What individual differences in neural activity predict the future escalation of alcohol drinking from casual to compulsive? The neurobiological mechanisms that gate the transition from moderate to compulsive drinking remain poorly understood. We longitudinally tracked the development of compulsive drinking across a binge-drinking experience in male mice. Binge drinking unmasked individual differences, revealing latent traits in alcohol consumption and compulsive drinking despite equal prior exposure to alcohol. Distinct neural activity signatures of cortical neurons projecting to the brainstem before binge drinking predicted the ultimate emergence of compulsivity. Mimicry of activity patterns that predicted drinking phenotypes was sufficient to bidirectionally modulate drinking. Our results provide a mechanistic explanation for individual variance in vulnerability to compulsive alcohol drinking.