because the flavor in their peels is stored in their essential oils. These oils are readily soluble in alcohol, unlike the water-based flavors found in fruits like berries and melons. Once the oils are extracted, they are also very stable, which allows the cello to maintain a fresh, recognizable flavor almost indefinitely.
Since alcohol is so good at extracting flavor from citrus, it is essential that none of the bitter white pith is still present on peels used for a cello. This means careful cutting or zesting of the citrus peel. And while it can be tempting to throw one of every citrus at the farmers market into your batch, Guilfoy notes that combining too many fruits causes the resulting cello to be muddied and lose the “distinctive notes of each fruit.”
So, What Can You Cello?
Let flavor be your guide when selecting a citrus to use in a unique cello. Pompelmocello substitutes lemon peels for the outside of luscious grapefruits, and will taste more bitter and less tart than your typical limoncello. Yuzu can give the drink an herbal, earthy edge, while clementines offer floral notes and more sweetness. At Nobel Cut Distillery, Guilfoy and his team make four distinct single-citrus cellos: lime, orange, grapefruit, and the classic lemon.
Citruses don’t need to cello alone — they can also be combined. At Bar Julian in Savannah, Ga., the house limoncello is made with a mixture of lemons and limes. Bar manager Danielle Mitchell says the process takes about 21 days, and the end result is a “sunshine-forward” liqueur that transforms her rooftop bar into a “sunny Italian day.”
Chesna also has a suggestion for a combination cello. He substitutes orange peels for half the lemon peels, but notes to keep the simple syrup ratio the same in this combo-cello.
For a hint of Earl Grey flavor, a few bergamot oranges can be added to the mix, too. Or add some of the highly coveted, ultra-sweet Sumo citrus to an orange-based cello to enjoy that fleeting Sumo flavor all year round.
Making Cello at Home
Making an any-citrus cello is easy. First, add the peels of quality, unwaxed citrus to a high-proof spirit to soak and extract the flavorful essential oils. (Remember: All of the white pith must be cut off the fruit.) Then, add a sugar syrup to balance the liqueur. Finally, leave the whole mixture to age for a few weeks or up to a few months at room temperature so its flavors can meld and mellow. After aging, all that’s left to do is strain the liquid off the citrus peels, chill, and drink.
Generally, the proportions of any style of “cello” are one cup of fruit peels to five cups of high-proof neutral spirit to two cups of simple syrup. These can be scaled up or down depending on how much fruit you have or how much cello you want to make. Since the peels of citrus consist of only about 20 percent sugar, there isn’t much variance to account for sugar-wise from citrus to citrus. For example, grapefruit peels may contain slightly less sugar than an orange peel, but the difference is too small to change the overall recipe.
But even if the sweetness of the base fruit isn’t a reason to adjust the recipe, the final use of the liqueur can be. For a cello that is destined to be used in spritz, the ratio can shift to 1:5:2.5 so some sweetness is still perceptible after the cello is diluted with soda water. Mitchell changes the amount of syrup in the cello depending on the cocktail it might be used in.
“You might use a more tart limoncello in a bourbon-based cocktail like a bourbon lemonade or Gold Rush,” she explains, “whereas a sweeter batch could be used in a French 75 or lemon drop.”
The flavor profile of a cello can also be augmented by adding spices or other ingredients. For example, vanilla pods add nutty and woody flavors as well as a perception of sweetness. A few peppercorns mixed in among the peels can provide a subtle spicy kick. Chesna suggests mint as an herbaceous addition.
“The mint adds a complexity and depth of flavor that transforms it from a simple digestif into a drink you can have beyond a specific setting,” he says.
In short: Anything made by combining citrus peel, high-proof spirit, and simple syrup can qualify as a cello-style liqueur. So now that you know that, what will you cello this summer?
Two Citrus Cello
Recipe by Danielle Mitchell, Bar Manager, Bar Julian at Thompson Savannah
- 15 lemons and 3 limes, scrubbed, cleaned, and divided
- 4 cups of high-proof vodka
- 2 cups of light simple syrup (2 part water, 1 part sugar)
- Peel 10 lemons and 2 limes very thin, ensuring there is no white pith on the peel. (Any pith makes the cello much more bitter.) You should end up with about ¾ cup of citrus peel.
- In an airtight jar, pour the vodka over the citrus peel. Allow to rest for 3 days, shaking the container once daily.
- Add the simple syrup to the airtight container and shake well.
- After two weeks, strain the mixture. Replace half the citrus peels with fresh peels from the final 5 lemons and 1 lime.
- Allow this mixture to rest for 21 days, shaking the container every few days.
- Strain the liquid into a bottle with an airtight cap.
- Serve chilled on its own or as an element of a cocktail or spritz.