Sulfoxides and amides were tested as inhibitors of liver alcohol dehydrogenase and ethanol metabolism in rats. With both series of compounds, increasing the hydrophobicity resulted in better inhibition, and introduction of polar groups reduced inhibition. Of the cyclic sulfoxides, tetramethylene sulfoxide was the best inhibitor as compared to the tri- and pentamethylene analogue and other compounds, and it may be a transition-state analogue. The most promising compounds, tetramethylene sulfoxide and isovaleramide, were essentially uncompetitive inhibitors of purified horse and rat liver alcohol dehydrogenases with respect to ethanol as substrate. These compounds also were uncompetitive inhibitors in vivo, which is advantageous since the inhibition is not overcome at higher concentrations of ethanol, as it is with competitive inhibitors, such as pyrazole. The uncompetitive inhibition constants for tetramethylene sulfoxide and isovaleramide for rat liver alcohol dehydrogenase were 200 and 20 microM, respectively, in vitro, whereas in vivo the values were 340 and 180 mumol/kg. The differences in the values may be due to metabolism or distribution of the compounds. Further studies will be required to determine if isovaleramide or tetramethylene sulfoxide is suitable for therapeutic purposes.