OBJECTIVE: To quantify the effects of quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption on risk of acute myocardial infarction and coronary death. DESIGN: Case-control study. SETTING: Lower Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia, 1983-94. SUBJECTS: Men and women aged 35-69 years. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: Acute myocardial infarction or coronary death. RESULTS: Alcohol consumption patterns were compared between 11,511 cases of acute myocardial infarction or coronary death and 6077 controls randomly selected from the same study population. After adjusting for the effects of age, smoking, and medical history, men and women who consumed one or two drinks of alcohol on five or six days a week had a reduction in risk of a major coronary event compared with men and women who were non-drinkers (odds ratios: men 0.31 (95% confidence interval 0.22 to 0.45); women 0.33 (0.18 to 0.59)). A similar reduction in risk was found after excluding non-drinkers who were formerly moderate to heavy drinkers. An acute protective effect of alcohol consumption was also found for regular drinkers who consumed one or two drinks in the 24 hours preceding the onset of symptoms (odds ratios: men 0.74 (0.51 to 1.09); women 0.43 (0.20 to 0.95)). CONCLUSIONS: Frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption are important in assessing the risk of a major coronary event. Risk is lowest among men who report one to four drinks daily on five or six days a week and among women who report one or two drinks daily on five or six days a week.