The sabrage, the art of opening champagne bottles with a blow of the sword, is an ancient military tradition dating back to Napoleon’s military campaigns. It is fabled that Napoleonic armies, during their victorious advances, celebrated by looting aristocrats’ estate cellars, using their sabers to open bottles.
History has elevated such practice of blatant vandalism by enrobing sabrage with the dignity of a necessary and noble rite of passage, thanks to Napoleon himself.
The practice of sabrage derives from the term saber (from szablya, Hungarian language), the weapon initially worn by the Hussars, the Napoleonic light cavalry.
The saber is a curved sword with a single edge of Asian derivation, designed for cutting, in use by cavalry and infantry between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.
Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Marengo, on June 14, 1800, was the first commander seen brandishing a saber; the Oriental type of weapon, unseen until then in the hands of a Western Army, generated a “hype” at the time, giving birth to the “Marengo Style” in weaponry. The very saber Napoleon used that day was auctioned off in France in 2007 for 4.8 million euros (osenat.fr)
Thanks to Napoleon, sabers quickly spread in the army; troops were equipped with first-rate blades, created in state-of-the-art factories in Versailles dedicated to weapons production. Thanks to excellent cutting capabilities and the “Napoleon Hype,” sabers became so popular that they remained in use long after the fall of Napoleon and traveled the Oceans, as they became a weapon of choice of both sides in the American Civil War. Above all, sabers grew into being identified with the Napoleonic army and vice-versa.
Napoleonic cavalry had long sabers, while infantry used briquet, the shorter version. The term briquet, a firelighter, was coined for denigrating purposes by the Hussars to indicate the Consular Guard’s stocky infantry weapon. In 1804 Napoleon unified the Guards corps, creating the Imperial Guard, for which he ordered the creation of new short sabers for all, cutting through the different corps envy.
All Infantry units of the Imperial Guards were indiscriminately provided with briquets, thus becoming the weapon for all uses, from tool knife to duels weapon, including as a bottle opener along the way. As of 1806, all Napoleonic Guards wore briquets, a.k.a. short sabers.
So, let’s say that the use of short sabers to open bottles quickly spread, given the availability and convenience of the weapon, supplied to all, whether on horse or foot.
It is common knowledge that sabrage had become a widespread and encouraged practice among the military thanks to a phrase attributed to Napoleon: “In victory, you deserve champagne. In defeat, you need it.”
How not agree with the French commander? It is always a good time for bubbles!
The spectacular practice has been rediscovered in modern times but performed with different sabers, neither sharp nor pointed, designed especially for the bottle opening practice. Opening with sabrage a bottle of sparkling wine ensures an explosive beginning to any evening!
The technique requires a bit of practice and dexterity; today’s sabers are reminiscent of Napoleonic briquets but are of adequate size, along with a balancing system that facilitates its use, even for beginners. Most importantly, the sabers used for sabrage are blunt and must be neither pointy nor sharp, as it is not the cutting edge that opens the bottle but the appropriate angle during the blowing.
The sabrage is fun and convivial; the process of learning how to do it guarantees entertainment even for the most bored and jaded among us. The perfect sabrage is the one in which the cork and the bottle’s collar jump together: easier said than done, but it is really worth a try.
Here are a few suggestions that will help you perform a spectacular sabrage:
Slide the saber along the body seam of the bottle to the lip to break the top of the neck away, leaving the neck of the bottle open and ready to pour. The force of the blunt blade hitting the lip breaks the glass to separate the collar from the bottle’s neck. Et voilà! The cork and collar jump happily together. As Napoleon would say, “Le prosecco, dans la victoire, on le mérite, dans la défaite, on en a besoin!”
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