The term eggnog is subject to some discussion. It may have been derived from “egg and grog,” as some suggest. Or it may have been named after the wooden carved mug commonly used in taverns in Europe and in the United States called a noggin. This would imply that the origin may have been a drunken slurring together of “an egg and grog in a noggin.” More likely, the earliest eggnog was made with very strong English ale called nog. And eggnog was just that: egg in nog.
After 1650 the colonists had inexpensive Caribbean rum, and by 1657 a Boston distillery was set up that imported molasses and cane sugar and made rum. Within a year, it was highly successful and became a prosperous New England business. The colonists already had readily available farmland, grazing milk-able cows, chickens, and cheap local alcohol (very inexpensive compared to the heavily taxed European Cognac and brandies). And those colonists were boozers. They believed that alcohol could cure the sick, make the weak strong, pep up the aged, warm you up, aid digestion, increase strength, revitalize libido, and provide motivation. They were certain that it was safer than water. (This may have been true, given the number of water-borne illnesses and lack of adequate sanitation. Cholera was common in the springtime.) By 1770 there were more than 140 rum distilleries making 4.8 million gallons per year, and 3.78 million more gallons of rum were imported each year.
George Washington (of the one dollar bill) was a distiller. After his presidency, he built a whiskey distillery in Mount Vernon. In 1797 his distillery made 600 gallons, in 1798 it produced 4,500 gallons, and by 1799 it was up to 11,000 gallons. When he died, in 1799, he was one of the largest distillers of whiskey in the United States. (It shouldn’t be a surprise that George Washington devised a potent recipe for eggnog that included ridiculous amounts of rye whiskey, rum, and sherry, in keeping with the excessive drinking customs of the time.)
In 1790 the United States government calculated that the annual per-capita ingestion of alcohol for each man, woman, and child over 15 years old was 34 gallons of beer and cider, 5 gallons of distilled spirits, and 1 gallon of wine—nearly five times the current consumption. Back then alcohol (rum and whiskey) was legal tender that could be used like money. People were paid salaries in booze and paid their taxes and bought items by trading and bartering with it.
Eggnog was popular as a winter drink of the upper class. Since chickens didn’t lay eggs in the dead of winter, the eggs were most likely preserved through one of the many techniques of the time. Stored eggs were a commodity in winter (in spring, when the chickens were laying again, the prices dropped considerably). A Christmas or New Year’s holiday celebration wouldn’t have been complete without an eggnog toddy for toasting health and happiness, and of course, wealth. In the American South, the preferred eggnog alcohols were bourbon or rye. In the North, rum was the more common additive. Nearly any alcohol works well, which accounts for the abundance of recipes.