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A room full of some of the world’s finest crystal is perhaps the last place you’d think to find a master Champagne saberer in action, lopping off the top of a bottle in one graceful swoop of a sword. But this is where Matthieu Yamoum, the wine director at Baccarat Hotel in New York City, entertains guests with his expertly honed skill, a surefire crowd pleaser and a highly Instagrammable party trick. Sabering a bottle of sparkling wine isn’t as difficult as it looks, but it does have to be done correctly in order to avoid disaster or embarrassment.
Yamoum, a native of France’s Champagne region, has been practicing his craft for the past eight years and has sabered countless bottles, some with rather unconventional tools—think metal credit cards, watches and wine glasses. One of the biggest misconceptions around sabrage is that you need a fancy sword to get the job done, but really, as long as you have a sturdy, blunt edge, you’re good to go. Carmen Lopez Torres, an NYC bartender and agave spirits ambassador, recalls learning to saber from her father in Mexico using a machete. “You can use a bunch of [different] things, as long as they have some sort of handle. You just need to be able to apply friction to the neck of the bottle,” she says.
Yamoum and other experts offer their advice on successful sabering.
1. Chill Your Bottle
“In order to be as safe as possible, the most important thing is to have a bottle chilled at the perfect temperature (between 38 degrees F and 42 degrees F),” says Yamoum, who prefers Champagne to any other sparkling wine when sabering. “The bottle must have been in a fridge for at least three hours or completely submerged in ice water for at least one hour to make sure every part from bottom to top, as well as the liquid inside, is very cold.” This is crucial; according to Yamoum, the pressure inside a bottle of sparkling wine is about three times more than that of the pressure inside a car tire. Also, nonchilled bottles generally have higher internal pressure than do chilled ones, plus the glass is softer when warmer.
Yamoun speaks from experience. “I was trying to break the world’s record for Champagne sabering,” he says. “The problem was that we had prepared 60 bottles and lined them up on a table, and by the time we did all this, the temperature of the bottles raised a little too much. The 12th bottle exploded inside my hand, and I ended up in the hospital with 75 stitches. This is why I insist on really having a very cold bottle.”
2. Prepare Your Saber
Whether you have a bona fide sabering sword or using whatever’s on hand, as long as it’s thin, sturdy and made of metal, you should be good to go. “It doesn’t need to be sharp at all,” says Yamoum. “I would actually recommend using the back side of a kitchen knife to prevent damaging the knife.”
3. Get It “Naked”
“Once your bottle is at the right temperature, it’s time to ‘get it naked,’” says Yamoum. At this stage, he removes the foil, wire cage and metal cap. Then he holds the bottle with his hand around the neck, keeping his thumb on top of the cork until he’s fully ready to saber. Due to the pressure in the bottle, if the cork is left with no barrier, it could pop spontaneously—not what you want.
Jen Gregory, the founder of Vinthusiasm and a frequent sabrage demonstrator, recommends a further safety measure. “When you’re loosening the cage, I prefer to tighten the cage back around the middle of the lip on the top of the bottle,” she says. This way, you can still carry on with your normal sabering activity, but the cork has an added layer of protection in the process.
4. Find the Seams
The next step, Gregory and Yamoum both advise, is finding the bottle’s seams, one of which should face you during the sabering process. “The seam you chose needs to be facing up, and you want to place the blade or the thin and sturdy metal edge on that seam where the curve starts. Always keep the tool in contact with the seam,” says Yamoum. “The target here is to hit the point where the seams cross the top of the neck.” The bottle should be held at the very bottom (the thickest part) at a 35- to 45-degree angle and should always be pointed away from any people or fragile items or areas.
Now, it’s time to seal the deal. “Slide your tool along the seam all the way to the top of the neck, and hit that lower lip part of the bottle,” says Yamoum. “You don’t need to hit too hard but firmly. And there you go!”
5. Consider the Timing
Yamoum shares one last pointer for safety’s sake. “I would recommend doing it earlier rather than later—aka sober—because we all know what can happen later on being under the influence of alcohol,” he says. “Remember how high the pressure inside the bottle is and how dangerous this can become if not done properly.” Take it from someone who has the scars to show for it.