BACKGROUND: This study examined alcohol use patterns among men and women with depression seeking outpatient psychiatric treatment, including factors associated with recent heavy episodic drinking and motivation to reduce alcohol consumption. METHODS: The sample consisted of 1,183 patients aged 18 and over who completed a self-administered, computerized intake questionnaire and who scored >/= 10 on the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II). Additional measures included current and past alcohol questions based on the Addiction Severity Index, heavy episodic drinking (>/= 5 drinks on 1 or more occasions in the past year), alcohol-related problems on the Short Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (SMAST), and motivation to reduce drinking using the Stages of Change Readiness and Treatment Eagerness Scale (SOCRATES). RESULTS: Among those who consumed any alcohol in the past year (73.9% of the sample), heavy episodic drinking in the past year was reported by 47.5% of men and 32.5% of women. In logistic regression, prior-year heavy episodic drinking was associated with younger age (p = 0.011), male gender (p = 0.001), and cigarette smoking (p = 0.002). Among patients reporting heavy episodic drinking, motivation to reduce alcohol consumption was associated with older age (p = 0.008), greater usual quantity of alcohol consumed (p < 0.001), and higher SMAST score (p < 0.001). CONCLUSIONS: In contrast to prior clinical studies, we examined subdiagnostic alcohol use and related problems among psychiatric outpatients with depression. Patients reporting greater drinking quantities and alcohol-related problems also express more motivation to reduce drinking, providing intervention opportunities for mental health providers that should not be overlooked.