Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Elizabeth MarroEat, Drink, Love, Family, Food, The Distiller's Mother12 Comments

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

photo 1

In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.


I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.


I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.


I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.


Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.


I made the simple syrup and added it.


I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:


Photo credit:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.






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Elizabeth Marro

Elizabeth Marro is the author of the novel, Casualties, the story of a defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was safely home from war. Now, she must face the painful truth about her past, her choices, the war, and her son.

12 Comments on “Limoncello Lessons…Please!”

  1. Awe…sorry buy you know it is your first try and good news…in the past week we finally got a new crop. You will have photos and new lemons by Thursday night I will send them on with John. The fact that you put so much love into it means a lot and I bet it gets better! How about baking sugar (yeah, the white stuff but extra fine too. And now that I see your bottle I can make your pretty label for the “some day”. I can get you some more amazing lemons from Farmer Fresh too. Hugs. Perhaps we can translate this for the family in Italy for some ad price too.

  2. Betsy, this story touches my heart. It brings to mind so many dinners, birthday cakes, countless efforts to create with my own two hands special things that would show the depth of my love but that never quite measure up to my hopes or expectations. (Not to mention writing itself: working so hard, only to admit the unbridgeable gap between what’s envisioned and aspired to and what I’m really capable of.) Thank you for this lovely post. Also, catching up here, I just listened to that Tom Rush song from a while back, with tears. . .

    1. You are right about the expectations, Katrina. Making anything, or writing anything, always means struggling with that gap between what we hope to achieve and what we actually can. As for “Child Song”… I know.

  3. Bets, took me many years to get that risotto recipe right and other things. It took me ten years to make one of Poppies dishes actually taste like he used to make it all by catching a show on Food Network one day. It is a labor of love and I know it will be your own special wonderful.

  4. Limoncello can prove a real challenge, despite a somewhat simple recipe. In my few more successful attempts, I’ve used whole lemon slices (flesh and seeds included) and A LOT more sugar (I use pure cane or just white table) than any recipe ever lists. I then filter it through a super fine mesh to take out any pulp, and it turns out pretty sweet and yellow.

    Great essay all around. You captured the essence of why I brew; especially that finding humility in failure part.

  5. I love the way you take something as (allegedly!) simple as limoncello, and draw on its home based manufacture as a lesson for life. Patience, failure and trying again – applications from limoncello to nuclear physics and everything in between! Good luck with the next attempt – if it turns out right save some for our visit next year!

  6. I have never really made anything well on the first try. (Although you really did nail this essay). This story is beautiful and I felt that your attempt to recreate the limoncello was equally as wonderful as the gathering you describe. Maybe you could print this perfect essay out and give this to your family instead? I know I would enjoy it more than a drink.

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