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“Sabler” or “Sabrer” Champagne.

The linguists among you may be interested in this explanation of the etymological differences between the French verb sabler and sabrer— one meaning to drink a bottle of Champagne to celebrate and the other to chop its head off with a sword.

In 17th and 18th Century France, sabler applied to all wines and meant to drink a glass of wine in one.
Hence the definition of sabler given in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie of 1964, which was then fleshed out in Pierre Richelet’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, Ancienne et Moderne (revised edition by Pierre Aubert). The entry reads as follows": "The word sabler, as in sabler un verre de vin is sometimes used to mean drinking a glass in one go. The expression has its origins in sand casting, jeter en sable meaning to "throw" molten metal into a sand mould or, in the case of wine, to toss back a glass in one gulp. In his memoirs, Louis Constant, the Emperor Napoleon’s Head Valet, writes: "General [Dorsenne] took the notion of giving a grand supper. The wines of Hungary and the Rhine were gulped down (sablé); punch followed."

Richelet’s definition is supported by all of the official French dictionaries of the 18th Century, including the Encyclopédie. So we may dismiss any suggestion that the expression sabler un verre de vin comes from the practice of moistening the inside of a glass with breath then sprinkling it with fine sugar — a habit acquired by 19th Century Russian nobles as a means of sweetening Champagne. The sugar dissolved in the wine, first having apparently reminding the drinker of the white sands of the Black Sea.

This is what Voltaire and Diderot meant by sabler. Hence this description in Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master: "And while he babbled on, bare-footed in his nightshirt, Jacques took two or three good pulls at the wine (avait sablé deux ou trois rasades). Likewise Voltaire’s reference to Croesus knocking back Champagne (sablant du champagne) in his letter to Madame Denis:

As Old King Croesus knocks back Champagne,
He complains of the ills endured by the land.
As he revels in luxury and wallows in wealth,
He pities the country overloaded with taxes.

(La Vie de Paris et de Versailles, 1798)

Marmontel in his Moral Tales and Mirabeau in Le Libertin de Qualité provide other examples of this use of sabler. In Le Philosophe soi-disant Marmontel wonders "how much longer a woman of fifty could live, swallowing (en sablant) every evening a bottle of Champagne". In Le Libertin de Qualité Mirabeau meanwhile writes: "I don’t care for this Glück character; his music is devoid of all jest, without the least little tune to make you merry as you knock back (sabler) the Champagne."

By the early 19th Century the meaning of sabler had changed, as demonstrated by this entry in the French dictionary, Le petit Robert : "The expression sabler le champagne means to drink a lot of Champagne to celebrate". Antoine Caillot in his Mémoires pour Servir à l’Histoire des Mœurs et Usages des Français (1827) tells the story of a quipster who "would quaff (sablait) Champagne with the pudding, causing much hilarity all round, while always keeping an utterly straight face”.

Turning now to sabrer le Champagne: sabering Champagne is a tradition that became popular with army cavalry units in many countries, starting with Napoleon Bonaparte’s elite corps of fleet-footed, sabre-wielding hussars.

The officers of these "glorious centaurs" developed the practice when returning from victory; or in homage to vigour and manliness; or to impress the ladies ... Off came the neck and the cork of the bubbly, severed from the bottle with the unsharpened edge of the sword in a display of bravado that left spectators in awe.

Sabering Champagne these days harks back to those days of dashing hussars and pomp and circumstance — those heady times of grand balls and revellers in powdered wigs who delighted in elegance and rejoiced in the music of life.
 Le sabre des Officiers d'antan est à l'origine du « sabrage ».

Sabering a bottle of Champagne

  1. Tear away the paper around the neck of the bottle and remove the foil to reveal the cork and wire cage (but leave the cage in place).
  2. Hold the bottle at an angle (pointing it away from you and everyone else) and lay a heavy blade (sabre, chef’s knife — the heavier the better) flat along the seam of the bottle, with the unsharpened edge towards the cork.
  3. Now run your blade flat along the seam, sliding it up towards the cork smoothly (and not too quickly)
  4. Then strike the lower lip of the bottleneck with the unsharpened edge of the blade (either side works just as well). The neck of the bottle should come off in one clean swoop. The cork and wire cage go flying and the bubbly comes gushing out.
  5. All that remains to do now is pour and enjoy!