Alcohol intake may be one of the few modifiable risk factors for breast cancer. In a prospective cohort of 29,875 women with 423 cases of breast cancer during 1993-2000, we examined the relationship between postmenopausal breast cancer incidence rate and alcohol consumption in different life periods. When alcohol intake during four age ranges, twenties, thirties, forties and fifties was evaluated, only the intake in the fifties increased the risk of breast cancer [rate ratio (RR)=1.12 (95% CI: 1.05-1.19)] per 10 g/d increase in alcohol intake. After adjustment for intake at study entry, this association was no longer present [RR=1.01 (95% CI: 0.91-1.13)]. The cumulative lifetime alcohol intake, adjusted for recent intake, showed no association with postmenopausal breast cancer risk. Recent alcohol intake, adjusted for the alcohol intake in the other life time periods, showed a significant association of RR=1.09 (95% CI: 1.00-1.18) per 10 g/d. There was no indication of a higher risk among women with early drinking start, nor did women who started to drink before their first birth have a higher risk than women who started to drink later in life. Our results suggest that baseline intake of alcohol is a more important determinant of postmenopausal breast cancer risk than earlier lifetime exposure.