The fragrant citrus orchards of Ventura County, California produce 80% of the lemons grown in the U.S.
Husband and wife team James Carling and Manuela Zaretti-Carling founded Ventura Limoncello in 2007, and today their Limoncello Originale is America’s highest-rated Limoncello. They also produce a unique orange liqueur — a Blood Orangecello — and Limoncello Crema, which is like the best lemon Creamsicle you could imagine, and which will make the afternoon that much…sunnier.
How do the Carlings capture California sunshine in a bottle? I visited them at their Ventura production facility on a hot and humid day in August to find out.
My timing was perfect — it was a Monday, and they’d be peeling lemons.
In etymological terms, limoncello is just a name for lemon liqueur, like vodka or gin. The choice of ingredients and what the distiller does with them is what distinguishes one brand from another. Some commercial producers add colors, flavors and preservatives, and this is, in part, what motivated the Italian-American Carling and his Roman-born wife to create an American Limoncello worthy of its Italian heritage.
Ventura Limoncello is made fresh, in small batches, using four simple, perfect ingredients: lemon peel, alcohol, water, and sugar.
Every week, crates of Eureka and Lisbon lemons are delivered directly from farmers to the Ventura Limoncello warehouse, where they are washed and peeled. The peels are then macerated for several weeks in jars of a neutral corn-based alcohol. When the infusion is ready, it’s mixed with filtered water and sugar, bottled, labeled, and shipped to retailers.
Fresh from the farmers.
Sunshine meets moonshine.
The Ventura Limoncello recipe is based on Manuela’s grandmother’s, refined and perfected by the Carlings and Manuela’s mother. She’d come to visit the couple at their home in Ventura, where they had a lemon tree on their deck, and declared,
“Your lemons are ready, we’re gonna make Limoncello.”
She picked the lemons and peeled off the top layer with a paring knife, then sent James to the store to get the pure alcohol. While James is an Italian-American, he’d never known about Limoncello until then.
“A couple weeks later, it’s ready,” he says. “Had it that night after dinner, and our home has never been without it ever since.”
The Carlings pride themselves on their product’s freshness and quality. And because lemons grow year-round in Ventura, they produce a batch — 50-100 cases — every week.
Kyle with just-washed lemons.
When the Carlings first started developing their product, they got to know the farmers at their local market and worked with them to select the best lemons, considering flavor, size (for the easiest handling), and peel thickness. Because it’s imperative to use only the outer peel and none of the bitter white pith, the lemons must be peeled by hand.
That means handling between 1000 and 2000 lemons EVERY MONDAY. And you thought your week started out rough.
Manuela demonstrates the perfect peeling technique.
Life is a bowl full of…lemons?
Manuela and Raye with the fruits of their labor.
This all means that the Carlings don’t get much vacation. Manuela and their small but efficient team didn’t stop peeling the entire hour I was there (though James did field a call from a surfing buddy with an update on wave conditions. Ventura isn’t just known for its great lemons).
In Italy, limoncello is considered a “digestivo” — a drink to be consumed straight (and, in the case of limoncello, ice cold) after dinner, to help digest your lasagna.
James tells me that the “U.S. government says there aren’t any health benefits to alcohol,” so legally, Ventura Limoncello cannot be advertised as a “digestivo” nor can they use the word in any of their marketing materials. But it IS a superb “palate cleanser. ”
While I’ve already had a few bottles of Ventura Limoncello pass through my freezer, I hadn’t sampled their other liqueurs, and James was happy to oblige me with a tasting.
As I sipped a tiny cup of Limoncello Originale, James showed me the hallmark of an all-natural product — “il collarino” — the little collar, which is a ring of lemon oil that settles at the bottle’s neck, and which indicates the presence of pure, flavorful citrus oils.
4 – 6 weeks from tree to beautiful bottle.
I also sampled the exquisite Blood Orangecello — which has a distinctive “sharp” orange flavor that differentiates it from other orange liqueurs (seasonally-available late December through March), the divine and powerful Limoncello Crema, and a new liqueur that hasn’t been released yet, but which, when available, will complete your Italian-“palate-cleanser” wardrobe.
I’d like to tell you that you can visit James and Manuela in their tasting room in Ventura, where you too can sample their lovingly-crafted liqueurs.
Unfortunately, unlike California craft brewers and winemakers, artisanal distillers have been prohibited by state law to sell directly to the public (a practice that includes paid tastings — free samples for thirsty journalists marketing purposes are fortunately allowed).
It’s a regulation that the Carlings and their colleagues in the California Artisanal Distillers Guild have worked hard to change, to be more in line with liquor laws in at least 40 other states (including Washington and Oregon). And their efforts have paid off — the California legislature and Governor have just signed off on updated regulations. Next year, you’ll be able to stop and have a taste of Ventura’s “bottled sunshine,” then take some home to remind you of summer throughout the year.
In the meantime, you can find Ventura Limoncello liqueurs in 17 states, with that number soon to expand.
Ventura Limoncello not only makes the perfect tart-sweet after dinner drink, it makes divine cocktails. Besides my infamous Cranberry Limonade, my other favorite is a simple, straight-up 1:1 mix with ice-cold vanilla vodka (most things are improved with ice-cold vanilla vodka).
But its pure lemon essence also makes it ideal for recipes — perhaps a limoncello vinaigrette, a summery glazed chicken, or these buttery Limoncello Shortbread cookies:
1 cup butter
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1 3/4 cup flour
1 TB. Ventura Limoncello
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Zest of one lemon
Raw Turbinado sugar, for topping
Cream butter and sugar with stand or hand mixer.
Add Limoncello, vanilla, and lemon zest, mix to combine. Add flour and mix until dough comes together.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes
Preheat oven to 350F. Roll out chilled dough to 1/4″ on a VERY WELL-FLOURED surface and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Keep your hands, biscuit cutter and rolling pin well-floured, and use a pastry scraper to keep the work surface clean.
Place on parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with Turbinado sugar. Chill for 20 minutes before baking.
Bake 12 minutes or until edges are barely brown. Cool on wire racks.
These keep amazingly well in an airtight container or frozen.
James and Manuela simply want recognition for creating a hand-crafterd, natural, authentic lemon liqueur. Thanks to them and their Ventura Limoncello team, who weekly brave the spray of lemon oil, the blisters from swivel-peelers, and the risk of repetitive-motion injury, I have a sweet bottle of So Cal sunshine in my freezer that will light up even the stormiest Washington weather.