A few incense notes

It has been a really long time since I posted anything, so I figured I’d drop in and say hello. Life has kinda moved me away from blogging and writing in the past year or two and although I’ve had some sample review inquiries, not much has shown up and with a few exceptions I haven’t had a chance to try a lot of new things, but I figured I’d do a ramble and see what I remember.

First of all, it’s difficult to write about good incenses at all without mentioning Mermade Magickal Arts. Among Katlyn Breene’s many talents, one in particular always stands out to me and that’s the way she can bring evergreens and forest scents out in her incenses, absolutely nobody does it better. As someone whose very first incense experiences as a teenager were pine incense sticks from Cost Plus incense, the scent of woods and fresh evergreen resins are always a huge draw for me, so to sample Mermade’s incense pastilles, especially right around the holidays, was a real treat.

These pastilles look like the little candies they were named after and it seems to me that all three have a wonderfully foresty and frankincense-heavy base that is slightly modified by the title scent. With the Labdanum Incense Pastilles, there are three frankincenses in the mix and a touch of benzoin to go along with the labdanum scent. Just like if you were to open a little tin of citrus pastille candies, the smell from these pastilles is full of the gorgeous lemon and orange hints you get from great frankincense, at time’s the scent is as strong as fruit juice. The Spruce Incense Pastilles are a similar scent but the effects here are less like candy or fruit juice, with the spruce moving the whole thing to a less sweeter place. I would have guessed that this would have been strongly evergreen but in the end it’s really a note, it drifts to being a bit more earthy as it melts on a heater. The Sweet Myrrh Incense Pastilles seem to have a stronger presence with the “title” note and is the most complex of the three. The myrrh, as it always does, balances and modifies the frankincense scents that also moves it away from the citrus notes. Myrrh has always struck me as being a bit “thicker” than frankincense and thus it works to excellent contrast here. As always with Mermade’s work there is a real clarity to the scents and subscents that portray years of experience in creating fine incense and it just always seems that new offerings from Mermade get better and better. I also tried a sample of Mermade’s Majoun Encens which just makes my ability to keep describing these new fantastic blends more and more difficult – I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like it on the market, a bewildering mix of a base kyphi incense with all sorts of new and mysterious ingredients that just pop with energy, like a mix of spices, cola, various food hints and something just a bit more subversive. It’s an absolute essential purchase in my opinion. And of course if you haven’t checked out Mermade’s heaters yet, you simply must.

I’ve revisited some Shroff incenses of late and I’ve found that the initial semi-dry masala series that came in the yellow boxes has slightly changed. I’ve heard reports of big changes with Jungle Prince. Pearl is definitely a lot coarser and less subtle than it used to be while essentially pitching the same aroma, and Little Woods has changed but fortunately is still excellent. However, the group that came with Sugandha Mantri seems to be holding strong, in fact this group is still one of my favorites. With Dhuni gone, many Shroff incenses are about the best on the market right now.

I tried several of the Nandita scents. These incenses are all essentially perfume based, but they’re all blends that don’t go instantly reminding you of other incenses. Mantra Meditation, Wood Spice, Dehn Al Oudh, and Royal Attar all show up as decent variations on a given thing, but many of these aren’t easy to describe due to the fairly complex oils at work. They’re all extremely affordable but I’d be hesitant to pick one or two of these as a favorite as they’re all pretty close.

Anyway that’s about it. Feel free to use the comments section and let us know what your current favorites are!

Sarathi Perfumery Works / Sri Govinda / Gopala, Keshava, Krishna, Madhava, Mukunda

NOTE: This line has been discontinued

Sarathi Perfumery Works is responsible for Tulasi incense as well as this small, five incense Sri Govinda range. These five incenses all pair two different aromas in a champa style. While the link will take you to a page where you can purchase all five incenses, the incenses also come in larger boxes, although in my experience you’ll find each store varies in terms of what size and aromas they stock. Quality wise I’d say these are probably right above the Satya and Nitiraj ranges while still significantly below today’s premiums.

Gopala combines patchouli and vanilla, two ingredients fairly common in champa variants. In this case I’m far more reminded of Mystic Temple’s Vanilla Amber Champa than I am any patchouli champas, it’s almost as if the patchouli is something of a faint note in the incense. Overall the Gopala is quite dry as a result with the combination accentuating the sandalwood notes. It’s a bit one dimensional in the end but it does it nicely.

Keshava combines Rose and Geranium but as most incense veterans might guess, this is a lot more geranium than rose, although I’d even go as far to say that the geranium is actually kind of fuzzy, leaving the stick with a generic floral scent that doesn’t work particularly well with the sweet base. Overall it seems a bit too bitter or coarsely perfumed. It’s as if you’re burning two clashing incenses at once.

Sarathi’s Krishna mixes up honey and jasmine, two aromas that seem natural together, however like in the previous two incenses, one ingredient dominates and in this case it’s a jasmine scent somewhat reminiscent of Triloka’s. You can detect the honey but it sits below the jasmine as a subnote, probably as it marries with the base more. The combination doesn’t clash like the Keshava, but it’s not perfect, with a scent that strikes me as a little cloying due to a slight touch of soapiness.

Madhava is probably the most balanced of the three floral mixes in this group, combining violet and amber, which is a mix you don’t see very often if at all. At least in this case the oils don’t clash with the base like the Keshava did, and the violet sits on top of a gentle and sweet base. The amber merges into this, gently powdery and the combination gels, even if not in a particularly memorable way.

Mukunda definitely starts in the benzoin department with a decent quality scent (minus the rough and gravelly qualities associated with cheaper benzoin. The myrrh is difficult to pick out (an issue pretty common to myrrh incenses given how widely it can vary in scent) because it doesn’t have the individual qualities of good resin, but it does prevent this from being purely benzoin.In fact I detect a little more on the honey side in this one than I do with the Krishna.

I think in terms of whether you’d want any of these totally depends upon how deep you want your incense collection, as there’s a lot better and a lot worse. I think maybe these are a cut above Satya and Nitiraj because the base is better, in fact I often wondered going through these if some of the oils actually detracted from the base. But perhaps only the Madhava is memorable and even it’s not a perfect incense. The line has since been discontinued, but most of these incenses should still be locatable.

Nitiraj / Classic / Amber, Divine, Frankincense, Musk, Myrrh, Nagchampa, Rajchampa, Sandalwood

NOTE: This line has been discontinued

Nitiraj is an incense company with a very expansive catalog, not only do they have several lines under their own imprint, but they’re also responsible for the large Atmosphere series of incenses. Like Shrinivas Sugandhalaya, Nitiraj isn’t really producing high quality incense, it’s more as if they’re covering the inexpensive, passable midrange of Indian incense. For example if you were to take a number of Nitiraj champas and mixed them in with the Atmosphere range, I think it would be very difficult to tell some of the incenses apart. This is the same issue with Satya incenses, the recipe changes have led to many of their incenses losing distinct personalities. In fact I think it’s instructive to take a Nitiraj or Satya stick and compare them next to something from Shroff or Dhuni.

Nitiraj’s Classic line is akin to something like Triloka’s main range or in some cases Madhavadas/Primo. What you’re basically getting are average examples of all the sort of standard incenses you’ll find in many common Indian incense ranges. Here you get the pink amber style, a flora, several masalas and a couple of champas, but unfortunate most, if not all of these fall under standard quality. I’m not sure if my packages are just too old at this point (it does seem, for instance, that the Atmosphere range is superior), but there’s not really a lot to be impressed with here so keep that in mind if you want to keep reading.

It’s rare to find a bad Amber incense, but Nitiraj have managed one, although in this case it’s because the scent is far more like some horrible synthetic floral than anything remotely resembling an amber. At the light it just smacks you with shallow bitterness and a number of off basal subnotes. In many ways this stick is a picture perfect example of why ORS exists, so you can be pointed to alternatives for this kind of thing (in this case almost anything else with the amber label on it). Your incense should not have to smell like a chem lab accident.

Divine is Nitiraj’s Sai Flora equivalent, but with a bit of glitter in the stick and a much flatter scent. The brassiness you’ll find in Sai Flora overtakes the base too much and very little of the earthy, almost manure-like undertones exist in the Divine, which isn’t actually a good thing in that it leaves the result too generic. Maybe it’s because I’ve been burning better fluxos and floras, but this is way too much of a one-note incense to be comfortable in this thick stick category. Divine isn’t as bad as the Amber, but since Sai Flora, Mystic Temple Golden Champa and many others are so much better, there’s no point in this version. An incense that reminds you of better versions isn’t really what you want.

Nitiraj’s Frankincense is as strange and offputting as the amber, as far from the Madhavadas frankincense style as it is from real frankincense. It seems to have a more “resin blend” smell, rather than resembling pure frankincense and as such it seems like there’s enough benzoin in the mix to make it church blend like. But despite it’s individuality, Nitiraj Frankincense just doesn’t measure up to any other Indian frankincense I can think of.

Nitiraj’s Musk is a reasonable herbal masala musk, obviously trying to imitate the French musk scent and at least creating the imitation without any overt unpleasantness. But we’re also so far from the real thing that it suffers from the comparison. It actually reminds me a little of the NK aloeswood sticks, but with sandalwood mixed in instead.

The Myrrh is a brutally bad, sour and perfumed incense that doesn’t smell as much like myrrh as it does some sort of industrial gravel mix. This is the type of incense that gives the whole paradigm a bad name, I’d be surprised to hear anyone find this even remotely pleasant. It’s hard to imagine the quality department signing off on this.

Nitiraj’s Nagchampa will remind you pretty quickly of what the blue box Satya version turned into over the last decade and is very typical of what the modern scent was like until some of the newer premium outfits started restoring the incense’s reputation. Without halmaddi (or with very little of it) the bouquet has to be largely carried by the base. However, this isn’t particularly terrible, but only if you don’t compare it to the versions on the market now, which show this up for its lack of authenticity.

The Rajchampa doesn’t resemble most champas of any kind, it’s a masala with a tatty kind of perfume oil, a mix of Chandan sandalwood and an odd floral/orange-ish mix. It blares its message a bit loud and doesn’t do it with any sort of real quality, so its bouquet seems kind of cheap. It’s not on the bottom rung like the Myrrh, but it’s not one you’d run out for either.

Like the amber and frankincense, Nitiraj Sandalwood is both totally and not so totally reminiscent of the Madhavadas family version. What I mean by this is it seems the construction of the incense is similar (such as the base), but the directions they go are very different. Like the Madhavadas sandalwoods, this is a highly perfumed masala, but it doesn’t share the same vanilla and buttery sandalwood overtones (which is actually a good thing in my book). Stickwise it seems to be a bit loud and the overall bouquet belies the complexity of the wood, but essentially it’s a passable version.

Fortunately at this point, I can at least say I’ve covered Nitiraj’s least impressive line and while there’s no drastic improvement in the other ranges, at least in nearly all cases everything left over is champa style. The next batch will be Nitiraj’s line of color/aromatherapy scents. Essence of the Ages has confirmed for me that this range has been discontinued, but it seems most of these incenses are still available if you look around (including a few at discount prices at Essence).

Tis the season for some Frankincense Frenzy and a little bit of Myrrh Madness…

Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays to all our ORS readers! In the spirit of the season, I will be reviewing some frankincense and myrrh incenses. As many of you likely know, frankincense and myrrh were two of the gifts given to baby Jesus by the Magi (three wise men or three kings) with the third gift being gold. According to some interpretations by biblical scholars, the frankincense represented Jesus’s spirituality and his connection to the divine, the myrrh represented his human mortality and prophesized his mortal death, and the gold represented his royal power and influence.

To my mind, frankincense and myrrh are like the peanut butter and jelly of the incense world. Each is good on its own, but teamed together, they achieve greatness.  The following incense reviews lean more to frankincense then to myrrh. This is a reflection of my own bias; though I like myrrh, I love frankincense. Also, some of these incenses were already reviewed previously, but are included again because they fall into the theme and to act as a reminder of what’s available. Though of course, there are so many more frankincense and myrrh incenses out in the market.  However, I do believe the below are a good representative sampling of some of the better ones.

Fusoos frankincense resins: We’ve talked a lot about Hougari frankincense here at the ORS – and rightly so, it’s amazing frankincense, with its bright and lovely citrusy top notes followed by an earthy balsamic endnote. However, it’s time to give Fusoos, Hougari’s sibling, some consideration as well. Fusoos is a type of frankincense from Oman (which incidentally is the birthplace for the best frankincense resins) and differs from Hougari in that it’s less citrusy with a drier scent and is slightly earthier.  Incidentally, the Omani people consider Fusoos to be superior to Hougari.

Yemeni Myrrh: Those that love myrrh really should try and obtain the resin from Yemen. This Middle Eastern country produces the best myrrh, with a darkly resinous edge, one with depth and a scent that lingers for a long time.

Minorien frankincense: This provides good frankincense aroma with a woody undertone; alas there is no citrusy top notes though.  Nonetheless, Minorien as a company has provided consistently good work, and their rendition of frankincense is a good one, one that is more subtle.

Tennendo frankincense:  Tennendo uses frankincense resins from Oman. Whether or not Tennendo utilizes hougari resins is unknown. Regardless, don’t expect the citrusy top notes that are often found in Hougari frankincense, but instead a slightly sweet, slightly fruity honeydew melon top note. The frankincense scent itself is earthy. I’m quite fond of this incense, but I know others don’t care for the fruity sweetness, and prefer a darker more straight up frankincense scent.

Kyukyodo Shirohato White Dove: This is an interesting mix of frankincense, sandalwood, and a touch of floral. This is not a sweet scent like Tennendo’s frankincense. This is a warmer, woodier aroma. The frankincense and floral scents are accent notes.

Pure Incense Connoisseur Frankincense:  This is a sweet and foody type of frankincense scent. Due to the vanilla powder and other ingredients in the base, there are touches of cocoa and caramel notes to this incense. The frankincense scent is an endnote and muted as well. Those that would prefer a less candy like scent and more frankincense should look elsewhere. However, those of you that like the sweet scents are likely to be over the moon for this incense.

Fred Soll Classic Frankincense: The name says it all; this is a classic frankincense scent. This is smoky and resiny goodness in a stick form.

Fred Soll Frankincense and Cedar: This is a mix of frankincense, cedar, and pinon herbs. This is an unusual blend that is slightly musky. This incense does not have the bright citrusy notes of Hougari (boswellia sacra), which isn’t surprising because Fred uses resins from boswellia thurifera, another type of frankincense tree from Somalia. Nonetheless, this is still a good frankincense scent, and due to the addition of cedar, has a warm woody note.

Fred Soll Frankincense and Patchouli: A nice mix of frankincense, patchouli, and pinon. The frankincense and patchouli are the more prominent scents, and work surprising well together with the earthy sweet patchouli blending well with the resiny frankincense.

Fred Soll Frankincense Jasmine and Roses: Due to the jasmine and rose notes, this is more of a floral than frankincense aroma. Top notes are jasmine, followed by rose, and the frankincense is the end note. The frankincense is muted here, so for those that prefer more dominant frankincense, you should consider going with another incense. Though this is still a very good incense blend, and those that are looking for a new floral twist on frankincense may enjoy this particular blending.

Fred Soll Frankincense and Myrrh: Fred’s rendition on the classic pairing of these two incense resins. The myrrh is not very strong, which may appeal to those that aren’t myrrh aficionados. Frankincense is the more dominant scent, with myrrh being muted and the end note. This is still nice incense, and is a good choice for people that want an easy accessible stick with these scents but don’t want to bother with the real resins.

Ancient Forest Frankincense and Myrrh: An excellent blend of frankincense and myrrh, with a nice even balance between the two resins. The myrrh is readily apparent but not overwhelming. These short little incense sticks once lit are very smoky. Though like Fred Soll sticks, they do have a tendency to be difficult to light or stay lit.

Orthodox Incense Myrrh: About a year ago, I wrote this about orthodox myrrh – “The athonite style myrrh, blended in with floral oils, is a nice change of pace. The top notes are of a fine floral bouquet, the scent of various flowers blended in together, which then give way to the bitter resinous edge of myrrh. The two play off each other very well, the soft sweet florals give way to a sharper, dry, resiny myrrh earthiness. However, the floral notes still linger, and so the edge that myrrh brings isn’t completely overwhelming. It’s an interesting contrast, as if this is the olfactory version of balancing sweet with sour/bitter in a culinary dish. That said, I think that those that don’t normally take to myrrh would like this athonite style of it. However, hardcore myrrh lovers and traditionalists could literally turn their noses up at this, believing that the florals are too soft, too sweet, and detract from the lovely bitter edge that myrrh is known for. The floral bouquet in this athonite style is myrrh is very hard to pin down. I can’t say definitively what floral oils are in it, but I think I’m detecting honeysuckle, lily, lilac, perhaps lily of the valley, and the merest whisper of rose.” I recently revisited this incense and all of the above remains true, though the myrrh scent is now a bit more muted, having lost some of its potency. Nonetheless, this is still lovely incense, and one that I recommend.

Omani Frankincense sticks: This is an incense stick that I discovered a while back, one that is made in Oman and which uses genuine Omani frankincense resins. The aroma is bright, sharp, and penetrating, and very fragrant. This is an excellent frankincense stick, one that provides a very authentic frankincense aroma. It doesn’t state so on the package, but it’s quite likely that hougari frankincense are used in these sticks. The citrusy and balsamic notes associated with hougari are present in these sticks. Regardless of whether Hougari is used or not, this is a superior frankincense incense stick, and might just be the best in the market for those looking for a pure unadulterated frankincense scent without having to use the actual resins. This incense stick is about eight and half inches in length, with six inches of it being burnable, and the remaining two and half inches being the handle. This is very smoky, and burn time duration is about an hour and a half.

Incidentally, note that the Orthodox athonite myrrh resins are available from OrthodoxIncense.com. The Omani frankincense sticks are available from Ibn Saif Trading in Oman (see my review of this incense retailer in the Review Your Retailer section). The other incenses mentioned in this article can be found at various retailers on the internet.

So what are you burning this December? Are you veering toward the traditional frankincense and myrrh due to the holiday/seasonal associations? Or are you burning whatever suits your fancy? Perhaps something calming and relaxing to sooth raging emotions caused by holiday stress and madness? Chime in and let us know!

Mother’s India Fragrances / Nagchampas / Agni, Amrita, Atma, Bhakti, Jyoti, Lila, Moksha

After being introduced to and living with Mother’s India Fragrances’ original five Nagchampas, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t have asked the question “How come there aren’t more of them?” After all the originals are a phenomenal quintet of nagchampas in an era where the form has mostly degenerated. Where so many companies have either eliminated or reduced the content of halmaddi in their products, often creating inferior recipes that only resemble the incenses they used to create, Mother’s have managed to continue a line that not only still contains the ingredient (also called mattipal) but considerably expands the art form.

That is, when nagchampas were made 15 years ago or earlier, the incenses were so full of the gum that the sticks remained so wet you could easily pull them apart. The Mother’s Nagchampas don’t aim for a similar effect and while the incenses are still quite damp, often visibly through the inner packagaing, they all have a uniform consistency that follows the original five scents to what is an incredible 14 new scents. And for those of you already well familiar with the original five, these are going to surprise and elate you as in most cases they have brought the form up to a new level of complexity. Almost all of these incenses have as many as five or six different oil or material sources not even counting the halmaddi/mattipal and honey base. The results are so impressive that it’s difficult to feel that even after sampling several sticks of them that the full story has been told.

I’d like to thank both the home company of Mother’s India Fragrances and their Dutch distribution company Wierook for not only making Olfactory Rescue Service aware of them, but by providing a bounty of gifts and samples in time for me to get some reviews out just before the products come to the United States (not to mention one of the most informative and descriptive English language documents I’ve ever seen for a line of incenses, something that strongly assisted my reviews). Where it was difficult to label only five incenses as the finest Nagchampa line available, now that the total is up to 19, there’s really no question that this is the top line of its format, with a fascinating and aromatically superior range that doesn’t stop to recreate any old recipes and instead uses superior essential oils and absolutes to create a wide range of impressive and intricate scents. This installment will cover the first half of these 14 new incenses with the second half to follow shortly.

The first of these incenses is Agni Nagchampa. Perhaps the most simple description is that this is more or less a musk nagchampa, but it’s far more complex than that. It’s essentially a French Musk sort of scent, which bears some comparison to Shroff’s incense of that name or even the old Blue Pearl Musk Champa, however we know from the description that the central musk scent is created from ambrette seeds. My experience with musks created this way is that they usually aren’t quite this sweet, so one has to look to the other ingredients to see how the bouquet is formed. Obviously the halmaddi and honey anchor this quite nicely at the base as they do for all of the incenses here, so it’s really the middle of the aroma where the magic is. The pivotal ingredient here is neroli or orange blossom oil, an aspect which is the first of many through these incenses that show an incredibly clever perfumery at work because it’s a scent that is mellow and doesn’t overpower while anchoring the musk to the base. The cedar seems to bring out the balsamic aspects to the scent more which both balances the neroli and ensures the fragrance doesn’t go over the top on its way out. Make no mistake, this is still a decadently rich and sweet incenses as any sweet musk would be, but you can almost feel the restraint nonetheless.

As rich and sweet as the Agni is, the cinnamon-laden Amrita Nagchampa is almost a study in contrasts. Even with the amazing halmaddi and honey base, the results are very dry and of this seven, this could be the most direct incense. The cinnamon is very beautifully drawn, in fact the description the company uses is “edible,” something easily understood with a sample. However the cinnamon does have its supporting actors, including patchouli, cedar and some unnamed woods and resins. There are some elements in this that remind me of Nippon Kodo’s Silk Road incense except with a much more genuine feel) but the comparison hints at an exotic subnote that really helps to transmute the base to support the overall dryness.

The Atma Nagchampa is also a restrained piece of work, but in this case it doesn’t transmit a single essence like the previous scent did, instead it portrays a balancing act with a number of different notes at work. What’s amazing about it is that even with so many players the composite aroma remains gentle and subtle. On top we have the dominant floral oils at work, some lavender and what seems like a closer mix of geranium and kewra (pandanus or screwpine) notes. But like several incenses among the new aromas, Mother’s have chosen to contrast these floral elements with a spicy backdrop (including clove), something the company is clearly adept at. The results are actually akin to a standard (if exceptional in quality) nag champa with a soft floral in touch. What it loses without a particularly aggressive bouquet, it gains with a gentle aura and since everything seems to work on such a subtle level, it’s one of the most difficult in this group to get a hang on. But by the last stick I had out it was really starting to get under my skin.

Bhakti Nagchampa is something of an instant classic. As mentioned with the previous incense, Bhakti goes for a floral spice mix that is extraordinary in that it seems possible to pick out the individual elements as they interact with each other. The rose/tuberose/geranium mix on the top could be the best among a number of incredible floral elements across all these incenses and this is perhaps because they not only have strong definition but they’re contrasted perfectly with the patchouli and cedar base. In fact the only question I have is whether a scent like this might lose some of this fantastic definition with aging, because the balance here is like a highwire act with all the base elements a stage for the florals to dance lightly over.

Jyoti Nagchampa has some similarities to the cinnamon heavy Amrita, but here the scent is less monochromatic and more of a tangier multi-spice blend. In fact, it seems likely some of its spicier attributes come from the mix of myrrh, vertivert and patchouli, a group of ingredients that all have great transmutational qualities in different blends. In fact any time Mother’s uses a larger amount of resins in its incenses, it seems to trigger the more balsamic and sometimes evergreen qualities of the base. The mix definitely leaves me very curious about the quality of benzoin used in the ingredients as I recognize none of the usual subnotes and a quality that is truly exquisite. Again this mosaic (which also pulls in kewra to a slight degree) really hits a great balance with a vanilla and spice presence that is just perfect.

Lila Nagchampa is a patchouli heavy incense whose other ingredients really shift the whole tonal balance you normally associate with the herb in new and fascinating ways. For one, this is an incense as sweet as the Agni or Moksha blends, something particularly unusual for something so prevalent with patchouli. Sharing the stage with the patchouli on the top is tuberose, which has already shown its effectiveness in the Bhakti, but where that incense contrasted the floral and spicy, the Lila goes for the composite approach, like a rainbow color chart changing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Undoubtedly the vetivert changes the patchouli element some, always a great partnering, but perhaps where the benzoin and oakmoss lies is where the true transmutation occurs as it falls into the sweet base. The informational material also calls chocolate as a note as a result of the benzoin and you indeed find a powdery cocoa-like subnote in the mix of all this interaction. Like so many of these beautiful scents this seems like one that will have a learning curve as long as the best incenses because it’s not at all what you’d expect in the long run. It’s better.

Moksha Nagchampa …. well if you think it couldn’t get any better than what I’ve already run through then we’d have to at least call this a gamechanger. Champa users may be familiar with a lot of the intersections between style and addition, but the incredibly lily of the valley scent (muguet) that crowns the Moksha is positively ecstatic. And Mother’s doesn’t shy from the contrasts here either, setting off on a trail of oriental woods and saffron notes that end up creating a very rich depth before giving one a floral shock that starts with the rose notes, part of which are described as “citrusy rose petals” which seem to be what I’m picking up as a slight melon-like fruitiness. It all results in the most incredible, kaleidoscopic aroma that has the feminine, floral notes of so many modern perfumes but with the depth of the traditional. I’ve had a few incenses with lily of the valley in them, but none quite so stunning as this one.

One thing you’d expect from a great company is that in expanding what was a really impressive quintet, Mother’s haven’t sat on their laurels and tried to spin similar variations off of an already established success, they’ve possibly surpassed them, or if not, they’ve added such an incredible amount of variation to their line that it breathes new life into the whole line and makes you want to go back to the original quintet for reevaluation. With each stick I became far more deeply involved with each one to the point that picking a favorite is very difficult, there’s really not a blend here I wouldn’t want consistent stock on. There’s just no question that this is the crowning line of the modern nagchampa and I’m fortunate to be able to bring seven more to your attention in the next installment.

Top 10 – June 2008

1. Tokusen Syukohkoku / BaieidoThe Aloeswood and spice combination of this mix just consistently has me lighting another stick. One of the truly great of the “Plum Blossom” style. There are no oils in this stick, it stands on just the woods, spices and awesome talents of the blender. I have blown though over a 100 sticks in the last two months. I may have a problem.

2. Kun Sho / BaieidoCambodian Aloeswood in all its glory. It’s sort of presented as a single note incense, but really the play between the Aloeswood and the very light touch of Borneol Camphor and some spices just make this a stand out. Its name “The Rising Scent” is very appropriate to how it reaches into the imagination, It’s an incense that I like to burn when I have the time to really enjoy it. There are so many levels to it but it is a very pleasurable learning curve.

3. Sho Ran Ko / KyukyodoThere’s not much more I can say that hasn’t been said already. It’s just a great classical, slightly floral, Japanese incense that is worth the investment (and really, it’s a deal considering the size of the bundle, it made me very happy when I first opened the box) I love this late at night before falling asleep, it’s so mellow and calming.

4. Ranjatai / ShunkohdoOne of my all time favorites. I find myself hoping one day to find a box of “extra thick sticks”. Just a great scent that has a very slight almost floral note , mixed with quality Aloeswood and musk, mesmerizing and tends to pull your attention right in. Beautiful.

5. Yoshino no haru – Long Box / ShunkodoI have what are called the “thick sticks” of this, which I really like. The scent is a wonderful, classical Japanese floral, somewhat sharp in nature yet with a gentle sweetness around the edges. The thick sticks put out quite a lot of scent. It is light, uplifting and just generally tends to brighten up the mood and energy of the room. There seem to be Essential Oils in this one but no synthetics so it’s a very clean smell, quite marvelous and each stick lasts for a long time.

6. Babylon / Mermade Magickal ArtsA Bakhoor style loose mix made for a heater or charcoals. Quite possibly the best rose scent I have yet found. The Aloes and Sandalwoods pieces in this give the rose scent a really nice boost. It’s not cloying or over blown, but it is very rich, smooth and elegant. If you are looking for a rose scent and have given up hope of finding something you might want to consider this. Really nice and the amount you get goes a long way.

7. Houshou / ShunkohdoThere are a lot of incenses from Shunkohdo in my list. They make really good incense at very good prices. Like this one! Aloeswood and spices. The overall impression I consistently get from this incense is chocolate ( and no, its not because I am hungry :) )The scent can change up depending on what you had going before, but in general the chocolate comes through. This is a great one to use to introduce someone to incense. At around $20.00 for the roll it’s a great deal.

8. Ka Cho Fu Getsu / ShunkohdoThis is just a great all around incense at a very affordable price. Sort of Han style or Chinese herbs with Aloeswood. Lots of spices playing off the woods. Cassia, clove and a whole bunch more, At 200 sticks for around $32.00 it’s a really great deal and something you can burn at any time of the day. I really like it when I wake up, very refreshing and uplifting.

9. Deep Earth / Mermade Magickal ArtsThese are incense cakes, or little blocks/bricks of resins and woods made for an incense heater or placed nearby charcoal (not directly on top). This one is composed of Hogary Frankincense, Myrrh, Copal Negro, Aloeswood, Patchouli EO, Vetivert and dusted with powdered Aloeswood. It smells very clean and fresh and also very grounding. Not a bad thing to go with after coming home from work! These are pretty much hand made in small batches and smell as if they use very high quality materials.

10. Myo-ho / ShoyeidoI got the sampler pack of this five months ago. It blew me away then and still does now. In fact I lit this for some people in an incense class I was giving recently and watched them get, well, high :) actually, just on the scent of the spices and Kyara. Pretty amazing. It’s not cheap, but it is really good and as someone said recently in the blog “I am glad I have had the pleasure of smelling it in this lifetime.” I think this is one of the masterpieces of the Art of Incense.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Serpent Flame, Pan’s Earth, Wings of Air, Mermade Moon, Sacred Spirit, Salome, Wilderness

[Note: several of these incenses were limited editions and have been since discontinued. Check with Mermade Magickal Arts for availability]

I will always be fond of Mermade Magickal Arts as one of the companys that really showed me how amazing incense could be. While the company does not make them anymore, at one point loose incenses like Shamanic Circle and Dragon Fire were among my staples, blended incenses with fantastic ingredients that had a similar effect like aloeswood on my subconscious. When these were first available, several of the blends had unusual and possibly psychoactive ingredients like datura in them. I noticed the last time I bought these blends before their discontinuation that the ingredients had changed a little and while the new versions were similar, by then either they weren’t having the same effects on me or they were truly different. I originally tried Shamanic Circle in the practice room of a band I was working with and it had a pretty major impact on everyone. I remember thinking hours after the experience that I could smell the incense floating around my memory. In fact the very existence of this site may be partially because of this blend and its company, so in a way I feel I’m coming full circle in being able to talk about them.

I wanted to set this up to demonstrate that to some extent because of these experiences, I’ll always be fond of this company, one that appears to base their products (from incense to music and beyond) on Wiccan/magickal concepts. Immediately I thought of the Scott Cunningham Llewellyn books on incense and my own experiences in making blends from those recipes over a decade ago. This relatively new line of incense “cones” that I’ll be covering here sticks fairly closely to these spiritually minded methods of making incense allied with an experienced hand in incense creation. Every cone here feels like the recipe was experimented with and slightly changed to reach a balance between the woods, resins, herbs and oils in them. And not only that but those familiar with experimenting with these ingredients on their own will realize that there is a rather high quality of ingredients in these “cones.”

I use the term cones in quotes because these are not your typical cones, rather they’re shaped more like flat triangles. The first five incenses (part of the Nature Spirits series) here follow western magickal elemental correspondances and in most cases the element corresponding with the incense can be guessed from the name. And better yet, the elemental quality of each cone comes out quite obviously upon burning. One thing is for sure, most of these incenses have very high quantities of resin in them and if you’re coming over from the Japanese incense side and known Minorien’s Frankincense, you’ll already have your foot in the door in terms of the spicy resin like quality of the cones.

Appropriately the series starts off with Serpent Flame, the incense corresponding with the fire element. Expectations that this would be spicy and hot were met. The base appears to be benzoin, dragons blood and balsam tolu, but particularly I was thinking of the hotter Benzoin Siam when burning this, except that Mermade have managed to balance some of the more difficult sides of this resin. The quality of (Madagascar) cinnamon in this appears to be high and it gives the incense a sort of cinnamon bun like scent, except with hints of shoe polish (in a good way of course) that I’d chalk up to the dragon’s blood. It’s a very friendly incense that really got the whole series off to a nice start.

Pan’s Earth reminded me quite a bit of some of the Cunningham earth-related recipes. I was pretty surprised not to see patchouli on the list of ingredients as it seems by far the strongest note in this incense. This sort of patchouli oil is similar to the types that tend to put some westerners off, except that this is definitely higher quality than what I walked by this morning, a little sweeter and closer to the Himalayan patchouli that I’m fond of. I’m left wondering if part of this might be the vetivert. The other ingredients in the incense are aloeswood, Hougary frankincense and juniper and I particularly get the juniper which gives it a bit of evergreen spice. I thought I got benzoin and lemon from this as well which undoubtedly was the frankincense ingredient.

Lavender is almost always associated with the air element, so its presence in Wings of Air was not surprising. Adding sweetgrass and Himalayan juniper to the mix intensifies this feeling and in terms of hitting the element on the nose, this is almost close to perfect. Using lighter resins like elemi and mastic seems like a very intelligent choice, you get the depth of aroma from the resin without the more definitive notes that come with frankincense, myrrh, benzoin and the like. If the oil note in Pan’s Earth was somewhat overwhelmed by the patchouli (or vetivert) notes, in Wings of Air it’s almost picture perfect. While every single one of these incenses really gets the elemental correspondances right, this might be the classic example in the group.

Mermade Moon is the line’s water incense and as of today looks like the company’s number one bestseller. It’s basically a spicy myrrh incense with quite a bit of play in the oil, which, given the ingredient list, I’d probably chalk up to the Jasmine Sambac. In fact it’s hard to imagine many watery incenses without jasmine as its perfume tends to really capture the changeable nature of a body of water. Apparently the base was white sandalwood, which was a note I didn’t notice so much probably due to the stronger aromatics. Or better yet, this incense uses the fixative onycha, an ingredient from a certain seashells that was apparently used in the original Hebrew temple incense. It all adds up to a rather sultry and slightly Scorpio-like musky blend that could rank as one of Mermade’s best cones.

The Nature Spirits series final “elemental” incense is Sacred Spirit. This is the series woodiest incense by far with liberal amounts of aloeswood and sandalwood. While both of these ingredients do show up in some of the other cones, this was the first where I really noticed them as part of my notes. The woods give this scent a bit more of a sublime scent than the other four, which strikes me as perfect for the “akasha” element in that it’s the one that triggered the most subconscious impressions for me. Like Pan’s Earth, this also has a bit of frankincense to it that gives the scent some more depth.

Mermade’s line Scents of the Sensuous includes Salome. This appears to be a much thicker cone than usual, possibly due to the high number of ingredients in the blend. It’s slightly reminiscent of the above-mentioned Serpent Flame, although not as spicy (and certainly not firey). I’d assume the Tolu Balsam is the ingredient that connects the two. It seems with this incense that it’s a little less about a concept and more about the aroma itself and as such this seems a bit more complex than the elemental line, with varying notes of frankincense and labdanum. It’s very rich and sultry and it strikes me that you actually need very little of the cone to fragrance a space. I was reminded at this point just how important resins are to Mermade incense and there were times this reminded me of a catholic or orthodox resin blend.

I couldn’t find Wilderness on the Mermade site (and it also took me a while to track down Salome), which makes it a little more difficult to describe. But like Salome, Wilderness is very similar to loose resin blends, in this case usually close to forest/celtic type blends with overtones of greenery and trees. I found this a really nice, evocative scent, with the base resin blend spiced up by various herbs. Some of these were spicy, roughly in the nutmeg, mace, clove and cinnamon territories except I wouldn’t swear to any of these being part of it per se. Of the incenses here, this was the one that took the longest to absorb as there seems to be a lot going on with it.

Mermade Magickal Arts have been around since 1984, a family operation whose long years of experience really shows in the creation of these incenses. All of their cones show a great deal of thought in terms of combining base notes, oils and resins and as so many of their incenses are based on various resins, it’s almost as if these cones are a new class or style of incense and as such are a welcome element of one’s diverse collection of scents. It’s great to see this outfit still in operation over the years, still combining art, music, spirituality and craft into a distinctive name brand that continues to be one of the best creative enterprises for scent in the US market.

A second installment of Mermade incenses is forthcoming, covering a few of the company’s loose blends, all of which take me quite a bit longer to go through.

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