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Ax throwing is a growing sport in Washington. Will it grow even more with alcohol on tap?

By Kristine Sherred, The News Tribune
Published: July 17, 2022, 6:00am

TACOMA — Axes first, barbecue second, alcohol third.

The intended business model of Casting Iron Axes seemed straightforward to owners Isaiah and Riely Harris when they first applied for a liquor license last fall — when they knew the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board was on the path to approving the combination of axes and alcohol. Thus was already the way for dozens of destinations across the country where guests can have nachos and a beer in between chucking hatchets at a target wall not unlike a dartboard.

The liquor board began receiving applications as early as 2018 from both ax-throwing businesses and those already with a liquor license, such as a brewery taproom, that “wanted to add ax throwing as entertainment,” said spokesperson Julie Graham. But it was considered high-risk, posing a threat to the safety of staff and customers, and all applications were thus denied.

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

“Obviously that’s not gonna work!” she recalled in June.

Frustrated, the couple regrouped and decided to open the business in phases. They launched ax throwing in February and introduced the restaurant in May, serving hand-pies filled with brisket, barbecue chicken or pulled pork and burnt ends mac and cheese. Customers kept asking: When will the bar open?

“The bar has been part of the design the whole time,” Harris said. “It’s here with bar stools at it waiting.”

Meanwhile, Bellingham Axe skirted around the hurdle by opening The Axe Bar on the floor above its ax-throwing establishment. Guests can order beer and cider by the can, with live music often playing in an adjacent room.

After nearly three years of handwringing sparked by a flare-up with a national ax-throwing chain, LCB will allow Casting Iron — and any of the 15 or so venues that have cropped up across the state in the past few years — to acquire liquor licenses as of July 9, under certain conditions.

Lanes, as the industry calls the batting cage-like area where people throw, must be barricaded from areas of consumption. You can’t throw an ax and take a sip in the same space — they must be separated by some sort of wall, caging or netting.

Applications must also include a floor plan as well as a “safety operating plan” detailing how staff — who must be certified by the state’s alcohol service program, MAST, and present when lanes are in use — will “mitigate safety concerns.” Steps range from monitoring how much guests drink to prohibiting apparently intoxicated customers from throwing.

Casting Iron already has caging at each lane, with a high-top table in the back. Staff often delivers food directly to this area, said Riely Harris, and many guests eat in between tosses. Under the new alcohol rules, the biggest difference for them will be tracking drinks.

They are considering giving throwers a bracelet to hole-punch, and limiting the number of drinks to two or three.

Isaiah Harris estimates the additional revenue from alcohol sales will “play a significant role in the picture of our income,” adding they are eager to host typical pub activities like trivia nights. “We’re excited. Our staff is ready to go and trained. I think the public’s ready for it.”

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Axes and alcohol

Casting Iron is one of the newest ax-throwing venues in Washington state, but it’s one of only a few whose business model involves a full-service restaurant.

Others, such as Sea Axe, which opened in downtown Auburn in February, and Axe Kickers in South Seattle lean toward the small side, with room for a counter-serve area. They both plan to apply for snack bar or tavern licenses, which allow for the sale of beer and wine without hot food, a requirement to sell spirits in Washington state.

At Arrowhead Ranch, a multi-purpose “destination adventure center” on Camano Island, the outdoor ax-throwing portion of the venue does not plan to add a bar in part because they don’t have a kitchen, spokesperson Katie Shrock said by email.

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

The expectations differed from those in other markets, including Kansas and Tennessee, he told The News Tribune in early July. Nonetheless, the company obliged, providing an 80-page plan for safe alcohol service from the get-go.

“We came in with data. We’ve served hundreds and thousands of guests, and we’ve served lots and lots of alcohol, but they wanted more,” he said.

The business appealed, and as part of a settlement in April 2021, LCB granted a one-year “pilot” license with certain parameters such as lane barricades, a safety plan and alcohol sales reports.

“I understand the hesitation of folks who are unfamiliar with our concept, who might be a little fearful of combining these two things,” Baysinger said. Like each of the other five business owners interviewed for this story, he pointed to a dearth of accidents at ax-throwing venues as part of this proof. “This can be done in a really safe capacity for guests and the public.”

Despite the drawn-out process, he added, “We’ve arrived at what I would call a very happy conclusion that the entire state of Washington can do these two things.”

The Harrises, who were actively involved in the rulemaking process that began last fall and anticipated a January decision, wish their license would be approved today.

“Summertime in the Northwest is really important for your business,” said Riely Harris.

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

“The rule development process may take several months to a couple of years to complete,” Graham said. It depends on resources, complexity of the issue, data availability and public interest.

The latter notion — does the average Washingtonian care about ax throwing? — is perhaps to blame, posited Blade & Timber’s Baysinger.

Compared to the broad support, for example, of legalizing recreational cannabis, he said, “With ax throwing, there’s like seven people in the entire state who think this is important.”

A growing sport in WA

Nationwide, there are hundreds of ax-throwing outposts. Including those in Canada, about 300 have joined the World Axe Throwing League, founded in 2017 as one of two major membership-based groups formed to “unify” the sport. The International Axe throwing Federation was founded in 2016, working with 150 member venues and more than 20,000 league members.

The goal: professionalize the sport by standardizing rules, scoring, safety and etiquette.

Casting Iron and Bellingham Axe are official WATL member venues. Axe Kickers is an IATF affiliate, where owner Keith Mulligan said the standards promote it as a fun, safe activity and as an organized sport, especially when it comes to leagues.

Ax throwing in the 2020s, say the sport’s enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, is to bowling in the 1980s.

“Some think of it as a sport, some as an activity,” Baysinger said. “They are both correct. There are pro bowlers and there are pro ax throwers, and there are people who just wanna do something.”

Miguel Tamburini, 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 trains WATL coaches. He describes ax throwing as “an invaluable skill,” an affordable activity, a stress-reliever, a confidence builder and an inclusive sport.

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

The sport took off in Canada in the mid-2000s, he said, gaining traction in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. by the 2010s. Only in the past five years has it expanded in the West.

In his experience, almost every state except Washington — even notoriously persnickety states like Utah — allowed ax-throwing venues to sell alcohol. He stressed that coaches are integral to the experience.

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

“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 follow up: “I’m going to give them unsolicited ax throwing advice,” he laughed.

They have drawn on their six-plus years of experience as iFly instructors — “another sport that’s potentially hazardous,” Managhan said. “You need to teach people how to have it be safe and fun.”

In fact, he jokes that ax throwing, typically $25 to $30 per person to rent a lane for an hour, is the “the everyman’s iFly.” It nurtures a more communal spirit, though, and being able to decompress with friends after a throwing session seems pretty normal to him.

“The liquor license isn’t a core tenet of our business; however it can directly impact your business if you are the only one without a liquor license,” he said.