I am one lucky son-of-a-gun. This September I visited Rome and the Amalfi Coast with Pallini Limoncello. Though we began the trip in Rome and went to the Amalfi Coast later, I'll explain the process of making limoncello in the proper order.
The Lemons of the Amalfi Coast
The lemons for Pallini are sfusato ("elongated") lemons, so-named for their tapered shape. They are also sometimes called feminine lemons because each side looks like a nipple. These are slightly different from Sorrento lemons that are more football-shaped.
These lemons are low in acid; very sweet. In fact we had an unsweetened lemonade made with them. It was tart, but still drinkable. Even the pith isn't that bitter- we had a 'salad' made with these lemons soaked in balsamic vinegar and salt - and you could eat the whole thing - fruit, pith, and rind.
But for limoncello purposes, they're interested in the skin of the lemons only. The skins of sfusato lemons are highly aromatic and rich in essential oils.
These lemons grow along the Amalfi Coast in a most improbable way. Actually, the whole coast doesn't make much sense - it is all incredibly steep and rocky, with sharp inclines from the mountains down to the ocean. Picture the drive along Highway 1 in California if people had build houses all the way down to the ocean.
Carved into the cliffs are terraced gardens on which they grow lemons, along with eggplants, grapes, tomatoes, olives, and everything else you can think of. It's a surprisingly productive area given that the base is just rocks.
But the cliff-side growing arrangement means lots and lots of sunshine for these plants. The lemons grow so big and so productively that if these were just normal trees growing on their own, the branches would almost surely snap beneath the weight of the fruit.
Thus the farmers have developed a system to support the lemon tree branches, a pergola made of chestnut wood. This forms a lemon tree umbrella of sorts, with hundreds of huge lemons dangling from above.
The terraced lemon groves present some difficulties in harvesting, as you'd imagine. The lemons are all picked by hand as they ripen, then must be carried uphill to the next road that can be pretty far when you've got a heavy crate of lemons on your back.
After the lemons are harvested, they're transported by truck along the windy (and terrifying to those of us scared of heights) road to the processing center. We visited the one Pallini uses: Castier Agrumi De Riso.
When the lemons come in to the factory, they are first washed and then sorted. The very best lemons are sold in crates to stores and restaurants. The rest are peeled to make limoncello.
To do this, they use a machine that peels two lemons at a time. It is hand-loaded and seems to frequently jam - no wonder with sticky, oily peels involved. In this video, you can see the machine working.
The peels that come out are then vacuum-sealed into bags and sent to Pallini to use.
Pallini's distillery (it's not actually a distillery as they don't distill there but a rectification plant; still I'll call it a distillery for the sake of clarity) is where they make limoncello from the lemon peels.
Though once there were 30 distilleries in Rome, Pallini is the only one left. Originally, the distillery was located a few hundred yards from the Pantheon in central Rome but now it is in an industrial park-type area a good 30-40 minutes drive from the city center.
To make the limoncello, first they soak the peels in high-proof alcohol (I think around 96%) to extract their flavor. Though they didn't tell us the exact time, I inferred the extraction takes less than a couple of days.
Then they blend this concentrated lemon alcohol with more neutral alcohol (that is distilled from Italian sugar beet molasses), water, and a sugar syrup (made from crystallized sugar beet sugar). To make the flavor pop, they also add essential oils from the same lemons.
Somewhere in the process, they homogenize the ingredients so they retain a fresh flavor and do not separate or oxidize. We tasted several other brands of limoncello and most had a slightly musty flavor of oxidation compared to Pallini.
Pallini also makes a Raspicello (useful as a Chambord substitute, or perhaps in a Bramble?) and a Peachcello (for the Bellini). These are actually made by distilling the berries and peaches, and adding fruit juice or fresh berries back in at bottling time. The production seemed pretty interesting but we didn't go into it in detail.
Pallini makes around 150 products, which you'd never guess given the size of the distillery. The most famous one, however, is Sambuca Romana. They created this brand but sold it to Diageo in the 1980s. They still produce it for Diageo though. It's actually a pretty interesting product on its own; a blend of distillates from three kinds of anise, elderflower, angelica, and other herbs and spices.
Anyway, that's it for my Pallini trip. Limoncello is an incredibly straight-forward liqueur made from very special lemons grown in an absolutely stunning place.