Guest Contribution: The LimoncellOff

Howdy, loyal readers! First, the bad news: (1) Sadly, this edition of The Winegetter won’t be brought to you by Herr Windgätter. Alas, he is too disdainful of his fans (not to mention lazy) to write himself, and so has asked me to fill in. (2) This contribution has nothing to do with wine; it’s about limoncello: “the real man’s hard liquour” as no-one in history has ever called it. Now to the good news: I, Nils Stear, am also German, and so shan’t be violating Oliver’s strict (and politically controversial) Germanophilic contributor policy (Hooray!).

Limoncello, backlit

A few months ago I decided to make my own limoncello. The process was fairly crude. But the end-product wasn’t too bad—decent, even. Then the idea hit me: wouldn’t it be fun to have a competition to see who could make the best limoncello? All I needed now were some competitors. But who? My dogs were disqualified on account of their lack of opposable thumbs (how would they peel the lemons?), not to mention their appalling taste—I mean, seriously, who pairs salmon-flavoured kibble with tapwater? That’s just embarrassing.


How about my baby, Katharina? Her three-month-old intellect would surely guarantee my victory since (not to brag) I can already read at a four-month-old level. However, while I am merely boyishly good-looking, she is insanely adorable, an advantage sure to sway the votes of any judges in her favour. And Katharina is really more of a vermouth drinker anyway.


What I needed, then, were competitors that combined an infant’s mental acumen with a dog’s ability to lick its own perineum. When Chip and Tri presented themselves, I knew I’d found what I’d been seeking.

Chip & Vittorio copy

And so, at a dinner party hosted by friends Anne and Tri, I presented my idea. Robin, another friend in attendance, hit upon the name: the “LimoncellOff”. It was on. Chip, Tri, and I would have five weeks to make the best limoncello we could; our significant others Robin, Anne, and Fown would judge them. The prize? Pride. And 5kg of heroin (what can I say, Chip’s a fan). But mostly pride.

It was only afterwards that I realized how foolhardy my choice of competitors had been. Tri hails from Italy’s Amalfi coast, where limoncello originates. If that wasn’t enough to have me soiling my pants, his full name is ‘Trionfatore Campioni’, which basically means ‘Winner Champions’. I was royally buggered.

So, how would I make it? The first time around I had followed a recipe from The Food Network’s Giada Di Laurentiis, which called for vodka, lemons, sugar, and water. Knowing that your average American has the palette of a five-year old, I halved the sugar, which on tasting turned out to be wise. But the vodka imparted a dirty flavour, the low alcohol content made the final product slushy (limoncello is served sub-zero), and I’d peeled the lemons carelessly, including too much pith and making the drink bitter.

This time around, I adapted my recipe from a blog called Limoncello Quest run by a man as insanely driven to perfect his limoncello as I was to beat Chip and Tri. It called for:

  • 750ml ‘Everclear’ grain alcohol (75% ABV)
  • Zest of 8 lemons
  • 1.75 cups sugar
  • 2.5 cups water

I went to absurd lengths to make the best limoncello I could, zesting rather than peeling the lemons for zero pith, and quintuple-carbon-filtering the Everclear. After it had rested three weeks, I sextuple-coffee-filtered the maceration before adding a syrup made from distilled water and white sugar.


To my horror, when I combined the transparent yellow Everclear with the equally transparent syrup, the mixture went completely opaque. I had bollocksed it up! Or so I thought. Luckily, I hadn’t; the cloudiness results from what’s called the “louche effect”, whereby compounds previously dissolved in the alcohol essentially “undissolve” as the proportion of alcohol decreases. Relieved, I bottled the contents and rested them once more. Finally, two days before the LimoncellOff, I filtered the product one more time and added my secret ingredient: triple-filtered lemon juice—just a touch.

My spirits were buoyed on the big night when Tri and Chip presented their produce. Whereas my own had taken on a milky golden luminescence, theirs had the brown cloudy look of a moribund animal’s effluent.

Limoncello Bottles

Finding criteria to rate the drinks is tricky, a difficulty I’m all too aware of as a philosopher of aesthetics. Still, we had to choose some to give the tasting a little structure. You can see our metrics here:

Limoncelloff Scorsheet

It was crunch-time. After dinner, and before trying our own, we sampled a store-bought limoncello to orient ourselves: Caravella, a popular limoncello in the US, bottled in Milan. It’s a decent example of its kind—fresh, lemony, but with a thick liquorice sweetness—although, oddly, it contains food colouring. At $20 a bottle, I’d recommend it to anyone not fussed about making their own. Tri’s limoncello was next. He had made the courageous, some say reckless, decision to use grappa instead of a flavourless alcohol. The result was delicious, but it lacked the clean, lemony flavour of a limoncello; the grappa’s boozy fragrance was overpowering.

Chip & Robin Laughing

Next came Chip’s. He had innovated with lemon Juice, like myself, and brown sugar in place of white. The result was a tasty and citrusy drink that left a rich, yet subtle, spice in the mouth. Finally came mine. Quite similar to Chip’s but a touch less sweet, a touch less acidic, and with a less complex palette. I could taste victory. And limoncello. The final score gave Tri the bronze, Chip the silver, and myself the lemony gold.

Final Score modificado

So, if you’re looking for a creative and fun activity, try your own LimoncellOff. And remember: when life gives you lemons, use them to knock a wine vendor unconscious and then steal her wine.

Nils laughing


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15 thoughts on “Guest Contribution: The LimoncellOff

  1. Me says:

    I have never before considered limoncello a competitive sport. Too bad that you are far from Denver, Colorado, USA! I have honed my limoncello skills from the Amalfi coast to the middle of the USA. My limoncello can hold its own against any competitor. I welcome the challenge. If you wish another Limoncelloff, please contact me for accommodations and impending limonncello defeat.

  2. Homemade limoncello is great. I also add basil leaves. Guys, try nocino too! Worth of the energy you need to put into preparation :)

  3. A great idea, now if he starts making TBAs in the kitchen, that would be something. I enjoyed this concept and it sounds like fun.

    • nilshennes says:

      A Testicular Badminton Appendage? I’ll leave that to Oliver.

      Actually, I’m currently trying a coconut and lime zest recipe. And by “recipe” I mean “probable disaster idea I just invented”. We’ll see how it goes.

  4. ksbeth says:

    fun story nils and i am a limoncello fan myself so i can really appreciate this )

  5. Chip Sebens says:

    Great telling of the tale Nils!

  6. aglassofwine says:

    Hilarious!!!! And geekily inspiring at the same time. Now I’m itching to try myself.

    • I know, right? I am not fond of limoncello usually, but I wish I could have tried these…

    • nilshennes says:

      Do it! If you’re like me, you’ll start sipping on the Everclear as you prepare it, develop a crippling alcohol addiction, and lose everything and everyone you love. But when, years later, they wheel you into the insane asylum, you’ll recall fondly how you beat those two other people who tried and failed to make a superior limoncello, and you’ll smile through the tears.* What do you have to lose!?

      *may not have happened.

  7. This is awesome! I don’t know what I like best – the limoncello, the contest , or the grad student metrics. Good work

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