While the presence of Champagne at an event is usually enough to indicate a celebration is at hand, there's another way to kick it up a 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 greeted them with bottles of Champagne to show their appreciation and gratitude. Because they were 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! Another version of the story involves the famed Widow (Veuve) Clicquot who possibly gave 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 to perform this technique which essentially utilizes the 6 atmospheres of pressure present in the bottle combined with a quick “whack” from the saber at the weakest point of the bottle, where the seam comes together at the neck. Although there are "Champagne sabers" made especially for this process, Laguiole makes a very nice one, 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.
For a slow motion view of how Sabrage happens, please check out my video below. And while it may look really easy, there are some very important steps to follow in order to perform it safely. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some accidents happen when the bottle wasn’t prepared properly or the wrong motion was used to dislodge the cork from the bottle. One incident even involved stitches so please scroll down for all the important details.
Be sure the bottle of bubbly is VERY cold: If the bottle hasn't been in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, 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 a shattered bottle of Champagne.
Find the bottle’s seam: Most green Champagne bottles (they are the best to use) have a seam that runs vertically from the neck to the bottom of the bottle where the two halves 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.
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 cleanly. 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 bottle is “live” and the cork can pop out at any time! You can remove the cage altogether but keeping the cage on not only makes the cork easier to find in an outdoor 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.
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.
Point the bottle away from friends, family, pets, windows and other glass objects: Ideally sabrage is performed outside but when that isn't possible, be sure the bottle is aimed away from people, pets 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.
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 of the bottle with an "up and out" motion, following through and making good contact where the seam meets the neck of the bottle and the top should pop right off! In the event it doesn’t, regroup and simply try again.
Wipe off the neck of the bottle and serve: Once the deed is done and all the applause has quieted, it's time to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Luckily, the pressure inside the bottle ensures no glass falls 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 jagged edges are extremely sharp and this gaff will take you from hero to zero (not to mention the emergency room) 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 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."