Taste Test: The Best Fancy Drinking Chocolate

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[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

In these cold, gloomy days of winter, we all need a little warmth. Something comforting and sweet to give us hope; but with a little hint of darkness, too, to remind us of our dire, snowy situation.

Okay, okay. Winter's not all that bad. But whether or not you're suffering from weather-induced despair, there's nothing a good, rich cup of drinking chocolate won't help. Yes, drinking chocolate—powdered hot cocoa's fancy-pants cousin, made from the finest beans and the richest ingredients, and meant to hit you hard, like a liquid-chocolate freight train.

We've covered a fair amount of drinking chocolate served in speciality chocolate stores (like The Chocolate Room in Park Slope and Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco), but sometimes all you want is the curl-up-on-the-couch-with-your-favorite-mug-and-a-great-book variety—without sacrificing quality.

The Contenders

We sought out hot chocolate drinks that were labeled specifically as drinking chocolate, hot cocoas from high-end chocolate brands, and most importantly, brands that could be purchased from all over the US. All told, we tried 14 types of drinking chocolate—some came in solid chocolate chip or flake form; others were more standard powdered chocolate drinks. When presented with flavor options—spicy Mayan, fluffy marshmallow—we opted for the straight-up "plain" drinking chocolate.

The Criteria

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[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

What's New On Serious Eats

Most of us have a few hot chocolate points of reference—the instant powdered stuff you mix with boiling water; a richer breed made with milk, and even hot chocolate sauce poured over ice cream or cake. The drinking chocolates we tasted are all meant to be mixed with milk and have a significantly higher chocolate-to-liquid ratio than your standard hot cocoa. They're also all packaged to allow for measuring and scooping, which means nary an individual packet or shriveled marshmallow in sight. They're not exactly the most budget-friendly—drinking chocolate is a special-occasion beverage that would make a wonderful gift for any chocolate-lover (including yourself). If you're looking for a more diverse selection, check out our favorite hot chocolate mixes by price range.

Our dedicated drinking chocolate tasters were served each sample blind and asked to rate all 14 contenders on a scale of 1 to 10; 1 being, "What is this foul, brown swill masquerading as chocolate?!" while 10 represented a cup that "would warm the darkest and dreariest of winter days like a ray of molten chocolate sunshine." We asked them to take note of the overall taste, chocolate-flavor intensity, and thickness of the mixture. We followed the specific preparation instructions for each drinking chocolate—usually, an exact number of tablespoons was specified, as was a specific amount of milk (we used 2% milk for all). If the amount of milk was not specified (as was the case for two or three chocolates), we used exactly one cup per suggested serving of mix.

Our Favorites

Our tasters were surprised by how different many of these drinking chocolates were...and how strongly they felt about them. There was some discrepancy between tasters who liked their drinking chocolate thick and textural—"chunky" and "chewy" were often used as positive descriptors—and those who preferred theirs "smooth "and "drinkable."

Still, there was a very clear favorite. Our favorite was praised for having the right amount of chocolate (not enough to be overwhelming, but not so little as to render the cup milky), and having an appropriate balance of bitter and sweet. Too much sweetness was a common pitfall (and in one instance too much cinnamon); bitterness wasn't generally an issue, but drinking chocolates that were too intense were often dismissed as only being good for one sip and no more. Then again, those would be perfect candidates for transforming into some seriously decadent soft serve...

Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate Cocoa Noir Drinking Chocolate

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[Photograph courtesy of Christopher Elbow Chocolates]

Christopher Elbow's Cocoa Noir drinking chocolate was the clear favorite. It's the Goldilocks of fancy hot chocolate—dark without being too dark, a rich medium-brown color, and just the right amount of sweetness. Significantly, it breached the divide between those who liked their drinking chocolate thick and chewy and those who preferred their smooth. "Not too sweet or bitter," wrote one taster; "Good viscosity and depth," wrote another. "LIKE IT!!" was the all-caps conclusion. Another summed it up with the statement, "Rich, complex, very solid all around." The medium viscosity, and the good balance between deep chocolate flavor and sweetness, set the Christopher Elbow apart—interestingly, the cocoa noir is made with dark chocolate and vanilla beans. The vanilla is very, very subtle, but adds roundness and dimension to the overall flavor.

Find Christopher Elbow products in retail stores nationwide or order online*.
*At the time of publication, the Cocoa Noir is currently out of stock on the online store.

Lake Champlain Chocolates Old World Drinking Chocolate

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[Photograph courtesy of Lake Champlain Chocolates]

Lake Champlain's Old World Drinking Chocolate is somewhat less chocolatey than our other picks, but this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "I would drink many sips of this," wrote one taster. "Lightly chocolatey, earthy, and delicious. It has a good milkiness, light mouthfeel, and it's really drinkable," wrote another. This is a great option for those who like their chocolate somewhere between milk and dark—their chocolate is semisweet, and strikes a similar balance to the Christopher Elbow (without the added vanilla dimension).

Fans of smoother, creamier drinking chocolates will love Lake Champlain, which has the added bonus of coming in chocolate chip form, so you can easily snack on the chocolate straight if you don't feel like heating up milk to get a fix (or even bake it into cookies or brownies). Overall, our tasters enjoyed this one, but "chewy" drinking chocolate lovers found the lack of intensity to be a negative. "More like hot cocoa than drinking chocolate," was one conclusion.

Find Lake Champlain drinking chocolate in retail stores nationwide or order it online.

L.A. Burdick Dark Drinking Chocolate

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[Photograph courtesy of L.A. Burdick]

L.A. Burdick may be known for their signature chocolate mice, but the Dark Burdick Blend drinking chocolate is no less occasion-worthy. Our tasters applauded its deep, dark, decidedly bittersweet flavor—a definite win for those who balk at sweet chocolate in any form. "Sort of floral and citrusy," wrote one taster, highlighting the kind of complex flavor profile found in the best, straight-from-the-bean dark chocolate.

That said, the lack of sweetness isn't for everyone. Some tasters found the bitterness to be a little too much. Perhaps because of the intensity of flavor, the L.A. Burdick is definitely on the thinner end—it's not as thick as the Elbow, nor as creamy as the Lake Champlain. Yet there's no doubt that it's the perfect drinking chocolate for hardcore chocolate purists—it's presented in shaved chocolate form, which has a 69-72% cocoa content (it comes with a cute little whisk for mixing in your milk, too). If you dig the dark but balk at bitter, L.A. Burdick also includes a recipe for dark chocolate sauce, in which the shaved chocolate is mixed with milk, sugar, and butter. We imagine that would be quite delicious for drinking, too, if you were so inclined.

Find L.A. Burdick drinking chocolate in retail stores or order it online.