In Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” the following recipe appears – A Savory veal pie: TAKE a breast of veal, cut it into pieces, season it with pepper and salt, lay it all into your crust, boil six or eight eggs hard, take only the yolks, put them into the pie here and there, fill your dish almost full of water, put on the lid, and bake it well.
The recipe appears fairly simple and straight-forward, but it is also devoid of enough information to allow somebody who has never made it before really understand how to do it right. How large of a breast of veal is it? What sort of “crust” is supposed to be used? Are the egg yolks supposed to be left whole, or broken up? By “lid” do they mean a physical lid or a lid made of crust? What temperature to bake it at, and for how long?
Many cocktail recipes are even less descriptive then Hannah’s recipe above. If we take the Old Fashioned for example, one of the earliest published recipes (not counting earlier recipes simply referred to as “Whiskey Cocktail”) for it is from “Modern American Drinks” (1895) by George J. Kappeler – The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail:
Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.
Drink recipes by their very nature are of course are far simpler than cooking recipes, but we are still faced with many unknowns here. For example, how large is a “small lump of sugar”? How much water is “a little”? What type of whiskey is expected to be used?
When a recipe leaves out important details, it requires the reader to fill in the gaps to the best of their ability, often without having any idea what so ever what the actual thing they are trying to make should taste like when done properly. This means that whatever they end up with, they will consider as “the way it should taste.” And then they teach this to another bartender, who teaches it to another bartender, who… you get the picture.
Perhaps more than any other cocktail, the Old Fashioned is the one to suffer the most from bad interpretations of a good, but poorly written recipe, as well as just plain bad recipes (typically based on a bad interpretation of a good, but poorly written recipe).
Here is where a solid understanding of a recipe, and more importantly the foundation that it is built upon, can aid the reader in better understanding how to make it properly. That, plus more details is part of what it takes to make a good recipe.
Of course you also can run into the problem of recipes that are just plain bad from the start regardless of how they are made.