Sabrage is the (badass) art of opening a Champagne bottle with a saber, the heavy cavalry sword with a curved blade best known for its use by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in the 1800s.
(Note: We’ll be using the American English spelling, seen above, compared to the British English spelling of sabre, because ‘Merica.)
Napoleon was reportedly the first to lop off a bottle of bubbly this way, as old Champagne bottles did not have cages over the corks and were kept closed by a cork, some rope, and wax. This made it difficult to open the bottles and — being on horseback, always in a rush — the first emperor of France found it easier and faster to lop off the top of the bottle with a sword.
Sabrage, therefore, became a means of celebrating a victory.
Today we have easier means of popping bottles, but The Manual wanted to learn the skill of sabrage. We had a few questions, like: How difficult is it? Will I cut myself? And do you need a real saber? Unfortunately, we don’t have one — yet.
G.H. Mumm’s chef de cave — aka cellarmaster for the northern France-based Champagne brand — Didier Mariotti says sabrage can be quite simple and safe. In fact, you can use anything from a saber to a knife to a men’s watch.
First things first: “Use a bottle of Champagne,” says Mariotti, who suggests avoiding bigger bottles since the glass can be too fragile. It goes without saying that you need to hold the Champagne bottle with your hand at the bottom. Then, tilt the bottle 30-45 degrees to keep too much bubbly from spilling.
Next, find the seam. “On every bottle, you have two opposite lines because it was made with a mold. If you follow a line, it goes up to the neck. You follow this line with the saber or knife, following through with your arm (do not stop at the neck),” Mariotti explains.
Mariotti attests that he has done sabrage with everything, including a saber, a knife, a spoon, and a timepiece.
With a saber, use the sharp side; with a knife, use the dull side. It’s about speed, not strength, Mariotti says: “Do not try and break the neck, but hit properly at its weak spot.” The motion should be fluid and fast. And of course, make sure nobody is in the line of your trajectory.
The pressure in the bottle does the rest of the work, pushing the wine out of the top. If you have small pieces of glass leftover from the sabrage, they will go out too. “Except if you try to break the neck,” Mariotti reemphasizes.
Unlike shucking oysters, mastering the art of sabrage can be achieved on the first go. “If you get the right speed and movement, the first bottle will be perfect,” says Mariotti.
Now … about what utensil to use. Mariotti attests that he has done sabrage with everything, including a saber, a knife, a spoon, and a timepiece. “I’ve tried with a lot of stupid things,” he laughs. “It’s worked all the time since the glass is fragile.”
Julian White, the U.K. ambassador for Confrerie du Sabre d’Or, disagrees, saying only a saber should be used. We asked if a machete was do-able.
“Read the word! The clue is in the name sabrage! A saber is used,” White says, who received his appointment as ambassador for in 1999 in Paris and was made a Chevalier-Sabreur, a title bestowed only to those who have completed five years of training and perfected the art of sabering a Magnum of Champagne.
There’s a difference between lopping off the neck and doing it with class and style.
While White agrees — “It is simple and anyone can do it” — in the world of high-profile sabrage, there’s a difference between lopping off the neck and doing it with class and style, and the latter is always done with a sword.
If you want to practice sabrage in the way of tradition, opening a bottle of champagne with a saber is the easiest way. However, Mariotti says all you really need is an object “that has a soft enough surface to hit the weak part … a saber is proper, but you can sneak out of the mold and find fun, energetic ways to enjoy champagne.”
Once the bottle is open, Mariotti recommends playing with the taste by pouring yourself three glasses: One in a flute, one in a white wine glass, and another in a red wine glass. The champagne will be totally different in each one. Then, by all means, put away your saber.