The Champagne’s on ice, your guests have arrived, and the clock is about to strike midnight. The only thing left for you to do to make this New Year’s Eve memorable is to dazzle everyone with your mad sword skills. Or at the very least, a cool knife trick.
Sabering (also known as sabrage) is the art of beheading a Champagne bottle with a sword. It's a time-honored tradition that date back to the antics of the light cavalry known as the Hussars in the Napoléonic Wars of 18th-century France. Riding home after battle, these brash, lavishly-dressed soldiers made a habit of celebrating their victories by tossing bottles of Champagne in the air and slashing off the tops with their sabers so that they could begin drinking while still astride their horses. Legend has it that Madame Clicquot Ponsardin—the young widow (a.k.a. Veuve Clicquot) who inherited her husband's Champagne business and invented riddling (storing and turning bottles upside down at an angle to encourage the wine sediments to settle in the neck of the bottle)—would often entertain Napoléon’s officers in her vineyard in Reims. After one such visit, she supposedly handed out bottles of Champagne as the officers departed for battle. Eager to impress the wealthy widow, they unsheathed their sabers and sliced open the bottles in dramatic fashion.
Credit: Kassie Borreson.
Whether the officers’ bravado actually impressed Clicquot is open to historical debate, but there’s no denying that sabering is the ultimate party trick and adds a celebratory air to any modern-day soiree. So it’s only fitting that we turned to owner Jen Pelka and beverage director Marissa Payne of The Riddler, an all-woman-backed Champagne bar in San Francisco named after the Grande Dame of Champagne Clicquot, to create a GIF (above) showing us how it’s done. Pelka and Payne will preach the gospel of Champagne at The Riddler starting on New Year’s eve, where they will be sabering bottles every hour to mark the occasion.
Photo credit: Kassie Borreson.
“Nothing’s more celebratory or thrilling than opening a bottle of bubbly with a giant knife,” admits Pelka. “The first time you do it you can’t even believe it’s possible.” Truth be told, sabering is not very difficult. You don’t even need an 18-inch long sword from the prestigious French knife maker Laguiole like the one Payne and Pelka will be using at The Riddler. Any sturdy chef’s knife will do the trick. We’ve even seen it performed with an iPhone and a spoon.
Although it makes for some compelling food-porn watching, the aim is not to create a fire-hose gush of foam spraying all over the floor. “Sabering should be an elegant act,” explains Pelka. Especially when you’re pouring top-flight sparklers from the Champagne region of France and other premiere producers from around the world, like the ones that make up The Riddler’s 150-bottle collection.
Photo credit: Kassie Borreson.
You can just wing it in front of your guests, but if you’re the type that likes to prepare ahead of time, Pelka recommends you practice with a relatively inexpensive bottle of bubbly—but not too cheap—because, after all, “you’re still going to want to drink it.”
Disclaimer: Opening any bottle with a sharp knife can be dangerous business, let alone one filled with liquids that are under 90 pounds of pressure per square inch, so please follow Payne’s instructions carefully. Never attempt to saber a bottle in a crowded room. Find a place that’s out of the way and never point the bottle in the direction of people or breakables. Dislodged corks can fly huge distances at a velocity of 45 feet per second, which is faster than the blink of an eye. Ready? Here's what you do:
Cool the bottle ahead of time, either in the fridge overnight or in an ice bucket, neck down, for at least 30 minutes. Cold glass will break more easily, plus who wants to drink lukewarm bubbly?
When you’re ready, dry the bottle with a towel and remove the foil wrapper completely. Twist off the wire cage, but keep your thumb over the cork to ensure that it doesn’t pop off prematurely.
Find the seam that runs along the length of the bottle, where the two halves of the bottle meet. The point at which the seam meets the lip of the bottle is the weakest spot on the glass and offers your best chance for making a clean break.
Place the bottle in your non-dominant hand and hold it, seam-side up, at a 30-45-degree angle, pointing away from people and other delicate objects. Be sure to grab the bottom third of the bottle with your entire hand. (Don’t bother sticking your thumb in the punt or hole of the bottle; the key is to hold the bottle as securely as possible.)
Using the heaviest chef knife you own, place the dull side of the blade against the seam at a 30-40-degree angle. (Wielding the sharp edge of your blade towards your hand is not only dangerous; it will screw up your knife.)
Rub the blade back and forth a few times along the seam (this is partly for aim practice, partly for flourish) and then strike the knife firmly along the seam in one long swift movement towards the neck of the bottle, making sure the blade comes in contact with the bottom lip of the glass and not the cork. Don’t lift the knife until you get all the way past the tip; keep going even after you make contact, as you would if you’re swinging a tennis racket or a golf club.
Quickly reposition the bottle upright; while the thrill of gushing bubbly makes for an impressive show, you don’t want to lose too much of the good stuff. Make sure your guests have their glasses at the ready and pour immediately. Be extra careful while you're pouring: You won’t have a lot of control over the flow and while it should be a clean break (you don’t have to worry about errant shards of glass), the broken tip will be extremely sharp.
Look out, and happy sabering!
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