Hot chocolate is a drink made of milk, chocolate or cocoa powder, and sugar. Some time it is also called hot cocoa or drinking chocolate. Although the drink can be named either way, "hot cocoa" is commonly a name for a drink made using cocoa beans or cocoa powder, while "hot chocolate" refers more to a drink made using actual chocolate bar chopped to small pieces and mixed with hot milk and sugar.
Cacao beans were first used by Olmecs, a Native American people who lived in Mesoamerica during the period between 1500 and 400 BC. The first drink made from cacao beans was originated in Central America by the Maya civilization in the Chontalpa region (currently the region of Tabasco, Mexico). It was called "xocolatl" ("xococ", bitter + "atl", water), where the "x" is an archaic Spanish phoneme pronounced similar to the modern English "sh".
Hernán Cortés was the man who introduced the chocolate drink to the European people. He had first tried it in 1517 at the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma's palace. Chocolate was consumed cold then; it was the favorite drink of the Emperor and was considered to be an aphrodisiac. In 1528 Cortés returned to Spain and introduced the drink to the Royal court. Hot chocolate soon became a very fashionable and popular drink among Spanish aristocrats, but it took almost a century for it to become popular in the rest of Europe since Spanish kept the recipe in secret giving it away only as a dowry when members of the Spanish Royal Family married other European aristocrats.
Originally drinking chocolate was a very spicy cold mixture of water, cocoa beans and various spices such as cayenne pepper, vanilla and pimento. Later cloves and cinnamon were used as well. It was drunk from big bowls so the drinker could take in all of its aromas. In Europe most spices were substituted with cane sugar and the drink was consumed hot. In England milk was added and the beverage became an after dinner treat. By the early 18th century so-called "Chocolate Houses" were almost as popular as coffee houses. Nevertheless, when the first "chocolate house" opened in London in 1657, hot chocolate was considered a drink for elite due to its extremely high price.
Nowadays hot chocolate is popular throughout the world. However, its styles are still quite different. For example in Italy or Spain it is a very thick beverage usually prepared straight from chocolate bars, while in America hot chocolate is often prepared instant with hot water or milk and a powder mixture containing cocoa, sugar, and dry milk. The drink comes out much thinner and usually topped with marshmallows.