Fact: Whistler is known for a lot of great things, but Champagne powder usually isn’t one of them.
But that’s okay – we get our Champagne fix in other ways.
Sabering a bottle of Champagne is practically a Whistler rite of passage. For some, the weapon of choice is a ski and the location is somewhere among the trees of Whistler Mountain. For those who are extra lucky – perhaps when Mom and Dad are in town and treating to dinner, or on a special birthday celebration – the event takes place at the legendary Bearfoot Bistro.
To say Andre Saint-Jacques, owner of the Bearfoot Bistro, is a Champagne enthusiast is an understatement. “I like the taste. I like the flavour. I like what it’s associated with: celebration and having a good time,” says Saint-Jacques. He offers a favourite quote by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “Burgundy makes you think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them, and Champagne makes you do them.” This has to be the unofficial drink of Whistler.
Saint-Jacques has been acquainted with the art of Champagne sabering for many years, having spent a long time in the hospitality industry. Since founding the restaurant 19 years ago, he has gone on to teach many people the art of sabering Champagne and the elegant story behind the tradition: as the story goes, Champagne sabering is a ritual that Napoleon and his men practiced the eve of a big battle. If the top of the bottle popped off neatly, it meant the battle would go well (and cheers to that!) On the other hand, if the bottle exploded, it’s bad news – so bottoms up, as this could be your last party.
Saint-Jacques assures me that just about every bottle at the Bearfoot falls into the former category, thanks to his vast experience. You see, he’s done this a time or two: for a period of time, he actually held the Guinness World Record for the most bottles of Champagne sabered in a minute (21, as it happens, though he claims he’s done as many as 24). He estimates that more than 10 groups a night partake in the tradition during Whistler’s busy season, providing plenty more chances to perfect the art.
Past saber-ers have included many locals, visitors, and a few recognizable names. Under Saint-Jacques tutelage, Cindy Crawford has sabered with success, as has Prince Albert of Monte Carlo. Perhaps the most memorable Champagne sabering experiences occurred during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. “A few weeks before the Olympics started, we approached all of the countries that were doing sports here in Whistler,” says Saint-Jacques. “Whoever won a gold medal, we invited to come saber a three litre – so a big, big bottle – of Champagne to share with all of their friends. Then, we bought the gold medalist and their partner dinner.” Surely not a bad way to celebrate a big win.
Some people are a little hesitant about wielding a fancy sharp-looking sword and slicing up a pressurized glass bottle, but as this author can attest, there is nothing daunting about the experience (let it be known that I did not spill a drop!) Ordering from the Bearfoot Bistro’s extensive menu of Champagne shouldn’t be an intimidating experience, either. “We have sommeliers on the floor, so they can really direct you on the different styles of Champagne. Some are more muscular and full-bodied; some are much lighter and crisp. There is a big variation,” explains Saint-Jacques. Sparkling wines – those bubblies that aren’t grown in France’s Champagne region – are another option. “There are good sparkling wines from all over the world. Obviously, being here in British Columbia, we like to promote local B.C. product, and we have lots of great B.C. sparkling wines,” he advises. There’s even an in-house option: the B2, a Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs 2008 vintage.
“I think that some people feel like Champagne has to be attached to a celebration,” muses Saint-Jacques. “It’s something that should be consumed all the time, and we certainly promote that here. We make sure that everybody drinks Champagne. It’s for before or after dinner.” Or, before or after (or during) a day on the mountain.
Here’s how to saber a bottle of Champagne, Whistler-style: first, chill the bottle, preferably in the freezer (try placing it in snow for a little while); next, peel of the foil and remove the cage – and keep that sucker pointed away from all eyeballs; now, find the seam in the bottle, keep your ski flush against the glass and slide it against the bottle up to the neck – it should pop right off, clean and smooth.
If that doesn’t work, ask Andre to give you a hand. After all, he can do this: