Oliver over at dramming.com has posted a very concise list of basic information about Scotch whisky. I was planning to do a post like this of my own, but since Oliver has done it so much better that I could have, I’ll simply defer to his expertise: 10 Essential Things About Scotch Whisky Everybody Should Know.
The only thing I would add for a beginner is to not be put off by the strong alcohol “burn” in your mouth. One of the first things you discover when enjoying good whisky (or any good sippable spirit) is that if you swallow it quickly (or “shoot” it), it will burn in your throat. Blech. If you hold it in your mouth and swish it around gently for 5-10 seconds, you will notice that the burn subsides and flavors emerge. When you swallow it, it won’t burn in your throat and you will be able to appreciate the flavors in the finish. Breathe in and out gently a few times. The more you taste whisky in this manner, the easier it becomes to ignore the alcohol “burn” – even when you begin tasting cask-strength whiskies which can be as high as 70% alcohol!
Finally, experiment! Try it with ice, and without. Try it without water, with a few drops of water, and with a big splash of water. Discover for yourself what happens when you add too much water. Drink it from a whisky tumbler, a snifter, a rocks glass, and a wine glass. Notice the difference in how the whisky smells from each. Get a Glencairn glass if you can and try that too. Taste every whisky and whiskey you can get your hands on, even the cheap stuff. That’s how you learn. Enjoy!