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Bottleful of Sunshine: Italy's Limoncello

While alcohol is most commonly thought of as a social lubricant, there’s something to be said for digestifs. A digestif is a type of liqueur that’s tradition...

by Caitlin Hotchkiss Posted on 28 January 2014

While alcohol is most commonly thought of as a social lubricant, there’s something to be said for digestifs. A digestif is a type of liqueur that’s traditionally served after a meal to help aid in digestion (hence the name). Since you’re presumably drinking it on a full stomach, the alcohol is absorbed more slowly, leading to a nice warm buzz instead of getting loaded right off the bat. (Drink responsibly, people.)

Italy in particular has a solid grasp on the production of digestifs. (The country is also adept in producing aperitifs, a liqueur you drink before a meal to stimulate the appetite) Grappa is a type of clear brandy that’s made by distilling the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of grapes in order to create a fragrant liquor that ranges from 35 to 60 percent alcohol by volume. Despite its fruity nature, in Italy it’s a popular additive to after-dinner espresso (creating a drink called caffè corretto). It’s theorized that grappa’s more modern history originates from northern Italy around the late 1970’s, and has since undergone experiments in distillation such as using different casks and different varieties of grapes. Apparently you can tell the quality of a grappa by rubbing some on your hand and smelling it – the vapours don’t lie!

Sambuca is also a colourless Italian digestif, but more on the vegetal side – it’s made with anise, an herb that has a strong licorice or fennel taste. At 42 percent alcohol per volume, it packs a punch and is a real palette cleanser (along with anise, it’s made with spices and elderflowers). Like grappa, Sambuca goes well with coffee, and can be added instead of sugar – or, in its most popular incarnation, drank as a flaming shot with three coffee beans (con la mosca). The beans are meant to represent the Holy Trinity of health, happiness and prosperity. (Just don’t forget to extinguish the flame before taking the shot.)

And then there’s limoncello, Italy’s second most popular liqueur. This bright yellow digestif is made out of lemon zest that’s been steeped in grain alcohol then mixed with simple syrup to sweeten it. It’s quite easy to make at home – here’s a recipe if you want to try it – but it’s also readily available at liquor stores across the world. Purely in the interest of testing it out for you, our fine blog readership, we procured a bottle of Rossi D’Asiago Limoncello from the Antiche Distillerie Riunite in Italy.

Together with my intrepid alcohol-testing partner Liz K, we sipped the limoncello after a meal to see if it really did work as a digestive aid. What we found was that it was more like a dessert liqueur than grappa or Sambuca – in fact, it was a thick, syrupy pour that was far sweeter than we expected. The smell was subtly lemon, but more like sweet lemonade (we both noted that it smelled like cleaning supplies, but that may be more a result of our Western upbringing). At 32 percent ABV, the limoncello had a stronger warming feel after ingestion – when we tasted it, we mostly noted that it tasted like very sweet lemon-drop candy. (Liz was unimpressed: "It tastes pretty gnarly.") As a digestif, it could definitely take place of a dessert course; otherwise, we both recommend possibly mixing limoncello with tonic water or soda water to dilute the sweetness and add a bit of edge.

If you’ve got a taste for sweet alcohols and want to try out limoncello for yourself, you’re in luck – we’ve got trips that take you right to the liqueur’s homeland: the Amalfi Coast. Since Amalfi is prime real estate for lemon groves, it’s no surprise that the stuff is produced in such abundance there. Two of our Local Living trips – Local Living Italy: Amalfi Coast Winter and Local Living Italy – Sorrento – involve limoncello-making demonstrations. (The Sorrento trip is even hosted on a lemon farm!) If you’re looking for something that moves around a little more, our Treasures of Italy features a trip to a limoncello factory in between touring Venice, Florence, and Rome. There’s really no better time to inject a little bit of liquid sunshine into your life.

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