The effect of ethanol (ETOH) on muscle metabolism was assessed in both normal (NC) and noninsulin-dependent (NIDDM) subjects in the basal state and during isoglycemic hyperinsulinemia (450 pmol/L) clamp studies carried out either with systemic (NC, n = 5; NIDDM, n = 5) or intrabrachially (NC, n = 5; NIDDM, n = 5)ETOH infusion. On a repeat study, each subject underwent the same experimental procedures, except that saline was infused instead of ETOH. Systemic ETOH significantly decreased whole body glucose disposal in both NC and NIDDM patients. In NC, ETOH infusion decreased basal forearm glucose uptake (FGU) from 1.22 +/- 0.20 to 0.32 +/- 0.04 mumol/min.100 mL tissue (P < 0.01), whereas in NIDDM, this decrement was not significant (from 0.95 +/- 0.31 to 0.66 +/- 0.23). With saline infusion, hyperinsulinemia significantly stimulated FGU to 4.09 +/- 0.46 mumol/min.100 mL tissue in NC and to 2.50 +/- 0.76 in NIDDM. During ETOH, FGU was depressed by 81% in NC (delta = 3.32 mumol/min.100 mL tissue) and by 48% (P < 0.05) in NIDDM (delta = 1.21 mumol/min.100 mL tissue). Local ETOH infusion did not affect FGU in either NC (1.18 +/- 0.23 vs. 1.1 +/= 0.11 mumol/min.100 mL tissue in the baseline condition and 4.12 +/- 0.65 vs. 3.97 +/- 0.35 in insulin-stimulated conditions) or NIDDM (1.05 +/- 0.29 vs. 1.1 +/- 0.19 mumol/min.100 mL tissue in baseline condition and 2.72 +/- 0.82 vs. 2.83 +/- 0.51 in insulin-stimulated conditions) subjects. With systemic ETOH, but not local infusion, there was a reduction in baseline plasma free fatty acid level and an increase in blood lactate concentration during isoglycemic hyperinsulinemia. In summary, systemic ETOH infusion impairs both whole body and forearm glucose uptake in NC and NIDDM subjects; this effect was more apparent in NC than in NIDDM at both the whole body and forearm level. On the contrary, intrabrachial ETOH infusion did not affect forearm glucose balance in either group. These results suggest that the reduction in muscle glucose disposal associated with increased systemic ETOH concentrations is not caused by a direct ETOH effect on muscle glucose metabolism.