The WA Liquor Council says axe-throwing bars can serve alcoholic beverages

Axes first, roast second, alcohol third.

The intended business model of cast iron axes seemed clear to owners Isaiah and Riley Harris when they first applied for a liquor license last fall—when they learned the Washington State Liquor and Hemp Board was on track to approve the combination of axes and alcohol. This was already the route to dozens of destinations across the country where guests could sip nachos and beer between tossing axes at a target wall not unlike a dartboard.

Spokeswoman Julie Graham said the liquor board began taking applications early in 2018 from both ax throwing companies and those who already had a liquor license, such as The Brewery Chamber, who “wanted to add ax throwing entertainment.” But it was considered high risk, posing a threat to the safety of employees and customers, and therefore all applications were denied.

According to Riley Harris, the agency said it would approve Casting Iron for a liquor license on one condition: You don’t throw axes.

“Obviously, this won’t work!” Remember in June.

Frustrated, the couple got together and decided to open the company in stages. They launched an ax throwing in February and entered the restaurant in May, serving handmade dumplings filled with meat, grilled chicken or pulled pork and burnt ends of macaroni and cheese. Customers kept asking: When will the bar open?

“The bar was part of the design the whole time,” Harris said. “He’s here with bar stools waiting for him.”

Meanwhile, Bellingham Ax avoided the barrier by opening The Ax Bar on the ground above the axe-throwing establishment. Guests can order beer and cider by the can, with live music often playing in an adjoining room.

After nearly three years of hand-to-hand combat sparked by the outbreak of a national ax-throwing series, LCB will allow iron casting — and any of the 15 or so venues that have popped up across the state in the past few years — to obtain liquor licenses starting July 9, subject to the terms certain.

Corridors, as the industry calls the batting-cage area people throw in, should be shielded from consumption areas. You can’t throw an ax and take a sip in the same place – they need to be separated by some kind of wall, cage or net.

Requests must also include a floor plan as well as a “Safety Operating Plan” detailing how employees — who must be certified by the state alcohol service program, MAST, and present when using the driveways — will “relieve safety concerns.” The steps range from monitoring how much drinks guests are drinking to preventing apparently drunk customers from throwing up.

Casting Iron already has cages in every aisle, with a high table in the back. Riley Harris said staff often deliver food directly to this area, and many guests eat in between tossing food. Under the new alcohol rules, the biggest difference for them will be the traceability of the drinks.

They’re considering giving the bombers a bracelet to punch holes, and limiting the number of drinks to two or three.

Isaiah Harris estimates that the additional revenue from alcohol sales “will play an important role in our income profile,” adding that they are keen to host typical pub activities such as trivia nights. “He was excited. Our staff is ready to go and train. I think the audience is ready for that.”

Axles and alcohol

Casting Iron is one of the newer axe-throwing places in Washington state, but it is one of the few places whose business model includes a full-service restaurant.

Others, like Sea Ax, which opened in downtown Auburn in February, and Ax Kickers in south Seattle lean toward the small side, with room for a counter service area. Both plan to apply for snack or bar licenses, which allow beer and wine to be sold without hot food, a requirement for selling spirits in Washington state.

At Arrowhead Ranch, a multipurpose “destination adventure center” on Camano Island, the outdoor axe-throwing portion of the venue is not planning to add liquor in part because they don’t have a kitchen, spokeswoman Katie Schrock He said by e-mail.

Blade & Timber opened its Seattle location in 2019 without food and drink—served at its five other locations in three states—because the Liquor Board denied its request. They were frustrated, too, having teamed up with local planning and development departments to ensure they had “what we need to serve liquor,” according to Matt Baisinger, CEO of Swell Spark, the brand’s parent company that also operates escape rooms and mini golf concepts.

He told the News Tribune in early July that expectations differed from those in other markets, including Kansas and Tennessee. However, the company has committed to offering an 80-page plan for a safe alcohol service from the start.

“We came with data. We served hundreds and thousands of guests, served lots and lots of alcohol, but they wanted more.”

The company resumed and, as part of a settlement in April 2021, granted LCB a one-year “trial” license with certain parameters such as lane barriers, safety plan and alcohol sales reports.

“I understand the reluctance of people who are not familiar with our concept, and who might be a little afraid to combine these two things,” Basinger said. Like each of the other five business owners interviewed for this story, he cited the rarity of accidents at axe-throwing places as part of this evidence. “This can be done in a place that is really safe for the guests and the public.”

He added that despite the drawn-out process, “we’ve come to what I would call a very happy conclusion that the entire state of Washington can do both of these things.”

Ax throwing 1.JPG
Thomas Winzierle, an employee of Bellingham Ax, shows patrons how to safely throw an ax on Friday, July 1, 2022. Owner Matthew Kenny opened The Ax Bar above the activity venue, located in the basement of 1414 Cornwall Street. Bellingham Herald

The Harriss, who actively participated in the rule-making process that began last fall and anticipate a decision in January, wish their license was approved today.

“Summer in the Northwest is really important to your business,” said Riley Harris.

LCB says it has “followed a fairly standard timeline and process for a new activity that requires research and input from a range of stakeholders”. By law, changes to agency rules must begin with an inquiry phase before moving to a formal proposal with public comment periods and then approved if approved.

“The process of developing the rules can take several months to two years to complete,” Graham said. It depends on the resources, the complexity of the problem, the availability of data, and the public interest.

Final thought – does the average Washington citizen care about throwing the axe? Blade & Timber’s Baysinger may be to blame.

Compared to broad support, for example, for the legalization of recreational cannabis, he said, “With the axe throw, there are like seven people in the entire state who think this is important.”

A growing sport in Washington

Nationwide, there are hundreds of axe-throwing outposts. Including those in Canada, about 300 of them joined the World Ax Throwing Association, which was founded in 2017 as one of two major membership-based groups formed to “unify” the sport. Founded in 2016, the International Axe Throwing Federation operates with 150 members and more than 20,000 league members.

Objective: To professionalize the sport by standardizing rules, registration, safety and etiquette.

Casting Iron and Bellingham Ax are official venues for WATL members. Ax Kickers is an affiliate of the IATF, whose owner Keith Mulligan said the standards promote it as a fun and safe activity and as an organized sport, especially when it comes to tournaments.

Sports fans and business people say that the ax throwing of the 1920s is the bowling of the 1980s.

“Some think it’s a sport, others it’s an activity,” Basinger said. “Both are correct. There are professional bowlers and there are professional ax throwers, and there are people who just want to do something.”

Miguel Tamborini, founder of Jumping Jackelope with locations in Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Seattle and himself a champion thrower, helped write the IATF rules and also train WATL coaches. He describes ax throwing as an “invaluable skill,” an affordable activity, stress relief, confidence building, and an all-around sport.

“We don’t have weight, age, and gender divisions,” he said. “People say, ‘Hey, this was easier than I thought. The teachers were so helpful. I couldn’t believe I could do this, but I did.’”

The sport took off in Canada in the mid-2000s, he said, and had gained momentum in the eastern and midwestern United States by 2010. Only in the past five years has it expanded in the West.

In his experience, almost every state except Washington—even famous states like Utah—allowed axe-throwing places to sell alcohol. He emphasized that coaches are an integral part of the experience.

At Sea Ax in Auburn, co-owners Duke Managhan and Vance Olsen give each customer a safety briefing, regardless of their stated level of experience.

“We don’t want to be condescending, but you can always learn something new,” Managhan told the News Tribune in a phone interview. They also continue: “I’ll give them tips on throwing an ax without asking,” he laughs.

They have benefited from their more than six years of experience as iFly coaches — “another potentially dangerous sport,” Managhan said. “You need to teach people how it’s safe and fun.”

In fact, he jokes that an ax throw, usually between $25 and $30 for an hour’s driveway rental, is “everyman’s fly.” It nurtures a more team spirit, however, being able to decompress with friends after a throwing session feels very natural to him.

“Liquor licensing is not a core principle of our business; however, it can directly affect your business if you are the only person who does not have a liquor license.”

Zach Courtage of the Bellingham Herald contributed to this report.

Kristen Sheridt joined The News Tribune in December 2019, after a decade in Chicago where she worked in restaurants, a liquor wholesaler and a cookbook store. She has previously covered the food business of Industry Dive and William Reed. You can find her on Instagram @kcsherred and Twitter @kriscarasher.
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