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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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How’s that for a tongue twister: Feuerzangenbowle

Die Feuerzangenbowle (Photo from Wikipedia)

Yet another “polar vortex” sweeping the Midwest is giving me a chance to write a post that I thought would have to wait until next winter. I meant to write it before Christmas, but then life got in between. So I relish this chance that Mother Nature has provided me with. Why could I only write this post in utter cold? Because of tradition…but let me begin:

If you type “Feuerzangenbowle” into Google, you will find a gazillion of hits for this term. Other bloggers, like John The Food and Wine Hedonist and Julian of Vino in Love, have written about it before, so I want to keep the intro part rather short. Feuerzangenbowle, usually translated as “Fire Tongue Punch”, is a German winter tradition. Most English-speakers are familiar with “Glühwein” aka mulled wine, and Feuerzangenbowle is an extension of mulled wine.

I never knew it existed until I entered University. One late November evening, my friends and I were talked into attending a screening of the movie with the same title. It’s a very ambivalent movie: It was shot and aired in 1944, a feel good movie to keep the German population distracted from the War, with one of Germany’s most popular actors Heinz Rühmann. It is set in the early 1900s and basically tells the story of an adult man going back to school in order to experience what school feels like. This in the day and age when German high school was pretty much the equivalent of American college…the movie is funny, and has become a classic. Why is it named Feuerzangenbowle? Because the idea to go back to school developed over an annual meeting of some older guys who love to reminisce about their school days while drinking the punch…you can read more about the movie on Wikipedia here.

Even without the movie, making Feuerzangenbowle is fun, and it is great to share with others. You need only a few ingredients, some of which are hard to get in the US: You need a bowl of mulled wine; alcohol (preferably rum) of over 100 proof; a fire tongue; and a sugar cone. While mulled wine and  rum are easy to find, a fire tongue and a sugar cone are actually pretty hard to get. When we made it before Christmas, we borrowed the set that John owns which comes with a fire tongue which looks like this:

A Fire Tongue (Photo credit: http://www.edelstahlbecher.de)

The other ingredient is the “sugar hat” or “sugar loaf”, which fits exactly on the fire tongue. It was the standard shape in which sugar was sold in Germany for the first half of the 20th century, and since the punch originated then it became the standard shape for Feuerzangenbowle. It looks like this:

But fear not, when I recreated Feuerzangenbowle in late December in Alaska, I had neither a fire tongue nor a sugar cone. Trust me, it is doable without these, so that should not stop you! Like I said, it is visually quite stunning and very tasty. The way it works is that the sugar sits on the tongue on top of the mulled wine. It gets drained with rum, then you light the sugar on fire. As the alcohol burns off, it melts the sugar which drips into the mulled wine. It seriously looks like Northern Lights when the flames drip into the wine. Keep adding rum to the sugar to keep it burning (watch out for the flames might go up higher than anticipated!), and don’t be shy. Some will burn off, the remainder will just make the punch better! :) Once the sugar is melted, just take off the tongue and start serving the mulled wine in cups.

This is what it looked like when John made it in 2012:

Feuerzangenbowle at its best (Photo credit: The Food and Wine Hedonist)

I replaced the tongue with a cooling rack for baked goods and made my own sugar cone. It wasn’t cone shaped, but rather shaped like the bowl I made it in, but it was ridiculously easy to make: I just combined a cup of sugar with four spoons of water for each 3 quarts of wine I had. Once the sugar is combined with water, set it aside and let it dry out over night. If your environment is too humid, you can put it in the oven at a low temperature (150 degrees or so) to dry it out quicker. Just don’t let the sugar glaze. And there you have your lump of sugar you need.

My mulled wine recipe is fairly simple: Combine a box of Franzia Zinfandel with 8 sticks of cinnamon, three oranges and three lemons cut in wheels, and some vanilla aroma. Heat, but don’t let boil (it will ruin the flavor).

Put the cooling rack on top of the pot, set the sugar on top, turn off the light, drain in rum, light, and there you go. See? It’s really easy and now you have no more excuses not to try it because I told you how to proceed without a fire tongue and a sugar cone. Give it a try while the polar vortex is getting us. I promise, it warms you from the inside like nothing else. But beware, it can be quite potent….and this is what it ended up looking like in Alaska:

Feuerzangenbowle Homemade

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