Alcohol dependence, and the medical conditions which arise from prolonged excessive alcohol use, have no single cause. Like other complex diseases, they result from a combination of social, personal and genetic contributions; but within any society genetic variation has a substantial influence on individual risk. The genes presently known to affect alcohol dependence produce variation in alcohol metabolism; other genes which affect personality or susceptibility to intoxication are likely to be significant but so far reproducible evidence is scanty. Designs which include related subjects have advantages for the study of complex diseases, because any association effects can be placed in the context of overall heritability and because linkage analysis can also be included. Examples of our studies of alcohol metabolism, consumption and dependence are presented.