Young male and female Sprague-Dawley rats (30 days old) were assigned randomly to three treatment groups: (1) alcohol treatment--received beer with 5% ethanol added, food, and water ad libitum; (2) pair-fed treatment--received nonalcoholic beer plus sucrose and food to match intake by the alcohol-treated animals; and (3) control treatment--received food and water ad libitum. Animals were tested for alcohol preference for 24 hr and then received their assigned treatments for a period of 30 days, followed by a period of abstinence before alcohol preference testing again at 74 days of age. Males given free access to beer and water did not drink large quantities of beer. Females given free access to beer and water drank a lot of beer on the first day, but decreased intake until approximately 52 days of age. A developmental change in young female rats at approximately 52 days of age resulted in increased voluntary ethanol intake, possibly caused by hormonal changes associated with the establishment of estrous cycles. When the animals were tested for alcohol preference at 74 days of age after a period of abstinence, males and females in the pair-fed group had greater alcohol preference than animals in the other groups. Females in the pair-fed group had greater alcohol intake based on body weight than males in the pair-fed group and males and females in all other groups. These results provide insight into sex differences in the development of voluntary drinking behavior and responses of drinking behavior to the early stress of pair-feeding.