It's all well and good for nations to have healthy rivalries. How about Italy and the USA? America took Italy's recipe for pizza... and made it better. America took Italy's (Rome's really) idea for government... and made it better. Italy's Guglielmo Marconi invented the short-wave radio... America made it better. Italy probably still has pre-eminence in shoes and sports cars... but there is the plain fact: America has taken some Italian inventions and taken them to the next level.
California's Ventura Limoncello may have just planted a stake in the ground for America making a better limoncello than Italy.
Founders James Carling and Manuela Zaretti-Carling were generous enough to send us a bottle of their limoncello for sampling. This was great because it marks the first time we've had the opportunity to take this historic liqueur for a test drive. But before we get too far into this, we should answer for our readers the question that many of our tasters had: what exactly is limoncello, anyway?
According to Anthony Dias Blue's The Complete Book of Spirits, limoncello is an Italian liqueur first made in Naples with Sorrento lemons. Many of today's manufacturers claim that they make it from centuries-old recipes though in fact, Limoncello de Capri claims to be the first to patent the term "limoncello" in 1988. Whatever the case, the Italians specialize in it; they love it; they revel in it; and they drink it in great abundance. In fact, it's a liquor of love often considered to be an aphrodisiac. The recipe is surprisingly simple: it's a neutral base alcohol infused with lemon zest and sweetened with sugar. That's it. A quick Google search will reveal various homemade recipes that will require nothing more than vodka, lemon zest, and sugar left to steep for a while in a jar. The aforementioned Anthony Dias Blue called it "Sunshine in a bottle" and even offers his own recipe.
At the time of this writing, limoncello is enjoying a surge in popularity and - given the ease of the recipe - there are other "cellos" being developed using orange zest, lime, tangerines, and virtually any other combination of fruits one cares to try. Proof66 today recognizes 34 different labels of self-declared limoncellos and we're adding more every month. Something about the sour of lemons sweetened with sugar is just as good in spirits as it is in lemonade and sorbet.
This brings us to Ventura's particular version. California is an excellent place to locate such a venture since it produces 87% of the US's lemons (this according to the Department of Agriculture's 2005-2006 report). This allows Ventura to source their lemons locally using a recipe that Manuela Zaretti-Carling brought with her from Rome: as 3-generations-old Italian recipe from her grandmother. They're careful to use only tree-ripened lemons to ensure that no chemical additives come through in the spirit. In their words, "The fruit is allowed to ripen fully in steady sunshine, tempered by fresh breezes from the Pacific."
Wait a second. That's awfully poetic and makes nice marketing... but come on! We've seen the recipes and it doesn't seem that hard. Some lemon peel, some sugar, some vodka and presto: limoncello! So we put that braggadocio to the test by making our own; after all, we've already seen that Google is loaded with recipes. So Proof66 purchased a bottle of Sobieski Vodka for $11 and a bag of a dozen lemons from Sam's Club, which we are almost positive were conventionally grown with whatever additives comes with Sam's Club lemons. We "zested" 12 lemons (an irritating process, our hats off to people who do this for a living now that our knuckles have cheese grater scars to prove how difficult it can be - we only hope no blood got in the spirit); we let it steep for 7 days; added 3 cups of sugar; then steeped it for 3 more days; and finally strained it through a coffee filter, bottled, chilled, and drank.
And there you have it: our first ever self-produced, craft-made spirit: Proof66 Handcrafted Polish/American Limoncello (Polish because of the Sobieski). So what do you think of that, Ventura?! Anyone can do it, right?
Then we did the taste test in our classic "Thunderdome" format: two liquors enter; one liquor leaves. Let's compare the two limoncellos in order.
First: color. Ventura's expression was a rich, sunshine yellow almost exactly the color of freshly picked lemons. The Proof66 version was - well, it can charitably be called more "golden hued" but the first few people who saw it instead used the term "specimen." As in the specimen baseball players provide to steroid testers.
Second: scent. Ventura's expression was a very subtle aroma of - again - freshly picked lemons. It was very nice, almost making one feel those Pacific breezes that ripen the lemons. The Proof66 expression smelled like lemons too... except, it smelled more accurately like something that was lemon-scented by a chemist rather than natural lemons. Which is weird because we used real lemons. In fact, the aroma it called most to everyone's mind was Lemon Scented Pledge. At our tasting, it became known as "The Pledge" over the course of the night. How the heck did that happen? Our all-natural, hand-crafted limoncello somehow ended up smelling like artificial cleaner?!
Third and last: the taste. Ventura has a thick, luscious, and full feel in the mouth. It was sweet but at 60 proof it still let you know it was also a spirit. The lemon was full but delicate. The Proof66 version also tasted sweet and lemony. Our proof was probably closer to 30 or 40; it was much less viscous but pleasantly sweet. Out of a 10 second count of taste the first 9 seconds were really good... and then, on the finish, regrettably, an acrid bitterness took over deep, down on the palate. In fact, if a pro had spit instead of swallowed (as they are wont to do in competitions), they might never have tasted it. But there it was, our version was 90% of the time good and then 10% awful.
Ventura founder James Carling laughed at us when we told him. What happened? we asked him. "I'm not going to give away all of our secrets. But I'll tell you this: it's the wax on the lemons." But we washed them thoroughly, we assured him. "Doesn't matter. No amount of washing can get that wax off. They pick those lemons green; gas them to ripen in the stores; and then that gas and wax comes through in the spirit." He had some other recommendations too: use a higher-proof base spirit, tree-ripened or organic lemons, get the zest out before the sugar goes in no matter what the recipe says... but in general, it was clear: leave this stuff to the pros unless you're going to practice a lot, lot more.
Ventura Limoncello is every bit the professional-grade limoncello. Currently, it's our second highest-rated limoncello overall. The critics betray a bit of snobbery with limoncello as they do with many sweeter spirits and the average scores in these areas are definitely below those of, say, single-malt scotches or cognacs. And our own tasting revealed some of this bias as well. Ventura appealed a great deal to those with a tate for sweeter, perhaps fresher tastes. Committed whiskey and tequila sippers who were present did not have the same enthusiasm for it. "I love this!" enthused two patrons on one side of the bar while at the other one would see a shrug and the comment, "It's nice..."
We tried it out in a lot of different areas. We drank it neat; we drank it shaken and chilled (very delicious); we floated it in vodka tonics (which freshened up that drink considerably); we put it in vodka martinis; and even tried it out in lieu of lime in some mojitos. It's a terrific spirit to experiment with for people who are into that kind of thing (again, not those effete who like to pour something truly expensive out of a bottle over ice). It's an impressively approachable spirit that we can highly recommend for those just reaching out into the cocktail world.
Even further, it could be a great deal of fun for the budding chef. While we didn't try this out at our tasting, Carling informed us that they have held several "Limoncello dinners," where the spirit was used in recipes ranging from Limoncello Mussels, Ginger Lemon Wontons, Limoncello Vinaigrette, and Limoncello Risotto Croquettes among others. With all the cooking options, will we see Ventura featured in some kind of Top Chef competition or other any time soon? (We like that idea a lot better than the chef trials involving offal.)
As a final note, along with the traditional limoncello we received a 100ml tasting sample of their newer Ventura Limoncello Crema. We were pressed to try it frozen and we did. This turned out to be a beautiful spirit; probably even better than the traditional expression. For those who like cream liqueurs - and they are enjoying a resurgence in popularity - it has a delicate lemon with a rich cream that could go in anything from desserts to cordial glasses. Then, in a special trick we learned from a local bartender for many cream drinks, we warmed it. Warmed, the Ventura Crema is lemon-scented heaven in the mouth absolutely guaranteed to curl the toes of any girl on any date, anywhere.
Like the critics, Proof66 can be kind of snobby about sweeter liqueurs. In one sense, that's why it's a pleasure and a lesson to get so soundly defeated in our head-to-head match against Ventura Limoncello. While the critical accolades and media celebration typically goes - and rightfully - to the craft of aging, blending, and balancing the scotches, bourbons, tequilas, and cognacs of the world, one should not ignore the craft that goes into the liqueurs. There are many, many liqueurs in the craft-distilling world that are brilliant in cocktails and shot glasses alike. For those who like the sweeter side of drinks and the fresher taste of citrus, Ventura Limoncello will definitely frost your cake.
But it's also fun to try yourself, if you dare. And James Carling won't mind because it'll probably send you, like us, right back to his product.