Dan de Los Monteros

Chamomile Tequila Punch (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)

Under the ultralow lighting in The Bedford's subterranean bar sits a gleaming bowl, filled with ice and a pale, jade-colored liquid that promises a little respite from the steamy-hot, sun-bright and noisy nearby intersection at Ashland and Division.

My drinking companions and I are responsible for keeping each other's drinks refreshed, ladling booze-infused elixir into cups. It's almost ceremonial — and economical, as well. For three of us, a half bowl of tequila chamomile punch at $35 is enough for more than two drinks apiece.

The last time I drank from a punch bowl, I was sneaking cups from my grandmother's prized Waterford crystal at a Christmas Eve party. That sticky nectar, a concoction of rainbow sherbet and fizzy Champagne, was irresistible but almost certainly headache-inducing for partygoers.

Punch bowls have been appearing on drink menus over the past couple of years, and while a handful feature a bubbly wine of some sort, I've yet to encounter the brightly hued frozen dessert bobbing around. And not all bars offer bowls, instead allowing parties of two or solo drinkers to order it by the glass.

Andrew Shay, beverage director at Big Jones, credits a book on punches by James Beard-winning writer and historian David Wondrich for the rise in their popularity.

"It gave everyone access to a really compelling and really well-written history (of punch)," Shay says.

But the 2010 book, "Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl," was just the flash point. Historical scholarship on drinking has experienced a tremendous boom in the past 10 or so years.

"I actually think for the first time we really have all the cards before us," Shay says. "In the 18th century, they couldn't look at 17th-century recipes simply by ordering a book through Amazon or going to a couple hip blogs on cocktail history."

Big Jones offers single-serving glasses of punch pulled from two large containers with spigots at the end of the bar. One of its offerings is the Chatham Artillery Punch, named after a Georgia militia association and based on a fabled recipe from the American South.

That reverence for history is apparent on the menu at Ward Eight in Evanston, where classics like the Fish House Punch are listed with the year of origin, in this case circa 1886. The drink dates further than that, but co-owner Cody Modeer says he pulled the recipe from the late 19th-century Jerry Thomas "Bartender's Guide" and serves it with a variation: freshly grated nutmeg.

"My philosophy is that drinks should look pretty, smell good and taste good," Modeer says. The original recipe seemed to be missing an aromatic quality, he says. Modeer chose nutmeg because it's a traditional ingredient in punch.

Cocktail-focused Barrelhouse Flat offers a punch in homage to the roots of the mixed drink, creative director Greg Buttera says.

"You can kind of think of the cocktail as a punch for one," he says. The house punch, according to Buttera, is a "classically styled" mixture of dark rum, cognac, pineapple syrup, lemon, black tea and an assortment of spices. The concoction pays tribute to the five elements historians think designated the very early punches: a spirit, a sweetener, citrus, something weak such as water or tea and spices. It is believed that the word punch comes from the Hindi panch, meaning five.

But even the most studied bartenders are willing take liberties with old recipes and see modern bartending as an opportunity to explore traditional drink-making while using what's available now.

Keeping the drinks seasonal is a priority for Terzo Piano in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Chef de cuisine Megan Neubeck says she added punch to the cocktail menu about a year ago after tasting and falling for a Jamaican-style rum offered by Michigan distillery Journeyman.

"For me, rum equals punch," she says. Since then, Neubeck has been going with whatever inspires her, usually a seasonal fruit. Neubeck says she doesn't plan out the menu in advance. Instead it's, "These peaches are really good. They'd be great in a punch," she says.

The Bedford's head bartender, Dan De Los Monteros, says he's inspired by the sheer variety of flavors he can achieve infusing liquor with blends of tea from Rare Tea Cellar. The possibilities are more endless with teas, he says, because with fruits there are only about 20 or so ways you can go.

De Los Monteros says the punch bowls go over well at The Bedford. They're great for a large group, which the establishment caters to, and can keep a small party busy for about an hour. They're deceptively strong and pack a, well, punch.

"Most of the time you don't even taste the alcohol, even though there is a lot of alcohol in them. We usually hide the alcohol well underneath the fruit."

ctc-dining@tribune.com