To study individual differences in nicotine preference and intake, male and female rats were given free access to a choice of oral nicotine (10 or 20 mg/L) or water for 24 h/day for periods of at least six weeks, starting at adolescence or adulthood. A total of 341 rats, were used in four different experiments; weight, nicotine intake and total liquid consumption were recorded weekly. Results show that rats can discriminate nicotine from water, can regulate their intake, and that there are readily detected individual differences in nicotine preference. Ward analyses indicated that the animals could be divided into minimum, median and maximum preferring subgroups in all experiments. The effect of saccharine on nicotine intake was also evaluated; although the addition of saccharine increased total intake, rats drank unsweetened nicotine solutions and those with higher preferences for nicotine, preferred nicotine over water with or without saccharine added. Nicotine reduced weight gain and the effect was more pronounced in females than males. The average nicotine consumption of adolescent rats was higher than adults and nicotine exposure during adolescence reduced nicotine intake in adult rats. About half of the rats which had access to nicotine as adolescents and also as adults had a persistent pattern of consumption; the behavior was very stable in the female minimum preferring groups and a much higher ratio of rats sustained their adolescent behavior as adults. The change in preference was more pronounced when there was an interval between adolescent and adult exposure; female rats showed a more stable behavior than males suggesting a greater role for environmental influences on males. In conclusion, marked individual differences were observed in oral nicotine intake as measured in a continuous access 2-bottle choice test. Age and sex of the subjects and previous exposure to nicotine are significant factors which affect preference in rats. (C) 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.