When it comes to achieving maximum cocktail-drinking pleasure, there are some rules that are always worth following

A couple of recent sojourns in Lab, one of my favourite London bars, have opened my eyes to a clutch of cocktail verities. One is that you can sometimes improve on a classic, even if it is already perfect in its own right. Another is that some drinks are best left to a good cocktail bartender, and not worth assailing at home. The third is that when you're planning an evening's bar-hopping, it can pay to bring a pair of earplugs. Herewith, an explanation of all three points - in reverse order.

A couple of recent sojourns in Lab, one of my favourite London bars, have opened my eyes to a clutch of cocktail verities. One is that you can sometimes improve on a classic, even if it is already perfect in its own right. Another is that some drinks are best left to a good cocktail bartender, and not worth assailing at home. The third is that when you're planning an evening's bar-hopping, it can pay to bring a pair of earplugs. Herewith, an explanation of all three points - in reverse order.

Like thousands of other bar-goers, I always wonder why it's considered imperative to turn up the volume to Heathrow levels in a place that's already noisy from the assembled gang. At too many bars that would otherwise be first-rate in every way, such as Lab, the din is simply deafening. And I don't say this because I'm a wrinkled grump: younger friends say exactly the same thing. If they want to dance, they want music. If they want to talk, they don't want to do so by shouting. So why do the bars think their customers want to shout? They don't, according to Tai Altman of the consulting firm IP Bartenders. He says that it isn't done necessarily for the customers but for the bartenders. "The music keeps them pumped up, keeps them going."

On the subject of cocktails that the home bar won't accommodate: it's an old verity, but rarely truer than when you're dealing with a Zombie the way they make them at Lab. It took Tim, my bartender of the evening, around five minutes to make a couple of these tall concoctions of different rums, various fruit juices and an elaborate fruit garnish finally topped with a sugar cube which he doused with super-strong Bacardi 151 and deftly ignited with a lighter. Great drink, but don't even think about trying it at home, kids.

If you want something much easier, consider a simple fruit punch that I prescribed for some young students who had just finished their exams. Take a 20cl bottle of Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum, a drink so powerful (60 per cent ABV) it can be used for a scalpel-less lobotomy if you're not careful. Mix with 500ml of pineapple juice, 250ml of orange juice, 50ml of simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar), and the juice of one lemon. Lots of ice, orange slices to garnish, easy-peasy. Or, even easier-peasier: the Wonderbra, invented by cocktail maestro Dale DeGroff for the US bra company of that name and published in The Craft of the Cocktail (Proof Publishing, £25): shake 40ml of gin, 20ml of Cointreau (an underrated drink) and 25ml of pineapple juice with plenty of ice. Strain into a chilled Martini glass.

Third: an old classic with a brilliant new twist. There's a bartender at Lab named Gregor de Gruyther, who is something of a cocktail genius, and he told me something I'd never known about before. If you go into a good bar and ask for a "bartender's breakfast", you will be asked: "kill or cure?" The cure is something virtuous and palliative. The kill is a Bloody Mary made with fresh fruit. His method: quarter two plum tomatoes and a fresh jalapeño pepper, and put them in a shaker with two slices each of orange and lemon, and a handful of basil. Mash them up a bit. Add salt and pepper, two shots of vodka, a splash of orange juice, and lots and lots of ice. Shake till your arms ache. Strain into a tall glass over fresh ice. "It's got an edge," notes Gregor.

That's the understatement of the year. This Fresh Bloody Mary will set your heart and palate racing. Especially if you drink it for breakfast.

Lab, 12 Old Compton Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 7820

Top Corks: An intriguing Italian trio

Tenute al Sole Negroamaro Cantine Due Palme 2001 Salento (£4.49, Booths) Classic example of one of Puglia's finest wine styles; lovely flavours of tart cherries and bright acidity.

La Prendina Estate Rosé 2004 (£5.99, M&S) With 90 per cent Rondinella and 10 per cent Pinot Grigio. Spicy raspberry and strawberry flavours with good depth; good with barbecued chicken.

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico 2002 (£6.99 from £9.99 till July 5, Tesco) A bargain: red-blooded Chianti from a top estate. Difficult vintage handled with care. Buy a case.

Comments