Designs By Deekay / Soul Sticks / Shaman’s Magic, Black Ice, Dragon’s Breath, Dragon’s Blood

So I have to admit, the deeper I go into the Soul Sticks series the more often I find a new one that I actually really like. For a Satya-sort of knock-off, second-tier Indian incense, some of these are not bad at all. I think maybe I’m roughly about 1 in 4 in terms of the incenses from this series I can recommend. However while the four incenses in the Dragon Series don’t contain any real standouts, there’s still some positives to be taken from them. For one thing, what I’m really noticing, from the perspective of someone who has known the champa/masala style for quite some time, whoever is concocting these incenses for the company is really taking some interesting new experiments on the oil fronts, particularly on the floral end. There are essential oils being used in some of these incenses you don’t often see anywhere else and for that I’m particularly grateful. When I switch back and forth from checking these out to the incenses in the Satya Bangalore range, there’s really no question this is the better incense. It’s very much in the same range as the Ramakrishnanda incenses. Mind you, this isn’t apex Indian incense, but I think some of these have the oils right.

Shaman’s Magic is a mix that includes damask rose, jasmine, peony, and violet so it immediately fits the range’s large number of intriguing floral mixes. Violet in particular can be a very cool subscent and it is certainly present in this mix; however, the question is whether including so many similar florals might be a bit much. One of my first thoughts was how cool would it be to see what just a mix of one or two of these might be like? But then again certain oils are more expensive and it might not be doable at this inexpensive price range. Now I don’t want to forget that these are champa style incenses so the floral oils are really still sitting on top of the usual vanilla, frangipani and what appears to be a little spice as well. So there’s a lot going on, maybe too much here. Overall, this is nice enough, but when you’re surveying a wide number of new champas you want to pick those that really stand out of the batch and this one is a bit more on the fence. It is quite pleasant but has a certain static quality that gives it a bit of a generic aroma too.

Soul Sticks went for a fruitier oil blend with Black Ice, an aroma that is also somewhere near the fence. I’ve always thought Black Ice was a funny name for an incense given water itself doesn’t usually have an aroma unless it has salt or other things in it. So I’ve never been quite sure what the name is supposed to capture except that this box has a cool dragon and some wolves on it. Anyway, grapefruit, mandarin and pineapple are on the list and while that sounds like a decent fruit salad, due to the mix I only pick up a bit on some overall citrus qualities. Despite these scents not really defining the incense much, it’s really quite nice overall, a little more distinctive and more to my taste than the Shaman’s Magic sticks. I like how the base comes through nice and spicy, it reminds me a little of what the original Mother’s Nagchampa blends smelled like when they were first released. In fact this is not unlike their Ganesh.

For a reptilian-based creature that ate just about everything that moved, it’s kind of precious Dragon’s Breath has such a gourmet aromatic recipe with white musk, Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla, benzoin and amber. Nonetheless this is a rather fine blend for sure, sweet and nicely complex with the kind of vanilla that really reminds you of the quality stuff. Quite a beautiful scent overall, with a touch of liqueur to it as well and a bit of what smells like sandalwood to me, maybe as an accident. I’m often reminded how much I love an amber incense with some appropriate tweaks and this one really has a beautiful bouquet to it. Once again it makes me scratch my head to see the way such a sophisticated incense is marketed, but I will take it for sure. Certainly the best of this quartet.

I’m not sure if Dragon’s Blood is meant to duplicate the resin or a name assigned in similar fashion to the dragon themes in this line (or both). The fragrance given includes galbanum (resin), guaiac wood (essentially palo santo), labdanum and amyris (a type of balsam), Half of these aromatics are rarely see in incenses or otherwise and so it’s not a huge surprise this is a little bit different of an incense. I’m not quite sure if I just need more time with it or if it’s not entirely successful as the over bouquet is a bit quiet and insular with a touch of harshness I would guess is from the guaiac. Now this isn’t normally what I smell in a batch of good palo santo, it feels a bit sturdier and tougher. The amyris/balsam scent is certainly noticeable. It’s actually kind of clever in terms of it being evocative of something like dragon’s blood, and it’s not unlike the resin, which to me doesn’t have this kind of depth to it even when sourced on its own. The overall aroma does kind of give off a crimson red feel to it like the box but overall, like part of the line, I’m not covinced as to its distinctiveness as of yet.

Overview of Incense Countries

So there’s a new page at ORS here. This is sort of a rough draft attempt at presenting the positives and negatives of incenses from the three main Eastern countries and areas (I may end up adding to this later, but for the most part, outside of these three areas, it becomes a more single entity by single entity comparison). I have opened this page up to commenting and encourage anyone to weigh in, whether it’s something I missed, something that needs correction, thoughts etc. But please be constructive if you do. The page is meant to present balanced information (even if it may or may not be quite there yet), to present reasoning that is at least somewhat based in objectivity, and not to be a place to argue which country has better incense. Also please be sure to weigh in on the page’s comments and not here. Thanks!

Tun-Da Village Master Incense, Drepung Monastery Incense

These two incenses have been paired together, as Tun-Da Master Tsering Dorje is said to have produced them both. Both of these rolls come in skinny long stick bundles with similar labels and not much in the way of outer protections, with the village incense having a darker brown color.

Tun-Da Village Master Incense is a nicely salty affair and akin in its way to Dirapuk Monastery’s incense. It’s also roughly in the Holy Land area and builds up a similar musk and pistachio aroma as the smoke collects, very much to my liking. I should probably explain with this that I mean it reminds me of what a bowl of salted pistachios smelled like when I was much younger and most tended to have a red dye added to them. Without the dye the aroma isn’t quite as strong or exact but it is still kind of close. This incense is a lot woodier than Holy Land and has an unknown herbal content in the mix, but mostly seems to stay away from any spice or floral content. Reviews at incense-traditions.ca point at agarwood and cypress in the mix, both of which seem present to my nose as part of the blend. While Dirapuk Monastery is also in this range there are no noticeable borneol notes to this incense and nor is the cypress resinous like you would experience in say Bosen Pythoncidere. The results are really to form a wood substrate that doesn’t get too harsh, mostly allowing the musk scent to blend in with the saltiness. There’s no question this is a very nice stick and one that unveils a little more with each burning.

Drepung Monastery Incense is also very much a similar incense to both Dirapuk and the Tun-Da Village Master incense, although I might argue that this isn’t quite as aromatic as either one of those. The musk is definitely there although it’s a bit different in aroma to the Tun-Da. The saltiness is also a bit milder than either incense, but the benefit of that is that the musk seems to be a bit more to the foreground.

Overall though, if you discuss these two and Dirapuk together you are discussing incenses that are all very close in the same range as one another. It’s not a bad idea to see if you like the style first and with that in mind Dirapuk might be the best stop because it has the least amount of incense and the lowest price point. Purely from a scent perspective I would put the Dirapuk first as well, although the village incense is an extremely close second. But then again I think all of these are solidly within my taste range. If you tried Holy Land and didn’t warm up to it then these may not be quite to your taste, but they’re also a bit friendlier and milder as well, so it’s worth taking that into account.

Seikado / Zuiun Aloeswood

So here’s another fairly recent acquisition and new love that I added to Mike’s Picks. I have gone on record as really loving green-style incenses. They’re a little hard to define, but something like Kunmeido’s Asuka and Heian Koh or Shunkohdo’s Yoshino No Haru are good examples. Sometimes it’s an evergreen scent, sometimes a kind of spice, but it’s the kind of incense a bit more redolent of pine needles and the power of pungent plant oils. Seikado’s Zuiun Aloeswood is kind of roughly in that space but it has an intriguing mint/menthol note that makes it a bit drier than these others and really fresh and sparkling. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a woody, in front aloeswood, this is a stylistic choice that has a bit of wood as background. And it still has its similarities to the above-mentioned green sticks. The $45 price, as a result, I think mostly reflects that it contains about 70 6 1/2 inch sticks and so it’s a bit more of an outlay issue than a pricy aloeswood. But again when you’re looking for something that hits a more specific spot, something that any other incense can’t quite scratch, this is a really good example of it. I actually dug this out of a Seikado Premium Assortment and found it kind of the odd one out in the batch. Maybe the picture can show just how deep I’ve hit this box (don’t worry, I’ve got a back up).

Dzogchen Monastery / Brilliant Gem Incense

Readers of Olfactory Rescue Service may be familiar with Dzogchen Monastery’s classic Lotus Ground Incense, which used to be one of the finest Tibetan style incenses on the market, a scent completely unique and unduplicated anywhere else. I’ve been informed that it is current unavailable for sale in the west, but of course we hope to see that change eventually. Strangely enough, Dzogchen’s Brilliant Gem incense, which also fluctuated in availability now seems to be available for the time being. So I grabbed a box just based on Lotus Ground to see if they had replicated their magic with another incense.

Brilliant Gem is actually as solidly traditional as Lotus Ground isn’t. I was actually somewhat surprised as it ended up being a rather unremarkable scent. Certainly it’s on par with most of what comes out of Tibetan (or Nepal) as it’s largely made from woods and thus comes closer to pure campfire type aromas. There’s probably a touch of spice in the mix, but it does not seem to rise above the base. And while the incense does follow the double roll packaging of Lotus ground the box is much shorter. After a few sticks I didn’t really notice anything hidden about the formula. It does not have the same kind of ash reside as Lotus Ground either. In some ways it’s hard to believe it comes from the same monastery as it’s completely different in every way. And the woods used don’t seem to be particularly rich in resin or aromatic content. It does manage to avoid and off notes or harsh qualities which does leave the finished burn fairly smooth, it’s just that there isn’t much to say about it in the end.

More updates!

So I’ve found more time to start whipping ORS back into shape and make it more relevant for the current era and have the reviews flowing consistently again at least for the time being. I am still working on the Reviews Index. As I’ve previously stated, this index should be current with all of the relevant reviews, articles, top 20 lists and so forth. I am currently adding dates to the review links and at the same time going back in and slightly editing reviews to indicate if a line is discontinued, if there’s a possibility the incense recipe has changed substantially, or any other necessary information. I am really not editing anything in the text itself as I think prior descriptions still act as a good history of incense – I’ll just put a disclaimer at the top. But I’m starting to feel this is possibly the best entry point for a new reader. I have yet to fix the Hall of Fame pages as that will take a bit of work, and there are a good chunk of posts that are missing categories that I need to go through, but both are on the agenda.

I have also updated the “About” page to make it a bit more current – please note the paragraph in bold at the end. I’m still sort of mulling the idea of opening the site again to new writers, particularly those with moderation skill and a good sense of balance, so anyone interested in that is welcome to contact me. I am still a bit leery about reopening the review your incense retailer page or having an ask ORS section due to time constraints and knowing the direction those roads have gone down before and can’t see that happening on my own.

Tennendo / Keryu Aloeswood

So the appearance of new incenses with aromas that strongly remind me of some of the better cultivated aloeswood sticks seem to have been popping up of late. I want to say “seem to” because let’s face it, I’m just going off of completely limited information and what my nose is picking up. I’m also going on the idea that these certain scent profiles are showing up in incenses that are wildly expensive compared to what we normally see in aloeswoods of similar quality. I brought this up in my recent review of Shoyeido’s Myo-kaku and also mentioned in that review Shunkohdo’s Vietnam, Zaarai / Tỉnh Gia Lai Aloeswood and Vietnam, Kanhoa / ỉnh Khánh Hò Aloeswood. There may be one or two others I am forgetting, but it’s also not a surprise these are all new lines. But let me repeat to be clear, it is not confirmed from my end that any of these incenses are using cultivated aloeswood. I’m just guessing. What I can say is the scent profiles are different.

I am trying to be careful with the issue because I suspect that this is a trend we will be seeing more of. We have all heard the rumors of aloeswood shortages and so forth and we also know some of our favorite recipes are changing and we’re losing a bit of the depth we usually sense in some sticks. There is unquestionably still a gap between cultivated aloeswood and wild aloeswood. Honestly every time I try something new that appears to have cultivated wood, it’s a little better and for sure it’s getting to the point where the incenses are nice. But Tennendo Keryu and the two Shunkohdo’s above may be more reminiscent of the sorts of aloeswoods you might get from Bosen rather than a high end Japanese company, but they’re also a lot more expensive per stick than all but Bosen’s highest end aloeswood sticks (and you also have to account for the fact that Bosen sticks are much thicker and heavier by weight).

Tennendo’s Keryu is actually quite gorgeous. Whether the wood comes from it been shored up a bit probably with musk and some other ingredients, it is a bit sweet and very aloeswoody and an enjoyable incense. It’s also very different from much of Tennendo’s familiar incenses, whether it’s their perfumed incenses or their Karafune line. The more I burn it the more I really like it. But I’m still getting my head around the idea that it’s over $2 a 5.3 inch stick. However this may be the new normal. The thing is, like cultivated aloeswoods or Bosen sticks, there’s still a bit of a hard edge to the aroma that is usually smoothed out a bit in most high end aloeswoods. And while it is provisionally similar to the Shunkohdos above, you’re still getting a better deal than those. So really overall something like this is going to be a question for your budget. If you’re an aloeswood appreciator, I’m sure you’re going to want to try this to see if it’s up your alley, particularly if you are maybe a fan of wood Yamadamatsus or so forth. If you’re more new to the wood then I’d suggest getting familiar with a number of other aloeswoods first.

Samye Monastery Incense

You would have to go back to 2008 to read our first review of Samye Monastery’s incense. I am not sure where the term Samanthabadhra came from at the time, but for sure the box still remains either the same or close to what I remember it. Samye Monastery’s incense was perhaps the first Tibetan I ever tried with depth. At the time I was just used to commonly found Nepali imports of which only a handful were striking, so when a box of this arrived I was just astonished at how great it was.

However this sort of brings me around to a subject that is somewhat controversial and which I’ve largely stayed away from here and that’s the presence of animal-sourced products in Tibetan incense. You can sort of sum it up like this. 1) Historically a lot of Tibetan incenses have been known to use pangolin scales, musk, civet and other animal-sourced ingredients. 2) There is a lot of guessing which ones have them in it, which is not surprising when most incense creators keep their full recipes a secret 3) Supposedly the use of endangered species in these products has been outlawed in Tibet 4) This led to an incredible amount of rumors, some even laid down by previous writers at ORS, of incenses changing their formulation to account for these changes in laws and so forth.

Overall, if we’re to retain a scientific and objective approach to this subject then sorting this out can be problematic. To say the least I’m not in favor of ingredients that result from the death or pain of an animal. But I’m also not in a rush to toss incenses just based on rumors either. I mention it as some context for Samye Monastery incense. I’ve owned 3 or 4 boxes of this incenses over the years and nearly every single one is different. I would be wildly guessing to say the changes in recipe account for the elimination of some or all of these elements, I only guess they were involved in the first formulation I tried from hearing from the person who carrried it at the time, and never thought to confirm the source. But these notes at incense-traditions.ca seem like a good approach to me for dealing with this issue. But I also want to draw attention to the fact that in something like 10-15 years, Holy Land still smells closer to or exactly the same to this nose. If there were formulation changes then I certainly didn’t pick up on them.

This is something like the third formulation I’ve personally tried under the Samye Monastery name. It is still a deeply, complex, wonderful, one of a kind incense. They all were. But this incense does not have the notes from the previous review, especially the combination of ingredients I mentioned and the reminder of Old Nick barleywine. The scent has shifted to a much more crystalline, high alpine sort of scent with a lot more wood in it. It is over-brimming in ingredients and still retains a complex and involved palate. There is absolutely no feel to this incense that makes you think it has been based on cheap wood to cut down on costs. I’m not even sure what the resin or wood quality is that gives this its sparkly, crystally note but I’d guess they’re using some really fine sandalwood (which may indeed be part of what puts this at its price point). There’s likely juniper, saffron, the usual spices, and a lot of other common herbs you find in Tibetan incense, but there’s also a surprising amount of floral goodness in this that remains a mystery. Like an almost rose-like scent, which is isn’t something you see in this type of incense all that much. Definitely musk too and I’m (always) hoping that the creators are just really good at making this out of plants.

So yeah this is still a top 10 Tibetan marvel, it’s just a different one. When I find a new source that has this it tends to be one of my first purchases. There’s always been a bit of of an outlay, but it’s well worth it.

Kourindo Incenses at Japan Incense

Great news, it looks like Japan Incense has stocked a good chunk of the Kourindo incense line. Once again we are impressed at the ability of Jay and Kotaro to bring the world of Japanese incense to the US.

Dirapuk Monastery Incense

I’m always on the lookout for a Tibetan incense that has a salty tanginess similar to Holy Land. After you’ve gone through a bunch of scents that are largely wood based, you tend to realize how rare incenses like that are. However, Dirapuk Monastery Incense, if it doesn’t quite reach the rarified heights of Holy Land, can at least be seen roughly in that class of incenses. I’m not entirely sure if that’s part of a musk hit I’m smelling because this isn’t a very sweet incense, but it shares a bit of that same sweltery scent that has made Holy Land such a favorite. The difference here is this one is a little more akin to the more typical woody blends you usually find from monasteries. The listed ingredients are borneol, cinnamon, red and white sandalwood. I get the borneol right away off of this and it’s part of why this is such an attractive incense because it’s in the foreground. The cinnamon seems to be a bit more buried, but this can always be a judicious choice. I enjoy this the more I burn it. Now if you’re reading this and going what is Holy Land, you should immediately stop and go buy a package. If it’s not one of the best incenses for its price in the entire world, I don’t know what is, whether it’s the Grade A or B. But if you’re a big fan of the incense and want to try something that mixes it up a little, like an incense in the same same scent range with enough variation to make it worth it, this is definitely worth picking up. And for a $10 spot, it’s nearly as much as a steal.

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