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John Bradley is arguably the best recreational ax thrower in Utah.
He won the 2018 U.S. Open championship, which is hosted annually by the World Axe Throwing League. The following year, during league play, he hit 219 out of 224 bullseyes, according to the League website, “a number that borders on the word ludicrous.”
With that kind of success, Bradley decided to turn his passion into a business, opening Premier Throwing in Pleasant Grove.
He and his wife, Sara, launched the entertainment venue earlier this year with 16 ax-throwing lanes and two pool tables. Selling beer, they thought, would help increase profits and allow them to eventually add a kitchen.
But in June, when they applied for a beer license with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the couple was told the state can no longer give a liquor license to a recreational venue when the activities “involve the use of a dangerous weapon.”
The Utah Legislature approved the ban, during the 2020 session. But the provision went mostly unnoticed because, during the pandemic, no new ax-throwing businesses applied for a liquor license.
Also, businesses that had previously been allowed to serve beer have been grandfathered into the law and can continue to sell beer.
John Bradley is naturally frustrated by the situation, saying the hand-size axes that customers throw at targets should be considered a piece of sporting equipment — not a dangerous weapon.
“We use the ax as a tool,” he said. “That is what it is made for.”
But the liquor commission said its hands are tied by the state law. The board wants clarification about what the Legislature considers a “dangerous weapon.”
“This is really something the legislature should consider and give us a clear definition,” said commissioner Thomas Jacobsen. “If the legislature says we have no problem with ax-throwing and giving these applicants a license, then, you know, I would be one of the first ones to go and support it.”
Until the state liquor agency can get clarification — or the legislature changes the current law — the business will not be able to sell beer.
The commission did suggest that Bradley apply for a different alcohol permit, such as a tavern license that would allow the venue to serve beer to those 21 and older. Bradley agreed to work with DABC staff and look into that and other possible solutions.
For those unfamiliar with ax-throwing, individuals or groups rent lanes and, much like darts, earn points by throwing a hand-size ax at a bull’s-eye target.
The lanes are separated by chain-link fencing, and the seating area where customers wait their turn is separated from the throwing area. Companies also hire coaches who monitor the lanes, teach customers how to throw and ensure that the rules are followed.
Despite those safety measures, the Utah Legislature has tweaked state liquor laws twice to keep ax throwing and beer drinking from mixing.
The first time was in 2019, after the state liquor commission granted Social Axe Throwing in Salt Lake City a recreational beer license. When the Utah Legislature met, it passed a new law that listed specific businesses that can serve beer.
Bowling alleys, golf courses, pool halls, ski resorts and government-owned concert venues, for instance, made the list. Ax-throwing did not.
Businesses got around the new definition by installing pool tables and arcade games and calling themselves pool halls.
Not to be outsmarted, the Legislature came back the following year and included the provision that said beer was not allowed around leisure activities that " involve the use of a dangerous weapon.”
Premiere Throwing isn’t the only business affected by the ban.
Level Two Social in Midvale has also applied for a recreational beer license. The sports and entertainment venue is expected to open this month and will feature football bowling — called “fowling” — as well as ax-throwing.
Owner Duce Namazi told the commission that Level Two is trying to get around the law by building its ax-throwing lanes in a separate area away from the main building where beer would be sold and consumed.
Namazi said customers would not be allowed to consume alcohol in the ax-throwing area before or during play.
The commission was receptive to that idea, but still suggested the business work with DABC staff to determine if it was a solution that met the requirements of the law.