Oak Parker works to launch liqueur business
Melissa Reynolds worked for about a year to perfect her recipe for Creme Di Melicello, a creamy citrus liqueur she hopes to begin selling soon. | Meredith Morris~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:39AM
OAK PARK — The perfect way to end a lovely meal will be with a glass of Creme Di Melicello, if Oak Park entrepreneur Melissa Reynolds has her way.
Reynolds, 43, a grade school teacher and graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute culinary school in New York City, invested a year in tinkering with recipes for the traditional Italian digestif Crema De Limoncello. Now she is launching her own business, adding her name — Melicello for Melissa — to signify her personal taste twist.
Reynolds first tried the classic Crema De Limoncello about 2009, dining at the The Publican in Chicago.
“It was fabulous,” Reynolds said. When she asked the waiter about it, he said it was locally made and assured her she could find Crema De Limoncello recipes online. Indeed, Reynolds found an assortment of versions that included differing ingredients but a constant was the high-octane, colorless, flavorless distilled beverage Everclear.
“It tasted like paint thinner,” Reynolds said of her first foray into beverage-making. Undaunted, she tried assortments of ingredients until she found the right mix.
“I’ve changed so much of the original recipe that I feel like this is mine,” she said. “It took me a year to get from the paint thinner to something I can serve.”
The final Creme Di Melicello contains Everclear that has steeped with the rinds of Meyer lemons (a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange) for about a month, and organic cream and milk.
Reynolds sources her Meyer lemons from an organic farmer in California and is seeking a local organic farm from which to buy her milk and cream.
“It’s my moral belief,” she said about use of organic products, although she has a sense of humor about merging them with Everclear. “After going to culinary school I believe in healthy products and eating well. I learned a lot about the difference between organic milk and non-organic. I believe in quality products.”
Use of Everclear poses no moral dilemma for Reynolds. Her drink is meant to be savored in small amounts.
“In my family, there were always after-dinner drinks at the table. After a nice meal, it added to the moment,” she said, recalling her Italian background. “It’s like a dessert.”
After Reynolds perfected her drink in 2010, she shared it with family and friends who encouraged her to go into business. Eventually she hosted a gathering to test Creme Di Melicello more broadly and offer it for sale.
“It was a hit. I sold out,” she said.
Reynolds is now working with SCORE Business Counseling in Oak Park to formalize her business, as well as navigate liquor law requirements. She is seeking space at The Plant, a food-business incubator in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.
“I want to make sure it’s done right,” she said, and expects all to be in place by summer.
In a year, Reynolds hopes to have evolved Creme Di Melicello into a full-time job and earned it a place on the menu in fine Italian restaurants through the area and on specialty food store shelves.
Meanwhile, Reynolds returned to The Publican to compare its Crema De Limoncello to her own. Hers, she said, is less sweet and has a different lemon flavor than the more traditional beverage.
“I like mine better,” she said.
A note of warning. Don’t plan to fly with Creme Di Melicello. When Reynolds brought a bottle in her suitcase as a gift when visiting her mother, she was issued an FAA warning after the flight for bringing Everclear on a plane. If she does so again, she faces a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.
That FAA warning letter, Reynolds said with a laugh, will be framed and hang in her first Creme Di Melicello office.