A word or warning before you splash out on lots of fancy cocktail spirits: once opened, they'll soon deteriorate

After selecting a couple of tasty bottles recently at Cheers Liquor Store in Scarsdale, New York, I found myself standing behind a young, lean, healthy-living-looking type. But boy oh boy, what a haul of hooch he had! A couple of cases of wine. Any number of fruity or sweetish concoctions, such as Baileys and various Kuyper liqueurs. Numerous bottles of different brands of vodka, including the dubious Stolichnaya Vanil, and a few other spirits. And in boxes already packed, other bottles on whose labels I couldn't snoop. Total bill: $512 (around £250) plus change.

After selecting a couple of tasty bottles recently at Cheers Liquor Store in Scarsdale, New York, I found myself standing behind a young, lean, healthy-living-looking type. But boy oh boy, what a haul of hooch he had! A couple of cases of wine. Any number of fruity or sweetish concoctions, such as Baileys and various Kuyper liqueurs. Numerous bottles of different brands of vodka, including the dubious Stolichnaya Vanil, and a few other spirits. And in boxes already packed, other bottles on whose labels I couldn't snoop. Total bill: $512 (around £250) plus change.

That's a lot of money, and when it got to my turn in the queue I remarked on that fact to the proprietor of the store. "He's throwing a Martini party," replied my beaming pal. "He's got a whole bunch of different vodkas, and he's going to let his guests experiment with making their own. But it's also a dinner party so that's why he has all the wine." A huge dinner party, to be more precise. The enterprising host had enough ethanol to hospitalise the Labour backbenches. I wished him well as he accompanied his cases out the door.

But I also wished he had asked my advice about his party plans, because he was making some mistakes. Pedantic reservation: some of the ingredients he was using were not the stuff of which Martinis are made. All those fruity liqueurs constitute Martini-material only in the minds of marketing men; and besides, if he really wanted to get serious about the world's greatest cocktail, he would have bought less vodka in favour of more gin, rather than a single token bottle.

More serious reservation: when you invite novice cocktailers to dinner, you shouldn't let them mix their own drinks. Cocktail bartenders do not need the intellectual powers of Doris Lessing to perform their tasks, but they do need a mastery of certain fundamentals and a helluvalot of experience. Ethical reservation: is it acceptable to invite people over to dinner and then ask them to make their own drinks? I'm the old-fashioned type who thinks that the guest's only job while under my roof is to have a good time.

But my biggest reservation was the Babel of bottles that the party-thrower had enlisted to his cause. There were just too many of them, an instant home-bar created at the snap of a credit card, and I just know that many of the bottles were not going to see much active service after the big bash. Which means that they are going to go to waste. It's widely known that wine loses its character if left in a half-drunk bottle for more than a couple of days. Well, stronger drink does the same thing. Oxygen can do a lot of damage in a surprisingly short time. I've heard this from industry sources, and have tested it myself with gin and Scotch. If you leave a bottle of spirits - liqueurs are even more fragile - in its partially drunk state for just six weeks or so, you will notice some loss of aromatic qualities and a blunting of the flavours. Those bottles I saw being purchased are sure to meet that fate - unless the party was such a success that everyone finished everything, that is.

This is one reason I'm wary of even good cocktail manuals, such as last year's Shaken and Stirred by Douglas Ankrah (Kyle Cathie, £14.99). If they lead you to buy lots of bottles you almost never use, you are wasting a lot of money. If you're planning on serving cocktails at home, you're much better off restricting yourself to a small, simple list. You want Martinis? Buy a bottle of gin and/or vodka, a bottle of vermouth, and a lemon. A superfluity of extras will get you nothing except a crowded drinks cabinet. As my friend in New York will have discovered by now.

Top Corks: Three muscular reds

Feudo di Santa Teresa 2001, Nivuro, Sicily (£8.99, Oddbins) Untraditional blend of local and interloper varietals. Spice, fat plummy fruit, generously but judiciously oaked.

Tenute al Sole Salento Negroamaro 2001 (£39.84 for six bottles, www.sainsburyswine.co.uk) Plummy, berry-ish fruit from Puglia, with kind tannins and a sensible level of alcohol.

Château Cesseras Minervois La Livinière 2001 (£7.95, Lay & Wheeler, 01206 764 446) Rich example of this outstanding sub-appellation. Spicy berry fruit, faint hint of dried fruits. Lush.

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