Fifty-six second-year family medicine residents completed a survey on their knowledge and beliefs about problem drinkers. Most residents felt responsible for screening and counseling, were confident in their clinical skills in these areas, and scored well on related knowledge questions. However, only 18% felt that problem drinkers would often respond to brief counseling sessions with physicians while 36% felt that moderate drinking was a reasonable goal for patients with severe alcohol dependence. Residents were then visited by unannounced simulated patients (SPs) presenting with alcohol-induced hypertension or insomnia. Residents detected the SP in 45 out of 104 visits. In the 59 undetected SP visits, residents asked about alcohol consumption in 47 visits (80%), discussed the relationship between alcohol use and the presenting complaint in 37 visits (63%), and recommended a specific weekly consumption in 35 visits (59%). Only 31% offered reduced drinking strategies, and most did not ask about features of alcohol dependence. These results suggest that residents have the fundamental clinical skills required to manage the problem drinker who gives a clear history and is receptive to advice. Educational efforts with residents should focus on the importance of systematic screening, taking an alcohol history under more challenging conditions, identifying the subtler presentations of alcohol problems, counselling the less receptive patient at an earlier stage of change, distinguishing the problem drinker from the alcohol-dependent patient, and offering specific behavioral strategies for the problem drinker.