We’re always looking for local purveyors that will enhance our restaurants and promote the region, whether they're winemakers, farmers, or artisans. So, when we met Fred and Amy Groth, our neighbors and founders of HelloCello, a certified organic limoncello made in Sonoma, we were intrigued.
Limoncello, a lemon liqueur originally from Italy, is a difficult spirit because, outside of Italy, it’s often too sweet and syrupy. Fred and Amy’s Limoncello di Sonoma tastes light and fresh—like it actually comes from real lemons (which it does!). It was the perfect fit for ESTATE, where we serve it as a digestivo, or after-dinner drink, and have incorporated it into cocktails.
The story behind HelloCello is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit that seems to flourish in Sonoma. Fred and Amy moved to Sonoma from Colorado in 2008 after visiting Sonoma and basically falling in love with the town. “We wanted to do something fun and different and wanted a lifestyle change,” recalls Fred. “Sonoma was perfect because it has a European feel to it and there are so many artisan products here, like cheese and wine.” The Groths packed up their three kids and moved to Sonoma. They had always loved limoncello and made it as a hobby, but they realized there was no one in the U.S. making artisan limoncello. “The limoncello here in the U.S. is pasteurized and shelf stabilized,” says Fred. “We wanted to make a smallbatch, artisan product.”
Fred went to Italy for a month to learn the techniques of making limoncello. They built a distilled spirits plant in Sonoma, and one year later they started production with 80 cases. Production is now 100 to 150 cases made four to five times a year. “We want it really fresh,” says Fred. Everything is done by hand and the only full-time employees are Fred and Amy. “My wife and I do everything,” says Fred. “We make it, bottle it, and deliver it.”
What makes HelloCello Limoncello di Sonoma different from mass-market limoncello are the ingredients and the freshness. They start with organic Eureka and Sorrento lemons, which grow year-round in California. The Sorrento lemon, grown in the town of Sorrento, Italy, is the original lemon used in Italian limoncello. Instead of cane sugar Fred and Amy decided to use agave, for both taste and health reasons; it gives the limoncello a deeper flavor and doesn’t spike blood glucose levels like other sweeteners do. Instead of a high-proof grain alcohol, HelloCello is made with distilled grapes, or brandy. (Fred and Amy found someone to make brandy to their specifications.) “Everything except for the agave is from within 60 to 80 miles of our plant,” notes Fred. All of the ingredients are 100 percent certified organic.
The Groths use the traditional limoncello process and the most important ingredient is the lemon peel. Each batch requires the peels of 4,000 lemons, though the recipe only uses the yellow peel, not the pith or juice. The Groths turned the time-consuming chore of peeling lemons into a festive occasion by throwing lemon-peeling parties. “Our friends come over, we’ll get a keg or and have wine, and everyone sits at a big table and peels and zests,” says Fred, laughing. There are no machines that could peel the lemons because when working with organic citrus there are imperfections that a machine couldn’t work around, notes Fred. The lemon peels then go into a tank with the brandy, where the liquid is filtered, simple syrup is added, and the limoncello is bottled. The whole process takes about one month from start to finish. “It’s fresh to market,” says Fred. We were so impressed with their product that we asked them to make us a fig liqueur. They agreed and started researching recipes and techniques.
“It was an interesting and fun process,” says Fred. “We made 30 samples with various botanical and flavor elements (such as orange peel, tarragon, and star anise) to decide which would go well with fig and alcohol.” We had an informal tasting panel, and we chose the flavors that worked the best. Production had to start almost immediately to take advantage of the second fig season that was just beginning. Fred and Amy (and their kids!) wild-harvested 400 pounds of fresh figs from around Sonoma Valley. “We chopped them up and threw them in with the alcohol and herbs, let it sit for a month, and then filtered it and added sugar,” Fred remarks. Voilà—our fig liqueur! Fred and Amy produced 55 cases and we serve it in the restaurants. It was so delicious that they plan to make it a seasonal product.
It’s amazing that two Americans could travel to Italy, fall in love with a beverage, and recreate it here in Sonoma. “We’re small producers filling a niche in specialty spirits,” says Fred. They are devoted to making the perfect organic limoncello and in our mind they’ve succeeded.
Find HelloCello (along with their other delicious offerings) at their new craft distillery and tasting room located at Cornerstone, Sonoma.
Open daily: Cornerstone 23570 Arnold Drive
(This article originally published in Plats du Jour: the girl & the fig's Journey through the Seasons in Wine Country)