The AA (alko, alcohol) and ANA (alko, non-alcohol) rat lines were among the earliest rodent lines produced by bidirectional selection for ethanol preference. The purpose of this review is to highlight the strategies for understanding the neurobiological factors underlying differential alcohol-drinking behavior in these lines. Most early work evaluated functioning of the major neurotransmitter systems implicated in drug reward in the lines. No consistent line differences were found in the dopaminergic system either under baseline conditions or after ethanol challenges. However, increased opioidergic tone in the ventral striatum and a deficiency in endocannabinoid signaling in the prefrontal cortex of AA rats may comprise mechanisms leading to increased ethanol consumption. Because complex behaviors, such as ethanol drinking, are not likely to be controlled by single factors, system-oriented molecular-profiling strategies have been used recently. Microarray based expression analysis of AA and ANA brains and novel data-mining strategies provide a system biological view that allows us to formulate a hypothesis on the mechanism underlying selection for ethanol preference. Two main factors appear active in the selection: a recruitment of signal transduction networks, including mitogen-activated protein kinases and calcium pathways and involving transcription factors such as Creb, Myc and Max, to mediate ethanol reinforcement and plasticity. The second factor acts on the mitochondrion and most likely provides metabolic flexibility for alternative substrate utilization in the presence of low amounts of ethanol.