Alcoholism is a complex genetic trait; susceptibility is influenced by multiple genes of small effect. To pursue mechanistic studies, genetic animal models have been used. These models are partial, each addressing one or more of the contributing traits rather than the disease as a whole. Animal studies have modeled alcohol's rewarding effects, the development of tolerance, the pathological consequences to brain systems, and the dependence on alcohol inferred from the presence of withdrawal symptoms when the drug is removed. The classical genetic methods of inbred strain analysis and development and studies of selectively bred lines have been employed for more than 40 years. Recently, such studies have shown that a genetic tendency to experience severe withdrawal is associated with a tendency to avoid self-administration of alcohol. Also recently, attempts to identify the specific genes conferring risk or protection from alcohol's effects have been undertaken. These studies have used mapping techniques based on gene sequence polymorphisms, studies of gene expression differences, and the use of candidate gene targeting such as creation of null mutants. Studies reviewed here have mapped quantitative trait loci (QTL) for many genes affecting alcohol sensitivity, tolerance, reward, and withdrawal severity. The furthest progress in gene mapping has been made toward one withdrawal QTL on mouse chromosome 4. Using multiple congenic strains, the gene conferring increased withdrawal severity has been isolated to a region of less than 1 centiMorgan, containing fewer than 20 genes. A strong candidate gene, coding for a multiple PS095/DLG/Z0-1 (PDZ) binding domain zinc finger protein, cannot be excluded. Although many more such genes will be identified in the near future, their contribution to the mapped phenotype will be shown to be dependent on epistatic interactions with other risk genes, as well as genes in the animal's background. Progress in gene identification will also depend crucially on the precise description of the phenotypes being mapped so that their pleiotropic range of influence on the multi-behavioral phenotypic syndrome can be determined. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.