If it were possible to bottle Southern California, I imagine it would taste quite like the limoncello from Ventura Limoncello. It’s cheery as a canary’s coat, bright as sunshine, and tastes so purely of lemon that it might as well be lemon curd in alcohol form.
You’ve likely come across limoncello – on a trip to your local trattoria or even to the motherland – but chances are it’s been crappy. Limoncello is too often harsh, overly sweet, or just poor quality, like Lysol in liqueur form. If you’re like me, then you’ve probably even taken to making your own limoncello, because, let’s be honest, it’s really not that hard.
And that’s exactly what James Carling and his wife Manuela, who own Ventura Limoncello, insisted when I first met them. True, limoncello is nothing more than lemon peel, grain alcohol, a bit of sugar syrup, some time, and a good deal of patience. But, what James and Manuela aren’t saying is that just because something is simple to make doesn’t mean it’s easy to make well. The couple should know because they make an exceptional limoncello that puts those subpar versions to shame. In fact, they’re crafting a domestic limoncello that’s made so well it’s gotten the attention of many though the business is just a few years old.
That Ventura limoncello is based in Ventura is not mere consequence but in fact strategic as roughly 87% of the lemons grown in the United States are from Ventura County. Not only does that mean there’s abundant supply of the Eureka and Lisbon varieties the Carlings use, but also that Ventura Limoncello can have freshly picked, tree-ripened fruit. That last bit is key because most lemons are cellared underripe until they’re hauled off to stores; tree-ripened means better acidity and a more complex flavor.
The second key to Ventura Limoncello comes from Manuela’s family recipe that has been perfected by generations of homecrafters. It’s not an exact science since one batch of lemons will be more or less tart thus calling for more or less sweetener or alcohol. That’s why Manuela works hand-in-hand with her mother who helps hand craft and taste test each and every batch.
The duo also acts as a citrus inspection force, conducting a rigid quality control during which they inspect every last piece of fruit. They then hand peel each piece, which though laborious, is a key to their limoncello’s superior flavor. By hand-peeling, they capture as much of the peel and its essential oils as possible without getting a ton of the bitter white pith — something many lower-quality limoncellos are filled with. That’s literally tons of work since they are processing a few tons of fruit on a weekly basis.
The effort pays off in a quality you can taste and see. Not only is the liqueur a deep yellow color but it also has a collarino, an indicator of an all natural limoncello. Il Collarino (aka the little collar) is the ring of citrus oils that forms on the surface of a top-quality limoncello.
Ventura Limoncello started just 4 years ago yet they’ve already received their share of recognition. They won the Gold Medal at San Francisco World Spirits Competition four years in a row — proof, if you need it, that they really are top quality.
In the quirky nature of California legislation, we were able to visit Ventura Limoncello but it was strictly a look don’t touch situation. While tasting rooms for wine are as prevalent as can be, tasting rooms for hard liquor are currently forbidden in the State. But, that’s not to say I didn’t get around to trying the Limoncello. The majority of the liquor shops in the area carried the Original Limoncello as well as the Limoncello Crema and the newest addition, the Orangecello.
Before you knock the Crema and Orangecello as lame spinoffs of the originale limoncello, you’ve got to try them. Many of the Limoncello crema I’ve tried before have been cloyingly sweet, which Manuela explained is because they’re often made with condensed milk. The Ventura Limoncello crema is made with whole milk which gives it body but not too much extra sweetness. Of everything, I’d have to say my favorite was the Orangecello which is made with local blood oranges. It’s a seasonal product since blood oranges are only available in the colder months and it’s well worth the wait.
Though an Italian would call it sacrilegious, the Limoncello and Orangecellos are natural mixers. They works as well mixed with sparkling wine for a lemony aperitif as it does cut with soda water and citrus slices for a very adult lemonade. No matter how you have it, make sure it’s ice cold, which makes it refreshing despite its high alcohol content.
But, keep an eye on these two because James and Manuela aren’t even close to done yet. They have been experimenting with new ingredients to craft a next generation liqueur to add to their stable. I got a sneak peek of what’s to come and I have to say, the future looks and tastes bright.
Contact and Purchasing Information:
Ventura Limoncello Company
2646 Palma Dr. Ste 160
Ventura, CA 93003
Food Field Trip is a recurring series where I visit artisanal producers and family farms and share their stories with you.