Original Story posted on crosscut.com on February 4, 2021.
Whenever he sees an online news article about alcohol and ax throwing, Matt Baysinger knows what the top comment will be.
“It's going to be someone saying, in the snarkiest voice I can do, ‘Axes and alcohol, what could go wrong?' ” said the CEO of Blade and Timber, a nationwide ax-throwing chain founded in 2017.
The company has seven locations across the country where people can go to hang out with friends and hurl hatchets at wooden, dartboard-like targets. At six of those seven venues, people can also drink — beer and wine and, in a few cases, even hard alcohol. The only exception is at the company's Seattle location, which opened in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2019.
Blade and Timber hopes to start selling alcohol in Seattle soon, but in order to do so, it will need to convince more than the snarky online commenters. It will need to change minds on the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, which has been firm in its efforts to keep alcohol out of these venues.
Ax-throwing venue owners say the lack of alcohol sales cuts into profits and makes it difficult to stay afloat amid a pandemic that has already been devastating for the entertainment industry. Some business owners have found ways to sidestep Washington state regulators; others are preparing to chop through the regulations with a more aggressive swing — by hiring lawyers and fighting for their right to serve alcohol.
When Blade and Timber opened its Seattle location in 2019, company officials felt they would be able to work with the liquor board and one day serve alcohol, said Blade and Timber communications director Jessie Poole. The venue was constructed with a large bar area, and the company drafted an alcohol control plan in preparation.
That summer, the liquor board indicated that it would deny Blade and Timber's application. Baysinger flew in from the company's Kansas City headquarters to meet with the board, but was ultimately unable to convince them, the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reported.
Blade and Timber withdrew the application and spent the next year compiling pages of data and research to demonstrate ax throwing's safety. The report included letters of recommendation from city officials at other Blade and Timber locations, a list of ax-throwing bar policies across the country, an alcohol control plan and a personal letter from Baysinger.
In the letter, Baysinger outlined the strict safety standards proposed by Blade and Timber, which included a ban on alcohol in the throwing lanes and a hole punch wristband system to limit throwers to three beers total. He also highlighted that there have been no known instances of injuries at ax-throwing facilities in the United States. Although he and other operators did not provide any studies to confirm this claim, a thorough search of the internet found no incidents of injuries at ax-throwing venues in the United States. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database of emergency room admissions for recreational activity injuries lists no ax-throwing injuries.
“The question that many have asked in regards to Axes and Alcohol is, ‘What could go wrong.' The data continues to show us that nothing has, and with a consolidated effort, we believe nothing will,” Baysinger wrote.
Baysinger also noted that even though ax throwing works well as a socially distanced activity, the business has still faced pandemic-related financial challenges. Without the ability to sell alcohol, Blade and Timber's Seattle location might not be able to stay afloat, he wrote. Because of local COVID-19 restrictions, Blade and Timber's Seattle location has closed and reopened three times over the past nine months. It reopened for what it hopes will be the last time on Jan. 13.
In fall 2020, the liquor board again indicated that it would deny the application. Baysinger said he was disappointed, but not surprised. The company has hired an attorney and is taking legal action to appeal the decision. More than a year and a half after opening, Blade and Timber's bar remains empty, save for a single refrigerator full of soda. The facility also has a small selection of snacks and allows patrons to bring their own food. Groups can book private throwing lanes for 90-minute sessions at $30 per person. The sessions include instruction from a safety coach. Axes are provided. For legal reasons, players can't bring their own axes unless they were purchased directly from the company.
There's no specific Washington state law against alcohol and ax throwing, but there is a clause in the Washington Administrative Code that allows the liquor board to deny a liquor license if it thinks the license would “not be in the best interest of welfare, health or safety of the people of the state.” Brian Smith, a spokesman for the board, said the ongoing litigation prevents the board from commenting on specifics, but it is still cautiously exploring other options for ax throwing in liquor-licensed establishments.
Baysinger said the board didn't provide much detail in its decision.
“I think the liquor board is either saying that they don't trust Seattle to make good decisions, they don't trust the people of Cap Hill to make good decisions, or they're simply not evaluating us with the correct context,” Baysinger said.
On the other side of the Cascades, other ax-throwing venues are also gearing up for legal action. Miguel Tamburini, a nationally ranked competitive ax thrower and coach, owns Jumping Jackalope Axe Throwing in Spokane. It's currently closed because of local COVID-19 restrictions, but he's hoping to reopen in the next few weeks. When he does, he plans to band together with other ax-throwing venues in the Spokane area and appeal directly to the liquor board.
“Our plan is to get united and together hire an attorney. And we're going to show them the evidence of every other ax-throwing venue in the United States of America that are allowed to sell alcohol and have ax throwing at the same time with no problem at all,” Tamburini said.
Tamburini isn't yet sure how many venues he'll end up partnering with, but he's already spoken with several. There are at least a dozen ax-throwing venues in Washington, all of which opened within the past four years.
Before opening Jumping Jackalope, Tamburini spent three years working at ax-throwing venues in other states, where alcohol is allowed. During that time, he said there were never any safety problems. The typical length of an ax-throwing session is 45 minutes, which he credits with preventing patrons from getting too drunk. He said a beer or two can even help relax players who are nervous and help them throw more accurately.
If he is able to persuade the liquor board to grant him an alcohol license, Tamburini said he won't serve hard alcohol and will limit patrons to two drinks.
“Who gets drunk with two beers?” he said.
Ax throwing has its origins in traditional lumberjack games, but over the past decade it has grown in popularity as an urban recreational activity. Tamburini is a huge proponent of the sport, and highlighted it as a gender-inclusive community with benefits for mental and physical health.
Tamburini is excited to see the sport grow, but worries that venues' inability to sell alcohol will make it difficult to expand in Washington. When he worked at ax-throwing venues in other states, he estimated that alcohol sales accounted for as much as 20% of overall profits.
Baysinger has similar concerns.
“When you take away 10% to 20% of our potential sales ... yeah, it hurts, it hurts a lot,” he said.
While Baysinger and Tamburini are gearing up for legal action, some ax-throwing venue owners have taken a slightly different approach.
“It's called the Axe Bar and it has pretty much our same logo, but it is not Bellingham AXE. It is just a bar and it's called the Axe Bar,” said Matt Kinney, who owns Bellingham AXE. In fall 2020, Kinney applied for a license to serve alcohol at a new business called the Axe Bar, which will open in the unit directly above his axe throwing venue in Bellingham.
Both businesses are registered with Bellingham Axe LLC, but despite similarities in name, location, branding and ownership, the two are separate entities. One is for people who want to throw axes. The other will be for people who want to drink alcohol.
The liquor board doesn't let ax throwing venues serve alcohol directly, but there's nothing they can do to stop patrons from drinking beforehand. Kinney said his employees monitor people who come in to make sure they aren't excessively intoxicated, and they are not permitted to bring a drink with them. But he says what they do outside of his business is ultimately out of his control.
“If they went to Bellingham Bar and Grill, and I didn't hold their hand there and they wanted to come over here and throw an ax, I can't parent anybody outside of this business,” Kinney said.
And if someone wants to take a break to visit a bar halfway through a match?
“I'll say, ‘There's a bar upstairs if you guys wanna pause, go have a drink and come back down; that is fine.' 'Cause anybody could [say], ‘Hey. I gotta go run out to my car.' They could do whatever in their car I can't monitor that, or they could run to a bar. So really I'm just trying to capitalize on the business once it comes through this door. I wanna keep them in the building,” Kinney said.
People will always find a way to drink, said Baysinger. That lack of control is part of what worries him about the state's position. Under the current system, there's no way for his employees to monitor how much people are drinking.
“To be one of the only states that doesn't allow it is kind of strange,” Kinney said
There are also other loopholes. In the report submitted to the liquor board, Blade and Timber highlighted that the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire features both ax throwing and four separate bars. Blade and Timber also pointed to Axe Kickers, an ax-throwing establishment in South Seattle that lets private parties bring their own drinks — as long as they secure a $10 banquet permit from the liquor board.
Baysinger said he understands why some people might initially be concerned about ax throwing and alcohol. But he says the strict safety measures employed by Blade and Timber have been effective in preventing injuries.
There do not appear to be any recorded instances of ax-throwing injuries or fatalities in the United States. In 2019, a video went viral that appeared to show a woman throwing an ax at a target only to have it ricochet back, narrowly missing her head. Shortly after, World Axe Throwing League Commissioner Evan Walters released a statement calling it a “one-in-a-million throw,” attributing the incident to the combination of mats on the floor and a rubber handled axe, both of which were subsequently removed from use.
Despite the lack of recorded injuries, some venues would rather not take the risk.
“We believe alcohol and ax throwing would not be a good mix,” Scott Sparks, the manager of Bigfoot Axe Throwing in Ferndale, said in an email. Sparks said that even if Washington state relaxed its regulations, the Ferndale establishment would not sell alcoholic drinks.
Tamburini is hoping the members of the liquor board will visit him in Spokane, so he can teach them how to throw axes.
“It's a beautiful sport; it is not dangerous,” Tamburini said. “All we need is to say, ‘Let's sit down. I offer my place.' Let's do a team-building event for them. I'll do it for free so they can bring all their employees from their office. And if at the end of the team-building event they say that no, they consider that it's not safe or they consider it's dangerous? OK, good, but just give me the opportunity.”
Tamburini is confident the board members will be convinced, but for now, business owners in Washington state (whose namesake famously used an ax to chop down his father's cherry tree) are going to have to keep ax throwers sober.