Happy New Year & the Art of Sabrage!

Happy New Year, my fellow food and wine lovers! I hope your 2014 is off to a great start and that you rang in the New Year surrounded by loved ones as well as delicious food and wine. While the presence of Champagne at an event is usually enough to indicate a celebration is at hand, there’s a way to even kick it up another notch: the art of sabrage.

Believed to have been invented by Napoleon during the French Revolution, sabrage is the technique of opening a bottle of Champagne using a saber. Legend has it, as Napoleon and his troops returned home victorious from battle, the townspeople handed them bottles of Champagne to show their appreciation and gratitude. Because they were mounted on horseback, it was too difficult to put down the reins to pop the cork, so they used their sabers and voila, the art of sabrage was born! In another version of the story, the widow (Veuve) Clicquot was involved, giving Napoleon’s officers Champagne in return for protecting her land during this time of political unrest.

Contrary to popular belief, sabrage is not actually “chopping” the top of the Champagne bottle off. In fact, not much “muscle” is required at all to actually behead the bottle. The technique essentially utilizes the pressure present in the bottle (approximately 6 atmospheres) combined with a quick whack from the saber to effectively “pop” the seam of the bottle at its weakest point, where it comes together at the neck. Although there are “Champagne sabers” made especially for this process, Laguiole makes a very nice one (see above photo), you don’t have to use one to perform this technique. The back of a Chef’s knife works just as well. Just be sure not to use the sharp end of the knife as you can damage the blade.

While sabrage is a pretty easy skill to learn, there are a few very important things to keep in mind in order to do it safely:

1.) Be sure the bottle of bubbly is VERY cold: If the bottle hasn’t been in the refrigerator since at least the night before, you may want to rethink using it. Without a properly chilled bottle, you run the risk of the bottle exploding during the process and nothing puts a damper on a party like an exploded bottle of Champagne.

2.) Find the seam on the bottle: Most Champagne bottles have a seam that runs vertically from the neck to the bottom where the two halves of the bottle are joined together. You can easily find it by running your finger around the circumference of the bottle until you find the ridge. This seam is the guide your saber will follow along the bottle, making contact with the neck exactly where it intersects with the seam.

3.) Adjust the wire cage and remove paper/foil from the neck of the bottle: In order to clear the runway for your saber or knife, you’ll need to adjust the cage, the wire which surrounds the cork, up one notch so the blade of the saber hits the neck of the bottle, not the wire of the cage. Simply untwist the wire, slide the cage up one notch to expose the neck, and twist to refasten it around the cork. Be very careful, however, because once the wire cage is loosened, the cork can unexpectedly pop out at any time. You could remove the cage altogether but I find keeping the cage on not only makes the cork easier to find in an outdoors setting, but also make a nicer presentation. At this point, also remove any foil or paper around the neck so your saber has an unobstructed path to follow.

4.) Hold the bottle properly: There are two ways to hold your bottle of bubbly for performing sabrage: either with your thumb in the “punt” (the indentation in the bottom of the bottle) and your fingers supporting the bottle from underneath, or by simply grasping the bottle around the base. Experiment with each and go with whichever one feels more natural and secure.

5.) Point the bottle away from friends, family and windows: Ideally sabrage is performed outside but when that isn’t possible, be sure the bottle is aimed away from friends, family or anything breakable. In the video below, I didn’t use as much force as I normally would because I didn’t want to take out any ornaments on the Christmas tree, not to mention any of the windows.

6.) Let ‘er rip: When you’re ready to go, hold the Champagne bottle away from you pointed upwards at a 45 degree angle to the ground and run the blade along the seam, taking a few practice strokes. Then, briskly slide the blade along the seam with an “up and out” motion and pop the top right off that bottle!

7.) Wipe off the neck of the bottle and serve: Once the deed is done and the applause has quieted, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Luckily, the pressure inside the bottle ensures no glass gets into it, however, it’s always smart to wipe off the top of the bottle with a kitchen towel just to be sure there’s no glass fragments remaining. Then, you’re free to serve your guests but no matter what you do, don’t ever attempt to drink from a freshly sabered Champagne bottle! The edges are extremely sharp and this gaff will take you from hero to zero in seconds flat.

In case you’re wondering what the process looks like, below is a video of me sabering a bottle of Taittinger Brut Rosé for our first guests on New Year’s Eve. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t use as much force as I normally would in order to spare the windows and Christmas tree ornaments. I hope you have fun experimenting with the art of sabrage and remember the immortal words of Napoleon, “In victory you deserve Champagne, and in defeat, you need it.”