Activation of G protein-gated inwardly rectifying potassium (GIRK) channels leads to a hyperpolarization of the neuron's membrane potential, providing an important component of inhibition in the brain. In addition to the canonical G protein-activation pathway, GIRK channels are activated by small molecules but less is known about the underlying gating mechanisms. One drawback to previous studies has been the inability to control intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Here we used a reconstitution strategy with highly purified mammalian GIRK2 channels incorporated into liposomes and demonstrate that cholesterol or intoxicating concentrations of ethanol, i.e., >20 mM, each activate GIRK2 channels directly, in the absence of G proteins. Notably, both activators require the membrane phospholipid PIP2 but appear to interact independently with different regions of the channel. Elucidating the mechanisms underlying G protein-independent pathways of activating GIRK channels provides a unique strategy for developing new types of neuronal excitability modulators.