Designs by Deekay / Soul Sticks / King Champa, Sweet Earth, White Sage, Wild Wood

So those of us who burned champa incenses in the 90s have the same old grandparent story, that’s something like “Come over here and let me tell you what Nag Champa looked like 30 years ago.” I remember getting orders in of incenses from a lot of companies still in business that were so incredible, I’d nearly rush to restock. These incenses were identifiably damp, to the point that they would smoosh up if they were bundled too tightly. I kind of feel like at the point that halmaddi-based incenses disappeared off the market, it was a major change in the market and communication on what had happened was fairly spotty. However, I will say this, whatever any company is saying about using halmaddi now, absolutely noone is making incenses that smell or look like champas did in the 90s. It’s just the truth. It’s not to say that champas haven’t been adjusted, nor that there aren’t any good ones out there but they just don’t make ’em like they used to. Get off my lawn!

So anyway I heard rumors through the years about Satya Sai Baba, how the owner died and then his son inherited the company and I heard very little of anything else. I shut down ORS for years and then came back, found the reddit incense group (which I have added to the forum links on the left and should have done so ages ago) and this extremely helpful page that explained that in fact two sons essentially split the company between them and one became based in Bangalore and the other in Mumbai. So essentially if you’re buying “blue box” Nag Champa or Super Hit, it could really be one of two different incenses. I mention this because at some point I realized Satya were making pretty terrible incense. Some of the dried up specimens of Blue Box Nag Champa from the early days of ORS were absolutely atrocious (let’s say about a 3 out of 10 on a grading scale). At first I didn’t even know if I was just buying 30 year old stock that sat in some basement or what, but then later I realized there was an inferior formula at work and stopped buying it. The second to last time I bought Blue Box Nag Champa and Super Hit was at a local book store (I wanna say about 18 months ago or so), I figured let’s check in again, and I needed to use a bit of store credit. And it was very average, perhaps better than the shrivelled up junk but nothing I’d call a great incense (let’s say about a 4 or, if generous, a 5 out of 10 on a grading scale).

But after reading the above-linked page, I got curious and searched for Satya Incense Bangalore (also Bengaluru) on Amazon and began to buy some of them in batches of 12. This is better incense for sure (although I may get tempted again to see where the Mumbai shop is at at some point, after all this incense is super cheap and I’m running a rescue service). I’d probably put most Bangalore Satyas around the 6 to 7 out of 10 range. And while I do plan on getting to reviews on them at some point, I’m not entirely sure it would be easy. Even though there are something like 40-50 different incenses in the brand, nearly all of them are slight variations of the Blue Box and I’m not yet sure I’m able to distinguish the loud perfumes apart from one another. Anyway I get ahead of myself. The fact I want to add is that the ash on all of these incenses has an orange/red/ochre color.

So enter Soul Sticks. This Indian incense is packaged in some of the most garish art I’ve seen in incense. My instinct is quite simply to avoid anything that would look like this except that there was a King Champa stick added as a sample to one of the Satya Bangalore packages. This sort of “master of all nag champas” horseshit is the kind of thing you used to see on Happy Hari packages as if you actually need to hard sell Indian incense. It’s tacky and unnecessary. But you know what? It was a really good nag champa, certainly a bit of a level up from the Blue Box (a 7 to the Blue Box’s 6, but edging fairly close to an 8). I was intrigued. I wanted a box of this stuff. So I set off to Amazon and looked it up and found that Soul Sticks is a pretty wide range in its own right and where boxes of Satya samplers come in 12 and end up roughly around the $13-$15 price range, Soul Sticks come in fours and are about $7. I also found out that Soul Sticks are made in Bangalore, India and have the same ochre colored ash. I’m sure you can put two and two together on this one.

The fact is that a lot of Indian incense are made by a few companies and contract with US companies to create specialized lines and that seems to be what has happened with Designs By Deekay. I don’t know if they call themselves that anymore because the website (soulsticks.com) on the packaging is obsolete and my browser makes it look like ordering at their website is at best a chancy operation (who asks for someone to create an account to see prices? Really?) That wasn’t going to happen, in fact they’re not the only company who could really raise their privacy game a bit. But I’d guess the company ancientveda is the same group and they’re on Amazon.

Strangely the Soul Sticks line seems to be an attempt to market incense to new age types – the more Eastern leaning, the renaissance/faerie/fantasy leaning types, those more attuned to Native American spirituality and, maybe as an extra goth kids. In one batch you will have Dracula’s Breath, in another Kundalini Yoga and then Faerie’s Dust or Shaman’s Magic. Why they haven’t created a small subrange of hiphop and bong motifs like “O.G. Champa” seems to be a question and a missed opportunity. Whatever’s the case, for the most part (after trying eight different incenses in the line) these are mostly champa incenses in the Satya Bangalore lineage (if not from the company itself), except these are all a bit higher quality than that and are more reminiscent of Ramakrishnanda (who now that I think of it I need to check for the same ochre ash). A lot of these are truly worthy new-style champa incenses despite incredibly ridiculous names like “Go Away Evil.” So anyway I’m gonna tackle four incenses here that make up the Nature’s Love series if only because this group of names made me want to projectile vomit the least.

King Champa, however, is just a gorgeous nag champa, straight up one of the best I’ve tried in a long time. It feels kind of odd to explain what such a common scent smells like, but this one has a lot more definition to it than many of the others on the market. It has the usual halmaddi meets vanilla meets frangipani scent, it’s sweet and a bit sugary, and it’s not as bland as the blue box with a slightly more refined perfume. The ingredient list is given as sandalwood, jasmine, oudh, and orange blossom, although maybe only the former is truly noticeable to my nose, with the rest of these falling into the blend a bit. For me it hits all the right notes. The Ramakrishnanda champas had a similar sort of scent profile and level of strength, but for me this one actually brings back some nostalgia for the old stick. So it’s really quite well done. Although with all that gold, you gotta wonder why the monarch on the box isn’t buying up boxes of NK Kyara Fugaku instead.

Sweet Earth is the first review of I’m sure many in both this line and in Satya where the vocabulary and level of description can be difficult. Most of these incenses are variations on the champa scent with some tweaks to the perfume. Generally when you see “earth” in the title, the perfume tends to have patchouli or vetivert type notes in it and yep, checking the ingredients I see these two along with orris root. This group of herbs tends to define earthiness in a way that’s worth checking out to establish a framework; however, this has some ever-so-slight off notes due to the oils getting a bit too loud. Overall this is nicely done if lacking enough in distinction to be memorable in the same sense as King Champa. Again, I’m a bit reminded of Ramakrishnanda incenses (Bhagavan, Mukunda) that cover this area, although this one isn’t quite as successful.

Of the eight Soul Sticks I’ve tried, White Sage is the one stick that isn’t a champa-type masala. Realizing I had a White Sage in one of the Satya samplers, I broke it open to compare and Satya’s is a champa like the rest of the line, so I would guess the Soul Sticks White Sage is probably made by someone else. It also has your regular white ash. Designs by Deekay carry an incense line by Good Earth Scents that cover sage and resins incense so I would guess that part of this line is probably contracted and created by a different company. Anyway overall I think sage incenses are usually in demand due to the popularity of using sage to smudge and the incorporation of Native American cultural elements into new age spirituality. I’ve always seen new age traditions as a bit of a haphazard mishmash of varying tools from different cultures and spiritualities and so find it fascinating to see that same sort of merging in an incense line. Anyway the incense is a bit of a tart and bitter formula that includes white sage, clary sage and eucalyptus and perhaps its best aspect was it broke up a chain of really sweet champas for a bit. I didn’t like my first stick at all but found myself warming to it a bit the second go around. It certainly presents the herb in a fair fashion, so your affinity for this incense will entirely depend on whether you enjoy sage or not.

Like Sweet Earth, Wild Wood is a bit of a generic incense. It’s a little too sweet overall and very gummy. The notes listed for this incense are coffee, liquorice, sandalwood and vanilla, although I might list those in reverse order in terms of prevalance. For me this is an odd list of ingredients for an incense called Wild Wood, which is maybe where I’m hanging up, as I expect something with than name to be more tree-based or evergreen scented. However once you tune into the coffee and liquorice notes the incense gets a bit more interesting. For a couple of really powerful aromas they are very mild here, which is probably why the base of the incense might be outbalancing it. Like with Sweet Earth its certainly nice enough, but there’s no element that’s really elevating it. It’s interesting because an ingredient list like that actually reminds me a bit of Nippon Kodo Fragrance Memories. It’s kind of like I dig the experiment, but not always the results. I should add that I did not add a link to Amazon as I couldn’t find one specific for this scent alone and can not account for other sellers (I see it at one Etsy shop) at this point.

Some Admin Notes

Hello!

So in my efforts to get ORS up to speed, I have cleaned up all of the blog and supplier links. With blogs I have deleted all of the obsolete ones and marked any that just haven’t been updated in a while with the year of their last posting. If you are a reader of ORS and blog about incense, please feel free to comment below with your blog and I will consider adding it to our blogroll. If you’re sharing about incense, doing reviews, being an asset to the community, I’m interested in helping you increase your signal. If you know about good places to buy or other resources that aren’t showing do let me know.

I will also again reiterate that I screen all comments here. I have a different philosophy about this then when I originally ran the site. I’m going to keep this simple, if you’re not seeing your comment go through after a reasonable amount of time, there’s a reason for it. Past experience has shown me that most people have a solid grasp on what’s acceptable. For the very few that don’t, explaining why something isn’t acceptable doesn’t help. I can not think of an exception to this. I will just simply only pass through what is acceptable.

Also, I have been working on updating the Reviews Index. Everything since we reopened is now on there. I’m working backwards to add what I missed and then I plan on trying to update old reviews with necessary disclaimers. Hopefully this will all be helpful!

[As of about 4 PM PST, I have this mostly whipped the Reviews Index into shape, so check it out. There was a rather huge gap from 2011 to the reopening that needed adding, but it is all done now. I’m also adding historical notes and plan on adding dates to the reviews and probable some pictures and so forth when I get to them.]

Drizang Kuenchap/Lhawang Driden Incense

So just in case you haven’t, I want to refer you this review from a few days ago as it sets a bit of context for Bhutanese incense and the red/purple style that tends to be common from this country. I do so also because Lost Fragrance of the Mountain Gods lists some ingredients but Drizang Kuenchap’s Lhawang Driden incense merely tells you there’s at least 30 different ingredients in it and you’re more or less left to guess what they are. However, given that this incense is in the same style, I think you can draw some analogs from other ingredient lists.

However when it comes to this style, and while I haven’t tried them all by any means, I think this one is probably my reigning favorite. It is a very deep incense, unquestionably very heavy in high quality juniper content with a stamp of depth only comparable to the finest of Tibetan incenses. There’s nothing just surface level to this, it has musk and spice in quantities that leave quite a lasting aromatic impression on your burning environment. It has a level of high altitude freshness that many Tibetan incenses aspire to without reaching this sort of outdoorsy, elevated feel to it. It has subnotes and more complimentary aspects that incenses of this style can miss sometimes, almost like this is a prototype to those. I would guess this has a lot of the same ingredients as Lost Fragrance: saffron, clove, nutmeg, rhododendron, sandalwood and frankincense.

The real strength of Tibetan incenses to my mind and nose is that they are evocative of high altitudes, evergreen trees, camping fires and so forth. They are not usually refined incenses in the manner of Japanese sticks nor are they dependent on perfumes like Indian incenses. As a result, a lot of what is marketed in the United States often tends to be made from cheap cedarwood or juniper and is priced accordingly. Deeper Tibetan incenses result from recipes that account for the more offputting aspects of materials and manage to highlight the aspects we love about these evocations. There is something of a romance from the Western perspective of monasteries high in the mountains, deep meditation with the scent of nature permeating one’s space. And as result at least for myself they scratch a particular itch that other styles of incense don’t and if they are done well, I can becoming quickly addicted to what they offer. Lhawang Driden may not have quite succeeded in doing the same thing on the Bhutanese front as Holy Land or Wara Monastery has done for Tibetan incenses, but it is perhaps as close as I’ve gotten and does so at a nicely affordable rate.

[I was surprised to find out that I had actually reviewed this incense back in 2010 via the Reviews Index on the left!]

Mike’s Picks updated

I did a quick overall of my favorite incenses here. This is a pretty substantial overhaul from the many years old list that used to inhabit this page. Since I’m working from an excel chart and use ratings to tier them this is a list of essentially all of my 9/10 and 10/10 incenses. This only includes incenses that are available today. I aim to update the Hall of Fame pages as well, as these need a gigantic overhaul.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Earthly Delight, Black Flower Lubana, Rite of Spring

First of all let’s just take a look at the remarkable piece of art adorning the little vial of Earthly Delight. What a tremendously gorgeous piece of work. The colors on this piece are really reflective of the sort of aromatic kaleidoscope that this incense provides. The ingredients are listed as Oman Frankincense, Crimson Kua, Yemeni Myrrh, Garden herbs and blooming flowers, Sandalwood and Summer Spices, and Orange Blossom Absolute. Special attention has to be paid to the summer spices as these pop through nicely along with the really beautiful orange blossom absolute. It’s the sort of orange spice mix you might find it a soothing tea and the whole bouquet just pops with freshness. Unsurprisingly the frankincense and two types of myrrh (the kua) make up the base of this incense, and this base has obviously been wonderfully crafted to bring out the orange blossom. I actually really love the way Katlyn modifies various incenses with frankincense to bring out the various citrus types associated with various types of resins. I’ll add that I left this one on overnight accidentally and when I came back into the room it was still quite aromatically active so I’m sure a little of this aromatic powerhouse goes a long way. I will of course highly recommend grabbing this wonder while you can, although I feel like I say this a lot!

From the highly complex to the devastatingly simple … Mermade has done a lubana or few over the years, they tend to be very mild due to their benzoin content and honestly even the highest quality levels of benzoin don’t change the scent profile of it too much. So it’s nice to see one with a healthy share of black Omani frankincense in the mix to highlight the powerful and alluring scent of vanilla in the Black Flower lubana. One reason I like the frankincense here is that the vanilla would probably get a bit thick if paired with benzoin on its own, given benzoin covers a bit of similar terrain, so the frankincense gives the vanilla ingredient something to contrast with and become something of a separate aromatic entity from its base. There’s a bit of a subtle tweak with the labdanum, vetivert and agarwood hints as well. Nicely done and my favorite lubana from Mermade yet.

It’s a fun synchronicity to sit down and review Rite of Spring after getting a nice complete box of Stravinsky with that work on it. Just off the fresh incense this is a deeply pink/red incense as you might imagine with ingredients like Rose de Mai. In fact this seems to have been arranged with love magick in mind and so it has a huge floral hit. What’s impressive about this incense; however, is that once you get past that rosy top, you’re left with the mix of herbs, linden blossoms and honeysuckle that really pay tribute to the spring vibe of the name. Once again this is an incense where the resolution of these ingredients is very high. Like with all Mermade incenses, the ingredients are just superb. There are really just no better floral incenses in the world and each new variation is a wonder. I just had to hold back on dumping the entire vial on my heater in order to see if the metaphysical effects would work!

Shoyeido/Myo-kaku

Around the time I restarted ORS up again, Shoyeido announced they were discontinuing their three highest-end incenses. It might have been crushing news except that the prices on all three of these were practically stratospheric at this point. Like Nippon Kodo, Shoyeido incenses are largely heavily dependent on the oils and perfumes used in their incenses and it is likely wood shortages and related expenses brought a natural end to these formulas. For my tastes I actually prefer the #4 and #5 incenses (Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun) but even these two are now priced in the kyara range. But this isn’t to say the top three weren’t all marvels, in fact one of my favorite moments of running this site was when a benefactor graciously bestowed a roll of Sho-kaku on me as a gift. I made that last as long as I possibly could, half inch by half inch. Even now, that incense was a one of a kind experience, with an incredibly uncommon level of density. Of the old school, I believe I have about 8 sticks of an old box of Myo-Ho left, which will likely only be brought out on special occasions now. The discontinuation of these incenses definitely feels a bit like the end of an era.

As something of a replacement, Shoyeido created Myo-kaku (an obvious merging of the names of the first two) as their, now, top end. Like most Shoyeido appreciators, I awaited this new scent with baited breath. But I literally could not express my disappointment in it when it arrived. It was one of the first incenses I wanted to review, but I felt like doing so was wrapped up in the entire shift and it didn’t sit well. That is, if Myo-kaku was introduced as a separate incense in its own right without these connections to the end of what are essentially infamous incenses then perhaps it wouldn’t have felt like such a let down. But it wasn’t only that, but the roll was still kyara priced and the scent not even remotely in the quality range of at least Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun and maybe arguably the great Misho. And certainly not in the ballpark of other companies’ kyara incenses at the same price range. So instead of expressing my discontent, I shelved it for a bit. I wanted to do it justice.

Overall the issue is that it’s a $500 roll of incense (on sale!) and yet it is just simply not in that league. Consider that you can get a box of Minorien Kyara Ryugen for $330 for around twice the value and not only that Ryugen is a much, much better incense (I’d even argue it’s a world classic). I linked Myo-kaku (above) to Japan Incense because I don’t see it currently being offered at the Shoyeido USA site. Japanese incense is usually priced accordingly, you might find some great incenses cheaper but it’s pretty rare to see a kyara-priced incense that doesn’t live up to its high end billing. If I were to review the incense on its own and say you could pick it up for under 3 digits then it would probably be easy to sing its praises. I also mention Ryugen because while they are two different incenses, the black stick and tendency towards a dry, more aristocratic aloeswood blend is similar (only to the short Ryugen stick, not the long one). But actually Myo-kaku reminds me a bit more or something like the Gyokushodo Kaori No Sho range, maybe not any specific incense in that range, but just the overall aloeswood scent originating from a wood oil approach. Sure, Myo-kaku is a bit more deluxe but then so is its price.

The other thing that strikes me about this is while overall Myo-koku is an incense with a powerful aloeswood profile, it seems to lack a bit of subtlety. In an era where certain companies are experimenting with cultivated aloeswood, a worthy project that has yet to truly justify the expenses for wood that still misses a lot of what makes great aloeswood great, one is led to wonder if some of Myo-kaku comes from cultivated wood. It’s like a choice to go for overall power at the expense of subtlety (the only real subtletly it has is some sense of muskiness or dampness in the profile). And in the end if we can learn anything from rarer aloeswoods disappearing is that for the most part this subtlety will also disappear until cultivated aloeswood manages to catch up. For all these reasons, it feels like you’re actually getting a better aloeswood product from a place like Bosen or from Kida Jinseido’s Ikuhokoh or Shunkohdo Ranjatai or even Minorien’s Kyara Fu-in, all of which are much, much more affordable. And not only that but my most recent rolls of Nan-Kun and Ga-Ho both still have the kind of subtlety in the woods that Myo-kaku is missing.

So in the end is Myo-kaku a nice incense? Sure. Is it worth the price? Not even remotely. That actually may even be true now for most of the high end of the premium line, but to my nose even something like Matsu-no-tomo has more to sit with and that’s still extremely affordable. At best I would like to think that most incense companies are probably struggling with issues related to raw materials, in fact the entire history of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is watching many incenses in all ranges hit the walls and it not only affects aloeswood, but I’m sure sandalwood and halmaddi as well. And in that sense they all have my sympathies, but I do think that putting sky high price tags on incenses that are not up to speed yet is likely to backfire. There was a similar issue with Shunkohdo’s Vietnam, Zaarai / Tỉnh Gia Lai Aloeswood and Vietnam, Kanhoa / ỉnh Khánh Hò Aloeswood. Nice incenses, sure, but when you consider they’re only 10 sticks a box (so essentially $5 and $4 a stick), they’re ending up in a price range they don’t belong. Unfortunately this may end up hinting at where the market will end up eventually.

Nippon Kodo / Kyara Heian

Appreciators of high end kyara incense are probably familiar with high end Nippon Kodo price tags. Kyara Heian itself is an extaordinarily expensive incense but it’s actually and currently the #3 of 3. The #1 in this range is Kyara Fugaku which commands an incredible price of $2935 and the #2 is Kyara Kayou which goes for about half that at $1465. I think it’s safe to say that the reasoning for these astronomical prices has to do with the Nippon Kodo technique of using high amounts of perfumes and oils in their incenses and the fact that they don’t stop doing this even with pricy ingredients. So you have to imagine kyara or high-end aloeswood oils at the very least. Add to that diminishing stocks of high priced woods as well as the obvious presence of the woods themselves in these incenses and it starts to make a bit of sense. Of course if you’re putting prices tags like these on your incenses then they better impress. Because I’m sure they have to make up for the tremendous amount of personal reticence one would need to shell out these funds, unless of course you’re making a salary far in excess of most people. I was even a bit hesistant to shell out for Kyara Heian at $445. And when telecommuting essentially allowed the risk, I felt like I had hit the bingo on it, I got a phone call from the lovely people at the Nippon Kodo US shop who threw in a rather charming CD of meditation music in with it. There was this sort of like, are you sure you know what you’re getting into vibe? I imagined that purchasers of the top two incenses may have had red carpets or gala festivals as extras.

It should probably be said as well that these sticks are longer than the usual Japanese luxury kyara at just under 8 1/2 inches in length. At 60 sticks (when you consider a lot of kyaras are more in the 35 to 40 stick range and a couple inches shorter) you find that this incense is really well within the range of kyaras by Minorien or Kunmeido, there’s just a bit more outlay at first. They are packaged in deluxe fashion with a green outer box, an inner pawlonia box and a nice silk holder that the roll sits on. It takes up a lot more space than the incense does, similar in a way to Kyukyodo’s Musashino. It’s all tremendously beautiful and elegant, typical of the attention that should be given to such a masterpiece. And, of course, it is. Can you imagine paying for any of these boxes and being disappointed? And if the #3 is this stupendously impressive, one can only imagine the top two. Are they pure kyara oil? Are they as good as Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh or Kunmeido’s Tokusen Kyara Tenpyo? If incenses have appreciable affects on one’s being are these straight tickets to nirvana? Questions like these of course zipped through my mind as I excitedly lit the first stick.

Wood, wood, wood and more wood. Distilled, fine aloeswood, so dense and intense it is almost alarming. No need to guess the kyara note, even at this range it just jumps out of the aroma. The sticks are as saturated with fine oils as the brand’s lower end perfumed incenses, but naturally there is nothing off putting or synthetic about these oils. They are much louder and more striking than kyaras based on woods, but don’t take that to mean they’re less fine in any way, it’s just with this stick you don’t really have to sit close. The volume is so turned up it’s almost like the wood patterns and knotting spiral out at you from the burn. The range of subscents is nearly off the chart, in fact if you own it try moving it to different locations and see how much this changes the way you appreciate it. Lower end Nippon Kodos, even Kyara Momoyama, tend to the much sweeter (not that this isn’t, but it’s mostly due to the kyara) and don’t have nearly this sort of resolution. I was left thinking that I really don’t have any other incenses quite like this one. The old, now-deleted Tokusen Kyara Taikan and Gokuhin Kyara Taikan both hint at this range but as superb as those two were they’re still sweeter than this one.

In the end this is a matter of the price matching the aroma for sure. It’s way more a budget call than anything else. I start to feel at these high ranges nearly every kyara is gorgeous and I would imagine that it would take some real heat to justify the #1 or #2 (and maybe a mortgage). But there’s no question Nippon Kodo know how to deliver on this end. I think I’d only die happy if I lit one of these at a party, only for a guest to crinkle their nose and ask me to put it out.

Mermade Magickal Arts/Faunus, Sandalwood Dragon, High Desert Incense

Faunus is what appears to be a variation on Mermade’s classic Wild Wood formula. I have waxed frequently about how much I love Mermade’s forest blends, in fact over the years I tend to have the last 2 or 3 vintages still going in the collection and they are always a treat. This one seems to highlight fir balsam and cedar tips. For my nose, there’s something of a difference when balsam is used as it usually isn’t quite as piquant or strong as resins and so it has created a slightly quieter incense than one might expect from Wild Wood. I very much enjoy these slight variations, not just because the scents have a specific range of variation (since they essentially all belong to an evergreen family) but because new variations highlight specific ingredients and help you learn more about them. For me this just shows greater maturity in the work, which often tends to be just to show how much better the resolution is of the spirit of the plants being used. So you move from just experiencing a forest scent to actually experiencing the scent of each tree as a separate entity before the mix happens. Also, this one is interesting in that it seems to be aimed at a more summery scent, when I tend to personally associate these incenses with the cooler seasons. Needless to say newcomers to Mermade are advised to grab the latest of this type of mix when grabbing a heater.

While Sandalwood Dragon implies its main ingredient in its name, the mixture of frankincense and myrrh resins along with camphor really impart as much of the overall scent as the sandalwood, which really works around the edges and compliments the center more. This has a very lime/citrus aroma to it and is quite invigorating. I’ve loved the scent of camphor since I was a child and it’s in a nicely mellow form here, kind of like the glow on top. As I mentioned in the previous round up that it’s often tough to keep up with a reviews as this one has ticked down to “one left.” So I hope this isn’t the last we see of it, as I really like the way the ingredients compliment and accent the more crystalline elements of sandalwood.

While we don’t usually review raw materials at ORS, I’ll make it known that I usually grab a bit of frankincense or some other gem when shopping at Mermade, as not only does Katlyn provide a number of different kinds of frankincense, with wonderful variants, there are a lot of other neat treats to find as well. Some times she blends these resins and raw materials into more simple mixes, such as the well-named High Desert Incense. I’ll just quote the ingredients: “Pebbles of Copal Blanco, Aleppo Pine, Pinon Pine, and Maydi Frankincense soaked in Essential oils of Cedar, Fir, and Pine and dusted with Red Cedar and Juniper powdered wood.” This mix of materials really gives this one a bit of a southwestern feel, with the frankincense taking a bit of a back seat to the copal and pine. It has been resolved so the woodier smells that coat the resin really come out in the mix, the final adjustment that really provides the evocation of the desert. It seems like a perfect incense for the summer.

Ap Sonam Tashi/Bhutan Jewel Incense: The Lost Fragrance of the Mountain Gods

I wanted to talk about Bhutanese incense for a bit. While of course there’s some overlap with Tibetan incenses due to the monasteries, Bhutanese incense commonly falls into what are essentially pink, red or slightly purple sticks that are all created largely similarly. Most stick incenses from Bhutan fall in this category and I would guess Nado incenses are probably the brand most people are familiar with. I don’t tend to see a huge variation in this theme. These sticks are created for a bit more durability than you see in many Tibetan sticks. They’re much harder to break, have a higher tensile strength, and tend to thickness. They’re also very blended in the sense that individual components are much harder to pick out from the overall scent. To my nose Bhutanese incenses tend to be a bit higher in resinous content than most Tibetan sticks, frankincense in particular seems to be a dominant note. These sticks can not only be fruity but they’re a bit berry like, likely from the juniper content which often tends to be the incense’s top ingredient. There’s certainly a lot of wood, herbs and spices in them but my general feeling is the ingredient list tends to be large enough to mix into a more homogenous whole. The difference between variant Bhutanese sticks then tends to be how deep the aroma is, whether it’s a sort of general theme or whether the more variant notes pop through a little more.

To that end, “The Lost Fragrance of the Mountain Gods” seems to be a pretty solid entry into this field and one that appears to be aimed at the English market. So in this case we can find out the incense also contains giwang (bezoar) (this appears to be something of a medicinal/herbal mix), clove, musk, nutmeg and saffron as well, most of which are also quite common in all Tibetan and Bhutanese incenses. In fact it has been impressed upon me quite frequently of late how much of a player saffron tends to be in these blends, it often seems to be what imparts a floral note to the top end which mixes nicely with the musk note. This incense is probably not quite as resinous as other Bhutanese, but I personally prefer that as it lets the woodiness out a bit. Overall, this is not a bad place to start overall if you want a good example of the style.

Mermade Magickal Arts/Ostara, Sweet Medicine, Sunpati

One of the difficulties of maintaining a site like Olfactory Rescue Service is covering the boutique/independent incense creators. However, one of the great things about these creators is that once they get some steam underneath them then their products end up selling themselves and the venerable Mermade Magickal Arts is a prime example. I’ve been buying from Mermade (or in the way past from outfits that sold Mermade products) since the late 90s.

Olfactory Rescue Service would probably not even be in existence if it wasn’t for the effect Katlyn Breene’s Shamanic Circle had on me as it really showed that place where the scent departs but the memory continues. My first experience with this incense was literally smelling it hours later after I had departed the area, like it had just dug into my subconscious and became a font of memory-scent. Not long after this I was introduced to great aloeswood incense and it was very similar. Part of the power of incense is its collaboration with the user, with the user’s experience and memories, the partaker’s sense of place and nostalgia. Katlyn’s familiarity with the western magickal tradition was also something I personally resonated with over the next decade and so her brilliant artwork and presentation also enhanced her incenses as well as imparting subtle energies to them that are quite impressive and true to the subject material. Katlyn is also a mentor to a whole new generation of creators and is a tremendous asset to the whole community. Mermade is quite simply an incense institution, perhaps the paragon of American incense.

So now we’re talking about an artist 20 years later who has been at the top of her game for years and whose every new work is a treasure, no matter what it is. When I visit the shop, I just find the newest scents I have that are available. They turn over much faster now and I’m assuming much of that is just due to the quality, the word of mouth, the internet etc. The materials get finer, the recipes more original and creative, the surprises more plentiful and impressive. So this article will be a snapshot in time and is likely to be obsolete shortly and just a memory. It wouldn’t shock me if one of two of these scents are gone by the time you read this. They are worthy of being snapped up. Which of course means that months down the line there will be new incenses or new versions etc.

Ostara is a very balanced blend of mastic, sweet mint, myrtle and jasmine. When I lived at my old place years ago, I had some mint plants in my back yard that literally took over the entire area at one point, creating a smell that overwhelmed anything else close. Mint is a strong, extremely overpowering scent if you’re not careful, which, of course, is why its a mainstay in gums, breath fresheners and so forth. To use it appropriately in an incense takes a fine guiding hand and naturally that’s what you will find in Katlyn’s work. All four of the elements mentioned here are present in the final bouquet without one overpowering the other, which certainly took some skill as it would have been easy for the myrtle to get buried under the mint and jasmine. The myrtle in particular sets the blend apart as its such a gentle, unique smell that isn’t very common in incense. The fact that this has a mastic base rather than one from frankincense or other resin also helps to move this to a unique space as its fruity component seems to hit a bit closer to apples and pears than the lemon and lime you tend to expect from frankincense. There’s also a touch of the wild in this one. I’ve noticed more and more of Mermade’s recent incenses have a bit of a liqueur or aged like subscent to them that give everything an extra level of complexity. This level has almost like a bit of banana peel to it, a reminder of the depth of the wild behind the nature. The Brian Froud-like artwork on the container is the icing on the cake as far as this is concerned.

Sweet Medicine is another new favorite of mine that I’m hoping to see as a perennial classic from Mermade like Wild Wood or Pan’s Earth or Kyphi. It wasn’t terribly long ago I wrote in praise of Tennendo’s Propolis incense, so it’s wonderful to see this amazing aromatic source in another incense, and here it is part of a blend with so much goodness it’s hard not to be exhaustive: sweet grass, black and honey frankincense, benzoin, balsam, myrrh, balsam poplar buds and sweet clover. The overall profile is of course sweet but it’s also complex and wonderfully energetic and it builds in intensity to an aromatic crescendo as it builds in space. The balsamic content and propolis in particular I think grounds the sweetness in a way that’s important in giving it some personality, it lets it hit that spot without becoming too cloying. This means the overall impact is just glorious, with the sweet grass also giving it a touch of airiness. Right now I have two newly planted trees in the front yard that are budding and attracting much of the local bee population so this seems like the right time to break such an incense out. A real A+++ treat, don’t miss it.

Sunpati is subtitled a Quiet Mind incense and it certain is a much quieter incense than those that are generally based on woods or resins. It is made from Rhododendron Anthopogon leaves and flowers, an ingredient that tends to find its way into many a Tibetan incense, Linden leaves, flowers and essential oils, an ingredient you don’t find in incense much at all, and a nunnery-sourced Lawudo blend from Nepal. As the description at the page reveals, this is something of a grassy, tobacco tinged, sweet, late summer to early autumnal sort of blend whose ingredients usually don’t find their way to this level of resolution. If you have been using stronger incenses before this they’re likely to overwhelm the finer aspects of this incense which are gentle and very unique, in the same way you might find piles of leaves that have fallen of trees or a mix of bushes and plants on a walk. It has an almost wistful, nostalgic vibe to it. I love these sorts of experiments as they introduce me to scents I haven’t experienced before and show that our practiced incense creators continue to stretch out into new terrain.

More Mermade scents, just around the corner, I have a few more to go (they’re all in the top picture)….

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