A distillery moved in on Ironton Gallery — and the artists are still there

This is the kind of plot that could have easily become a high-rise.
7 min. read
Artist Elsa Sroka speaks to a reporter in her studio at Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse, Five Points, Nov. 28, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

This is the story of a decades-old Denver warehouse art space that became a distillery. It doesn't end how you think it ends.

After about 18 years at 3636 Chestnut Place -- a large lot with multiple buildings sitting between Brighton Boulevard and the South Platte River -- the owners of Ironton Studios & Gallery decided to sell. The lot was a tantalizing one to potential developers, zoned for a Denver high-rise, but they'd been turning away those suitors for years as the RiNo Art District changed the landscape just to the south. Instead, they approached a neighbor they knew would make relatively few changes.

"The new owners will be the Ironton Distillery," co-owner and RiNo Art District co-founder Jill Hadley Hooper wrote in an announcement. "They are keeping all the buildings intact, the garden and grounds and the 12 artists in the building we added in 2013. It was a difficult decision to make but we are thrilled that there will be continuity to the culture we've created over the past 18 years."

More than a year after they took over and about three months since they opened for business, Ironton Distillery owners Kallyn Peterson and Robbie Adams have stuck to their word. The old, original Ironton building that once housed studios and metal- and woodworking space has been converted into a taproom and the distillery itself.

Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse, Five Points, Nov. 28, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"People kind of cringe when they hear that and we have to kind of explain ourselves a little bit -- we were approached and, not to toot our own horn, we didn't do this to, like, save them but there was a unique opportunity where we could kind of save and preserve this property," Adams said. "And it has a lot of history. It's Jill and Tracy across the street are the founders of the RiNo Art District, so that's a big thing."

For the most part, the artists stayed. There's been turnover in two of the studio spaces since the distillery took over. Peterson said they needed to raise the rent slightly, but that they tell the artists the artists to speak up if it ever becomes unaffordable.

They also turned a small building on the lot into a gallery. They even hired a consultant, Alex Pangburn, to curate for them. It opened with a show from all the Ironton artists, and from here on out, it'll feature different local artists every month with openings on First Fridays. Right now, they're showing work by Sam Parker and Scott Santee.

Artist Kevin Sloan has been at Ironton for six years -- enough time to witness enormous change in the areas of Five Points and Globeville that became part of the RiNo Art District.

"It's astonishing, it's astonishing. Some of it has been kind of frustrating -- all the construction on Brighton has been overwhelming at times," he said. "But the upside has been I can now walk down the street to Natural Grocers and get some food, or across the street and The Source is fully functional now. So those are kind of wonderful benefits of all this change. The downside is that some people have had to leave."

Artist Kevin Sloan speaks to a reporter in his studio at Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse, Five Points, Nov. 28, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

For Elsa Sroka, who has been at Ironton for more than three years, the studio space has made an enormous difference in her work life as an artist. She was working from home before she moved there, where there are distractions and you have to clean up at the end of each day.

"They upped our rent a tiny bit but they kept it doable, knowing that they wanted to keep this an artist community. So they were really kind in keeping it affordable for us," she said. "... Everybody is pretty dang happy being here, I have to say, because there are a lot of studios that just don't have -- first of all we've got our own individual spots without open ceilings, which is nice, we've got our sink, our toilet. People tell me this is pretty sweet."

The relationship between the artists and the distillery has so far been symbiotic. The artists get quality studio space at what they say are affordable prices (no one I talked to would say exactly what the rents are) and the distillery gets the foot traffic that comes with show openings. It's the more formalized version of what Darrin Duran was trying to do at Urban Cyclist Denver, not far away on Brighton, letting artists use his unused space to work.

"It's very unusual but I think in some ways it's also kind of a potential future model of how private business can help facilitate or maintain art production," Sloan said. "It's one thing to say you're an artist but to have a place to do it is something else -- in a place that you kind of want to be and other people want to be that's affordable. And so if they can help facilitate that, they win, the artists win, the art district as it undergoes all this transformation wins. I think it's a good opportunity. We'll see how it goes for them. It's an experiment."

About that booze...

"We're also bringing our own art and our own craft into the neighborhood," Peterson said.

"Robbie and I kind of came up with the concept three or four year ago now, after a backpacking trip. He was previously at Platte Park Brewery, I was in the hospitality industry, but didn't like the corporate world. We both wanted to start our own business and the stars kind of aligned and here we are."

Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse co-founder Kallyn Peterson inside their Five Points taproom, Nov. 28, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Right now, with head distiller Laura Walters, they're making vodka.

"From the vodka we get a gin, then we also get 8 liqueurs. We also make a genever, an aquavit. We're making whiskeys, but that's going to take time to turn out."

They also have a rum in the works, not to mention a special distillery and pub liquor license that allows them to also sell wine and beer in the taproom.

Eventually, Peterson said, they'll build a kitchen with a pizza oven at the center and start serving food. They've been in business just three months, so there's still plenty of change to come. Adams thinks they'll start to see more business when they start distribution, which he says will be soon, and when it gets warmer outside. The patio is kind of a big draw.

Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse co-founder Robbie Adams inside their Five Points taproom, Nov. 28, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Before the Ironton Studios & Gallery owners approached them, Peterson said, "I would always bring people down and show them this awesome courtyard area and say this is what I want the distillery to look like."

It hasn't changed much in the turnover. It's still dotted with sculptures. They've tidied it up some -- including getting rid of a huge pile of scrap metal -- and they've already hosted several weddings out there.

Still, it remains a bit of a hidden secret thanks to its off-the-beaten-path location.

"I make the joke that we kind of created a speakeasy without trying," Adams said. "People stumble in here and they don't realize it's here."

Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse, Five Points, Nov. 28, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Hours at Ironton Distillery are 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Elsa Sroka is represented by Abend Gallery and online at elsasrokaart.com.

Kevin Sloan is represented by K Contemporary (which now shares a building with Abend) and can be found online at kevinsloan.com.

Ironton is hosting 80's Snowpants Party + Shop & Show in the Snow on Saturday, Dec. 15, from 3 to 10 p.m. Admission is $5-20.

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