A case-control study involving interviews with the next of kin or close friends of 120 black males who recently died of esophageal cancer and 250 similarly aged black males who died of other causes was undertaken to discover reasons for the exceptionally high mortality from this cancer in Washington, D.C. The age-adjusted annual death rate in Washington, D.C., for nonwhite males, 1970-75, was 28.6/100,000, far higher than the national rate of 12.4/100,000 and the rates in other metropolitan areas of the country. The major factor responsible for the excess was alcoholic beverage consumption, with an estimated 81% of the esophageal cancers attributed to its use; high use of alcoholic beverages was also found among the controls. The relative risk (RR) of esophageal cancer associated with use of alcoholic beverages was 6.4 (95% confidence interval=2.5, 16.4). The RR increased with amount of ethanol consumed and was highest among drinkers of hard liquor, although the risk was also elevated among consumers of wine and/or beer only. The RR associated with cigarette smoking was 1.9 (1.0, 3.5) when controls with smoking-related causes of death were excluded but declined to 1.5 (0.7, 3.0) when adjusted for ethanol consumption. Significant differences of approximately twofold were found between low and high levels of a) consumption of fresh or frozen meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products and eggs and b) relative weight (wt/ht2). The inverse trends with these general measures of nutritional status were not explained by alcoholic beverage consumption or socioeconomic status as measured by educational level.