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Best hot chocolate
The wintertime delight gets an upscale makeover to satisfy more sophisticated tastes.
December 27, 2005: 10:12 AM EST
By Grace Wong, CNNMoney.com staff writer
Photo GallerylaunchSee more photos

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - After taking one sip of specialty chocolate maker MarieBelle's velvety Aztec Hot Chocolate, you know you're not drinking your mother's hot chocolate.

At the New York-based chocolate maker's Cacao Bar, demitasse portions of melted chocolate mixed with steaming milk are designed to be slowly sipped and savored.

As colder weather hits much of the country, several chocolate makers are serving upscale hot chocolates that celebrate the pure decadence of the wintertime delight. New flavors are also getting thrown into the mix as several chocolatiers give the drink a personal makeover.

Specialty chocolate maker Jacques Torres offers up a Wicked Hot Chocolate infused with allspice, cinnamon and a variety of ground chili peppers.

Katrina Markoff, a Chicago-based chocolatier and founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, prepares an exotic Bianca hot chocolate made of white chocolate shavings, Australian lemon myrtle and lavender flowers.

Also called drinking chocolates, these haute hot chocolates are made by mixing premium chocolate shavings or high-fat cocoas with steaming milk or water. They're generally richer and fuller in flavor than traditional cocoas.

"These aren't just cocoa powders thrown in a bag," said Markoff, who refers to her drinks as "couture cocoas." "These are designed personal experiences. Everything we make is an original design."

Gourmet drinks come at a premium price though. Chocolate lovers can expect to pay as much as $25 for a package making 8 servings.

Sweet business

Premium hot chocolate is less focused on sugar and more centered on chocolate. "The taste has more depth and more intensity. It starts in one place and ends up somewhere else," said Dana Zemack, a chocolate expert who also teaches a course on chocolate tasting.

One of her favorite hot chocolates is from New Hampshire-based L.A. Burdick's, which makes hot chocolate in dark, milk or white varieties. "It's unlike anything I've ever had in my entire life. It takes me to a different place altogether," she said.

Haute hot chocolate is just one segment of a luxury chocolate market that has boomed as tastes have become more discerning and consumers have become more educated about high-quality chocolate.

About 10 percent of the U.S. chocolate market is regarded as premium, and the gourmet market has been growing about 20 percent every year since 2001, according to Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com.

That booming market reflects the growing sophistication of the American palate, Zemack said. "Good food is glamorous and fashionable, and chocolate is jumping into that category," she said.

Fine drinking chocolate is really a taste for sophisticated palates, explained Michael Turback, a restaurateur and author of "Hot Chocolate," a book devoted to the classic drink.

"It's like if you're a Budweiser drinker and somebody all of a sudden gives you a bottle of Guinness stout," he said.

Turback recommends the chocolate from Holy Chocolate, which is made by an orthodox priest in California and comes in flavors ranging from Anise Spice to Amaretto.

Most premium hot chocolates are still hard to find in your everyday grocery store, but that may change as more players break into the gourmet market.

Earlier this year Hershey's extended its reach into the premium chocolate segment by acquiring two Bay Area-based artisanal chocolate companies, Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt.

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