AIMS: To compare drinking habits and to examine differences between drinking cultures in different regions and countries in Europe; to examine gender differences in drinking habits and to compare them over countries. METHODS: Data consisted of independently conducted, centrally analysed surveys in the general population aged 20-64 years in 14 European countries. Central measures were abstention, frequency and volume of drinking overall and by beverage type, amounts drunk per drinking day, and heavy episodic drinking. RESULTS: There were clear gender differences in all drinking measures, except for wine drinking. Differences between genders were often smaller than average in northern Europe. Gender ratios did not show systematic changes by age, with the exception that young men and women differed less than older men and women in the frequency of heavy episodic drinking. The results on beverage preferences indicate that the distinction among wine/beer/spirits cultures have implicitly been based on male drinking. Our expectation was for more daily light drinking integrated in everyday life in the Mediterranean countries, more heavy episodic drinking associated with weekends and celebrations in the North, with the traditional beer countries somewhere in between. The differences observed were usually in the direction expected. However, no country represented an ideal type of drinking culture, i.e. drinking for 'mood-changing effects' only or for 'nutritional purposes' only; all countries were mixtures of these two extremes. CONCLUSIONS: There were clear and consistent gender differences in all countries, while the differences in drinking between countries and regions were not as obvious.