This Santa Rosa Beach Distillery Uses Oyster Shells to Filter Their Signature Vodka

Geothermally-cooled equipment, oyster shell filtration, leftover corn mash as livestock feed—Florida's Distillery 98 is committed to an environmentally conscious operation.

The cold burn down the throat. A sweet corn undercurrent. The feeling of lightning rushing through the body. These sensations all come together in a Mason jar of moonshine.

For many, especially in the South, it's a rite of passage to make 'shine. Harrison Holditch learned how to brew from a friend in college; he taught his brother-in-law David Kapitanoff. They made sugar shines in the backyard. Then, in 2019 they opened Distillery 98 in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.

Holditch and Kapitanoff have moved on from sugar shines to grain-to-glass vodka crafted with 100 percent non-GMO Florida Panhandle corn. "It's smooth, it kind of releases from your palate because we take some of those fumes out, and you get some sweetness, earth tones from corn that was in the ground six months ago," says Holditch.

"We're called Distillery 98 because Highway 98 runs through the whole state of Florida, into Louisiana, up into Mississippi. It's the original beach highway. But, we're also in the 30A area where you can paddle the dune lakes. We're close to the springs and national forests where you can enjoy nature beyond the beach. We wanted the name to be inclusive of all those experiences," Holditch says.

Dune Laker Vodka from Distillery 98 in front of a wave
Courtesy of Distillery 98

Florida Corn, Florida Vodka

The July humidity blankets me as I turn off Highway 98, snaking around the forested curves of Serenoa Road to the unassuming warehouse where Holditch and Kapitanoff distill their spirits. Holditch, a wiry young man with a ball cap shading his bright blue eyes, greets me at the door to usher me on to the distilling area.

Chandeliers made with whiskey barrel staves and strings of oyster shells light up the tasting bar. Vintage photos of Grayton Beach in the 1960s and 70s decorate the walls. Rustic seating vignettes populate the bar room and upstairs lounge. Kapitanoff busily oversees the stripping run to remove the alcohol from the fermented corn, sugar, water, and yeast in the adjacent processing room.

oyster shell chandeliers over tasting bar
Courtesy of Kristy Holditch

Holditch guides me over to the leftover mash and explains one aspect of their distillery's zero-waste commitment: "After four hours of mashing to cook all the sugar out, we have a farmer friend that picks up all the leftover corn to feed his livestock in Holmes County."

It doesn't stop at the corn. Distillery 98 utilizes a unique filtering process that employs only Gulf Coast oyster shells previously destined for the landfill. Oysters are powerhouse water filters, but it's the connection to place that drove Holditch and Kapitanoff to choose oyster shells. It adds to their adherence to local ingredients and Holditch found, "filtering through the shells mellows the acidity [of the vodka] out a little bit."

Along with their donated corn mash, they also cool all of their equipment geothermally. "We have a shallow well to bring in natural groundwater. Once all of our equipment has cooled, we recycle all the water back into the ground. We are 100% zero-waste," says Holditch.

Even the art on their bottles reflect deep reverence for the area. The signature Dune Laker Vodka features a label designed by Jake Meyer of I Will Design For Food.

filtering vodka over oyster shells
Courtesy of Kristy Holditch

"He lives in Atlanta now, but he's an old local here. His father handmade skimboards, and Jake did all the design work. He grew up surfing, being a part of this area; he knows what a 'dune laker' is," says Holditch. The white dunes, bits of gold strands, shades of blue-green like the ocean, and the little paddle boarder pictured on the label all call to mind life where beaches, dune lakes, and forests meld.

Another of their signature spirits, Martin Migration Vodka, is an homage to a different type of resident. The purple martins fly from South America to the United States annually. They always come through Florida and depend on human structures for their nests.

"Once you have a Purple Martin House, they'll go all the way down to Peru, and find their way back to that same house every single year. The Martin Migration is an homage to them, but also the tourists, and the people that migrated here and now call this place home," says Holditch.

bottle of martin migration vodka
Courtesy of Kristy Holditch

It's more than the spirit of migration Holditch and Kapitanoff captured. The muddled blackberry, orange and lemon peel, and dehydrated hibiscus are sourced locally and processed at the distillery. The final touch is a chunk of tupelo honeycomb from Register Family Farm inside each bottle.

Craft Distillery to Cocktail Bar

In July 2021, the Florida Senate elected to allow craft distilleries to serve cocktails in their tasting rooms. Distillery 98 engaged bartenders to develop recipes with their signature spirits. They incorporate more of those local ingredients in the cocktails, like Amavida Coffee, Noli South Kombucha, and Hey, Mama Wines.

They even make their own liqueurs and cordials. "In our Espresso Martini, we use a pecan liqueur that our bartender makes on his farm. Then we infuse our vodka with Amavida coffee. We're trying to keep everything as local as possible and make everything by hand," says Holditch.

Their commitment to supporting the area extends to their packaging, too. Moving away from glass dependence is the first step.

Holditch elaborated, "The packaging of our latest, the Half Shell Vodka, has six times less carbon footprint than a glass bottle. It's recyclable. It's made with 97 percent recycled cardboard. You can take it to the beach, on a boat, by the pool, anywhere."

And they will be the first in the United States with that cardboard bottle.

The package made by startup company Frugalpac in the United Kingdom offers Holditch and Kapitanoff a viable alternative to dwindling glass supplies that also aligns with their brand. "We're a beach distillery, you draw a line straight forward four miles and you hit the Emerald Coast. These cardboard bottles show one more step in caring for this area."

cocktails at distillery 98
Courtesy of Kristy Holditch

The geothermally-cooled equipment, oyster shell filtration, grain going back to livestock, and now cardboard bottles all go back to their personal values of being as environmentally conscious as possible. But their why goes deeper.

"David and I are people that want to see something from start to finish. Seeing those bottles loaded onto a truck, watching them go out, it's a feeling like I've never had. Instead of being in an office where I never see the end goal, I see what I do every day," Holditch says.

On the horizon are more spirits like rum made with Florida sugar cane and blackstrap molasses (packaged in one of those cardboard bottles), a second story deck, and a patio out front. For now there's cocktail classes, tours, chili cook-offs, and smooth vodka.

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