SOMEWHERE in the evolutionary leapfrog that saw cupboard workhorses like Lipton tea and Folgers coffee make the jump in stature to spiced chai and double caramel macchiatos, hot chocolate got left behind. Sure, those stalwart, just-add-water powders like Nestlé and Swiss Miss may have made way for pricier, just-add-milk versions churned out by companies like Ghirardelli. But even these so-called "gourmet" mixtures represent a rather timid step toward the highly evolved versions served of late by local chocolatiers and savvy baristas. The first sip of one of their indelibly rich and pure "drinking chocolates" is the gastronomic equivalent of stumbling across the missing link.

Made from real, unadulterated solid chocolate and not "hot cocoa" (which comes from the powder that remains after the richest part of chocolate, the cocoa butter, has been removed), a drinking chocolate is a slightly sweet, decadently thick brew of melted dark chocolate chips, shavings or pastilles, which are then combined with a tiny amount of milk or cream.

Other flavors can be added as well. At Cacao, a high-end, downtown chocolate retailer, one of its three varieties of drinking chocolate comes spiked with cinnamon, and those offered at Coffeehouse Northwest are lightly dusted with sea salt. Elizabeth Montes, the owner of Sahagún chocolate shop, prefers hers unadorned, allowing the chocolate to speak for itself.

"It’s fun to watch the delight on my customers’ faces as they discover it," says Montes, who, like most retailers selling the drink in town, uses different chocolates depending on her mood—but prefers dark chocolate with no less than 60 percent cocoa butter. "It’s so different from the kind most of us had growing up."

No matter where you find your drinking chocolate, however, let there be no doubt: These decadent, thick, toothsome elixirs are the real thing—no dehydrated marshmallows needed.