The relation of lifetime alcohol intake to risk of breast cancer in pre- and postmenopausal women was examined in a case-control study in western New York. Cases with incident primary histologically confirmed breast cancer diagnosed during the period 1986-1991 (n = 740) and controls, frequency age-matched women drawn from New York state driver's license records (age < 65 yrs) and from records of the Health Care Finance Administration (age > or = 65 yrs, n = 810), were interviewed regarding intake of wine, beer, and hard liquor 2, 10, and 20 years ago and at 16 years of age. Although women in this study had generally low intakes of alcohol, there was little evidence of increased risk of breast cancer with intake of alcohol at any of the time periods or with an index of total lifetime intake. There was a weak indication of an increase in risk with beer for intakes of at least one drink per day. This risk was evident for 2, 10, and 20 years ago but not at 16 years of age. In this group with relatively low intakes of alcohol, evidence was weak for an association of increased risk of breast cancer with intake of alcohol, with the possible exception of a weak association with beer intake.