Acute alcohol challenge studies in rodents and naturalistic observations in drinking alcoholics suggest that alcohol stimulates the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) system. The literature on respective studies in healthy volunteers is more inconsistent, suggesting differential alcohol effects depending on dosage, recent drinking history, family history of alcoholism and alcohol-induced side effects. These papers and the putative pharmacologic mechanisms underlying alcohol effects on the HPA system are reviewed here and compared with a new study, in which we investigated how secretion of adrenocorticotrophin (ACTH) and cortisol is affected by ingestion of 0.6 g/kg ethanol in 33 young healthy socially drinking males with a paternal history of alcoholism (PHP) versus 30 family history negative (FHN) males. Alcohol and placebo were administered in a 2-day, double-blind, placebo controlled crossover design with randomized administration sequence. After administration of placebo, ACTH and cortisol decreased steadily over 130 minutes. In FHN subjects, secretion of both hormones was even more attenuated after alcohol, resulting in significantly lower levels compared with placebo. In PHP subjects, no alcohol effect on hormone secretion could be detected. The ratio of cortisol to ACTH secretion, each expressed as area under the secretion curve, was significantly increased by alcohol in FHN and PHP participants. These results argue against HPA stimulation being a mechanism that promotes the transition from moderate to dependent drinking. The fact that alcohol-induced HPA suppression was not detected in PHP males is consistent with the general concept that subjects at high risk for alcoholism exhibit less-pronounced alcohol effects.