The aroma of citrus fills the air in the small factory in Melbourne’s west. Boxes of thick-skinned lemons are piled up on the floor. Jon Caneva smiles as he carefully takes to the lemons with a small, sharp knife. ‘You have to remove the outside of the skin without taking any of the white pith, otherwise the limoncello will become bitter,’ says Jon. He’s a man who wears a happy demeanour like a well-fitting jacket. He was born into hospitality, growing up in a pub at Newport in Melbourne’s west. Jon went on to run and own pubs such as the famous Duke of Windsor in the 1990s, at the peak of the Melbourne band scene.
Now Jon is returning to his Italian roots, hand-making limoncello in small batches ‘nonna style’. Limoncello is an Italian digestif. It is sweet, quite alcoholic and tastes intensely of lemon. Various creation myths exist, but it seems to have sprung up independently at various locations along the Amalfi Coast and around the Bay of Naples during the early 20th century. The common denominator to all stories is access to the highly aromatic Femminello St. Teresa lemons, also known as Sorrento or Sfusato lemons. These are peeled and the zest steeped in almost pure ethanol alcohol, so the colour and aroma of the zest infuses into the alcohol. Added to this is a sugar syrup for sweetness. This is mixed and allowed to come together. This is the traditional method Jon follows to make his Don Giovanni range of limoncello.
Upstairs in the office, away from the production, Jon pours a glass of his benchmark limoncello. It has been stored in the freezer, making it thick and viscous. It pours easily into the glass, clinging to the sides and frosting the edges. It has a pleasing lemon-yellow tinge and an aroma that is remarkably fresh and punchy. It is like Jon has just cut open another lemon. There is a burst of citrus on the tongue and a flood of sweetness, followed by a warming flush of alcohol.
He learned to make limoncello from a neighbour, an old Italian woman called Theresa. ‘She would come by and drop off some limoncello to my dad,’ says Jon with a wistful smile.
‘I kept on asking Theresa for the recipe and eventually she relented. The thing with real limoncello is that you can’t make it on an industrial scale without compromising the flavour.’ Jon’s operation is miniscule, producing less than a hundred litres at time. He makes it in a small stainless-steel drum and hand bottles into distinctive glasswear carrying the design of Don Giovanni on the front. ‘My name is Giovanni – Jon in English – and I am a godfather, so Don Giovanni it is.’
He opens up another two bottles. One is a limoncello made with blood orange, the other Mandarino – a liqueur made with mandarin zest. Both are magnificent, capturing the very life and essence of the fruit. The Mandarino is something else: incredibly heady and aromatic.
‘Italians don’t like to compliment you on your success,’ says Jon. ‘But when I took my limoncello to Catarina Borsato from Caterina’s Cucina E Bar in Melbourne, she went out the back and grabbed another bottle of limoncello. It was almost identical to mine. Then she said, “That was made by my mother. It was the last bottle. I will buy yours!” ’
Getting hold of Don Giovanni Limoncello is not as easy as going to the bottle shop. Jon is not selling his limoncello through distributors or retailers. He is selling it to you direct. You go to his website, place an order, and Jon will make sure you get your limoncello.
Jon takes us to family pictures hanging on the wall. His grandfather formed the Italian Club in La Trobe Street in the 1930s. ‘He used to distil grappa and my grandmother would have it underneath the pram as she pushed Dad around the streets,’ he says. ‘She would sell the grappa door to door. We were ahead of our time in liquor delivery. But they can’t take away my licence because of the indiscretions of my grandfather,’ he adds with a smile. He raises his glass and declares, ‘Saluti,’ to another truly artisan drink.
Enjoy Don Giovanni liqueurs at the following venues:
Caterina’s, Lupino, Becco, Bar Carlo, SPQR, Massi, Pentolina – all Melbourne CBD; The Post Office Hotel, Coburg; Navi Restaurant and Café Terroni, Yarraville; Lower West Side Wine Bar, Williamstown; Ladro Tap, Prahran; Ines Wine Bar, Windsor; Mr Piccolo Kitchen & Bar, Kensington; Little Black Pig & Sons, Heidelberg; Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina, Wangaratta; Miss Amelie, Wodonga.
700ml bottles of Limoncello, Mandarino and Blood Orange liqueurs retail for $55