Front Row Seat: Ax throwing gives Blacklist Brewing an edge
Beer drinking and ax throwing don't sound like two things that should be done simultaneously, but the Duluth brewery has scored a direct hit with taproom visitors.
DULUTH — It was hard not to think about my ear, and specifically about how much I wanted to keep it attached to my head.
Having seen a lot of axes drop to the wood chips, I was generally pleased with my ability to consistently bury the hatchet during a couple friendly tool-tossing games last week at Blacklist Brewing. As soon as I let myself think about how close the ax was passing to my head during my one-handed overhead tosses, though, I lost my concentration and started missing the target by wide margins.
I wasn't too hard on myself, since it had been, oh, three decades since the last time I'd tried to throw an ax. My mom produced photographic evidence of me at age 15, hoisting a blade at Chisholm's Minnesota Discovery Center — then known as Ironworld USA — while my little brother and a costumed voyageur looked on. As I recall, my performance was not sterling.
Back in the 1990s, that's where you'd expect to find ax throwing: at an interpretive center demonstrating how bored explorers killed time between muskrat skinnings. Now, it makes perfect sense to see a few ax-throwing lanes right in the middle of Duluth's Historic Arts and Theater District, where you can hoist a pint and toss a point before crossing the street to see "Footloose."
(You ask: to ax, or to axe? The latter spelling is more common in the U.S., but the News Tribune follows AP Style and efficiently omits the "e." Just think of the ink we're saving.)
"What fits better in Duluth — where people like beards, flannel and beer — than ax throwing?" asked T.J. Estabrook. A co-owner of Blacklist Brewing, Estabrook discovered ax throwing during a work trip to Milwaukee and realized the game was just what his company's Superior Street taproom needed.
When Blacklist introduced ax throwing in 2019, it was facing an image problem. The original concept had been that Blacklist would be "an upscale brewery," as Estabrook put it, specializing in Belgian-inspired brews for connoisseurs. The product was great, but the "if you brew it, they will come" philosophy (now I'm paraphrasing) wasn't consistently working for tourists and locals who were just looking to hoist an unpretentious pint.
The ax lanes were an immediate hit. Not only did they help Blacklist keep customers in an increasingly competitive craft beverage scene, they attracted taproom visitors who didn't even like craft beer — or, at least, who didn't think they did.
"You're bringing in some of the nontraditional brewery customers as well, and then they're getting a chance to try some of our beers that are more relatable to some of the wider brands," Blacklist ax throwing manager Ray Mindestrom told me at the June 1 ribbon-cutting event for the brewery's new and expanded space. "They're realizing that the craft beer scene isn't so scary."
Blacklist also added hard seltzer to its offerings, pleasing the many visitors who were partial to that rapidly-growing beverage family. (At the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's country concerts, hard seltzer now outsells both mass-market beer and craft beer.) "When you're in a brewery, and you see that 35%-40% of people are sitting there drinking a seltzer, not a craft beer, you realize what a great addition that is to your offerings," said Estabrook.
There's something inherently edgy, literally and otherwise, about ax throwing as a bar game. Writing for The Ringer in 2018 about a pastime quickly becoming an international phenomenon, Kate Knibbs noted that organized ax throwing is "the easiest way to feel like Jack Torrance going bonkers just for a moment without alarming or harming your loved ones or the authorities."
That would be the crazed murderer in Stanley Kubrick's movie "The Shining." In the original Stephen King novel, Jack opts for a more bourgeois weapon: a roque mallet, the kind of thing that might pair better with a fine Belgian Saison than a Hibiscus Kill Shot hard seltzer.
In reality, both roque (a version of croquet) and ax throwing require a firm but controlled hand. The goal isn't to split a log, it's to precisely place the hatchet on a circular target that awards more points for hits closer to the center. That said, it is also true that the highest-scoring spots on the target are two small points known as "kill shots." (Some venues swap that name out for the less grisly, but equally suggestive, term "blue balls.")
You'll score better if, instead of "The Shining," you channel a different Kubrick film: "2001: A Space Odyssey," with the iconic cut from a slowly rotating bone to an orbiting nuclear weapon. There's an elegance to a well-thrown ax, as much as there is to a well-shot arrow.
Gimli and Legolas, the fantastic heroes who wield those respective weapons in "The Lord of the Rings," might argue over that point, but I couldn't argue with the points I racked up when I took it easy — versus trying to put my weight into the throw. Having stood on the sidewalk and gawked at Blacklist ax throwers in the past, I was all too aware of the potential for public embarrassment if I couldn't land the ax in a satisfactory spot.
In reality, the only people watching were my friends and our attentive server, who closed out our ax tabs ($19.75 per person per hour) along with our beer tabs. I had a lot of fun, I still had my ear, and after a celebratory Spruce Tipped IPA, I was feeling like a proper voyageur — even if I didn't look like one any more than I did as a teenager.
The Fourth of July is coming up, and it's going to be a busy one. My music and entertainment preview was squarely focused on Duluth and Superior, so I didn't have the opportunity to mention a pretty epic musical event coming to the Iron Range. Spanning over three weeks starting Friday, the Northern Lights Music Festival brings classical music performances and classes to a range (see what I did there?) of distinctive venues. The climax of this year's season is a production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," one of the strangest and most beautiful operas ever written. For more information, see northernlightsmusic.org.
Apparently, I'm not the first person to discover that the onion rings at the Pickwick Restaurant & Pub are really something special. When I posted from the restaurant recently on Instagram, a friend who was in Duluth some time ago responded: "Try their onion rings; they were to die for in 1976."
And a half-century before that, apparently: As the News Tribune reported in 2006, the restaurant's onion ring recipe was created by Joseph Wisocki, who founded the modern Pickwick when he bought the restaurant from Fitger's in 1919. In 2006, the News Tribune's Tom Wilkowske acknowledged the Pickwick's onion rings were "famous," even if the batter was a little "thick" and "gnarly" for his taste. To each his own.