Best Incense – February 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above]

  1. Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Enkuu-Horizon is the incense I’d probably burn most often would it grow on trees and there was no such thing as kyara. There are qualities in this incense that remind me of a good aged single malt, as if there was a maturation process involved. It’s dense, woody and extraordinarily complex.
  2. Mandala Trading / Tibetan Monastery Incense (third down) – This is one of the most addictive, consistently impressive Tibetan incenses and one I burn at least every other day. There’s something about the Mandala Trading incense that makes the incenses so potent and this one has a cinnamon/spice mixed with a more traditional herbal base that I just can’t get enough of. One of the best under $10 incenses you can buy.
  3. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – If I had an objective favorite incense it would be this one and as such it’s hard to knock it off the list even if in the last two months I’ve been conservative in reaching for one of these sticks. One of the finest aromatic experiences available.
  4. Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-Machi – Maybe it speaks for the whole Horin line, but I tend to hop favorites in every given month and could easily see any of the five on the list. Muro-machi’s the newest for me, it’s a caramel aloeswood that combined a rich sweetness with a very high quality of wood. I severely depleted my stock on this one this month.
  5. Shunkodo / Yoshino no haru – Even though many of the Shunkodo incenses don’t breach this top 10 list, I may burn them more than any other incense. The primary reason for this is just that each Shunkodo roll has 140-160 sticks and thus I feel like I can burn them without feeling like I’m running out. Yoshino no haru is similar to Kunmeido Asuka and Heian Koh in that it’s a green aloeswood with a very particular rich and fresh aroma. While this one isn’t perhaps quite as deluxe as the Kunmeidos, I also have a lot more of it and thus burn it fairly frequently.
  6. Shoyeido / Incense Road or Gourmet / Frankincense – I’m just about out of stock on this one so it may be a while before it hits this list again, but I’ve grown to adore this very rich and spicy stick. It’s of the kind (like Horin/Hori-kawa) that tends to even impress friends who don’t normally notice your incense.
  7. Mandala Trading / Himalayan Herbal Incense (second down) – I didn’t warm to this quite as fast as the Tibetan Monastery Blend but I’m starting to like this one almost as much. It makes me think spearmint candy cane. I had left this burning upstairs and ran out for a quick errand. When I came back the whole place was imbued with this fresh, minty, herbal scent.
  8. Shunkodo / Haru no Kaori – While I wouldn’t really put this rather inexpensive aloeswood incense in the same league as Kyukyodo’s Azusa, it’s a vaguely similarly styled incense, combining a floral top note with a slight and unobtrusive woody base. I kept coming back to this incense over and over during the month.
  9. Kunmeido / Reiryo Koh – Eventually I’ll get around to making a top 10 Incense under $10 list and if I do, this trusty classic will likely be in the top half. It’s one of the few non-aloeswood incenses that has an intense complexity to it. I assume the Reiryo root is part of the equation, although in more deluxe Kunmeido incenses you get that depth without the wild and initially intense spice note here. It starts off rough and challenging but really mellows out into a fine incense.
  10. Baieido / Tokusen Syukohkoku – Aromatic fatigue who nail just about anyone who burns more than a few sticks in a given night. I mention this because this deluxe Baieido stick is utterly awe inspiring if you’re coming into an incense burning session fresh. It’s partially the very high quality aloeswood but there’s also a very mild yet complex level of spice that can get lost if the nose is numb. One of the world’s great incenses.

Nippon Kodo / Fragrance Memories / Green Oasis, Happy Valley, Paris Cafe, Santa Fe Breeze, Siesta Siesta, Silk Road Dream, Tequila Sunrise

The Nippon Kodo Fragrance Memories line, which I believe used to be called NK Style, is an admirably ambitious line whose results don’t really live up to the bargain on most occasions. You can think of the line as something of an incense travelogue and the scents concocted for this line span the entire globe. All of the scents are affordable, around $6 for a 20 stick box, and the style on all of the scents is modern and usually user friendly. My experience with nearly all of these is that they were very interesting on an initial burn or two but over time most of them wore out their welcome and often blurred with some of the other scents, making very few of what I sampled distinctive. While this line has many different scents, some of which are switched in and out of the line over the years, I’m just covering the seven fragrances I’ve tried, as it’s likely I won’t be trying anymore in the near future.

Several of the “greener” fragrances all definitely kind of blurred together for me over time. Whether it’s the mangrove in Green Oasis or the cactus in Happy Valley or Santa Fe Breeze, the scent reminds me of something alive and verdant, green and snappy and tends to dominate most of the other notes in the incense. Green Oasis adds starfruit and palm tree to the mangrove but all of the notes seem to wash out in one very crisp green and eventually cloying incense that suffers from having very little personality. The stone pine and lime in Happy Valley might balance it a bit more but mostly what you get is the snappy, green cactus odor and in this case the extra notes make it a bit too citrusy and like the Tequila Sunrise, one is left with the impression of a margarita left a bit too long in the sun. The cranberry and green chili in Santa Fe Breeze give the incense a bit more character than the other two with a similar green-ish sort of scent (and the spice of the chili gives it a bit of zip), but there’s still a dominant plant tone that makes all three of these all too similar in effect. Over time, I’ve grown fairly tired of all of them.

Paris Cafe is a cinnamon, coffee and chocolate blend that’s vaguely similar to the New Morningstar Earth line except this is a much stronger and intense blend that is very evocative of a café, although part of the aroma makes me think of a coffee smell that’s been, perhaps, sitting around too long. I really liked this aroma the first couple of times, but eventually found that it was too intense and stimulating for almost all moods, except when needing a pep up. You’d almost believe you’d get a caffeine dose from the scent itself. Overall the New Morningstar Earth strikes a better balance and isn’t so in your face.

Siesta Siesta is one of the line’s truly distinctive incenses and immediately with the blood orange, tomato and sangria notes you know you’re getting something unique. In fact only the sangria acts as a note in the background, with the blood orange and in this case sort of a vine ripened tomato scents combining in a fairly exotic fashion. It’s an extremely rich blend, maybe too much at times but the scents used are undeniably fascinating and thus you really can’t compare this to any other incense.

Silk Road Dream is probably my favorite in this group, likely due to the presence of jinkoh/aloeswood. While the line is probably synthetic to some extent given that many of these scents aren’t all that easily extractable from their source, at least in this case it adds up to a fairly well balanced blend. The other two ingredients are olibanum and fennel, and it’s particularly this last note that gives the blend a bit of spice pep. I wouldn’t put this in the same league as other natural aloeswood sticks by any means, but it’s perhaps somewhat comparable to the Kayuragi Aloeswood stick, which also seems to be enhanced in some way and has a more surface like rather than complex aloeswood scent.

Tequila Sunrise evokes for me a scent more redolent of long drinking nights rather than anything aromatically pleasant. Its combination of aloe, bergamot and lime probably should have had me include this with the greener incenses early in this post as the aloe (not the wood of course) has a greenish scent, but overall the aroma is a bit mesquite and unfortunately reminds me of what a room might smell like after a tequila party. It has that sort of salty, sickly sweet aroma at times, while at others there’s a slight (and unidentified) woodiness to the incense. I can’t imagine many westerners will find this pleasant.

Overall this is definitely an incense line for the modern market and most of these incenses aren’t likely to appeal to those seeking high end and more traditional scents. I don’t think I could recommend any of them wholeheartedly although I find Silk Road Dream pleasant and Siesta Siesta unique enough to be worth a sample. But the rest of the line doesn’t really encourage me to seek out the other scents, and I think part of this is all of the incenses share a base scent that isn’t quite as succesful as that used by Shoyeido in their Horin, 12 Months and other lines, all of which are comparable to Fragrance memories due to the thickness and short stick size.

With at least another 15 fragrances I haven’t tried, I’d be interested if anyone has any favorites from this line that might be worth trying…

Nippon Kodo / Kayuragi / Aloeswood, Bitter Orange, Osmanthus, Pomegranate

Nippon Kodo’s Kayuragi line consists of eight different incenses all packaged in very striking cardboard slips over wood boxes. They’re obviously created for the western market, although unlike the Morning Star lines these are fairly expensive incenses for the quality, especially for what are sandalwood-based incenses, pricing anywhere between $9-$14. Kayuragi also comes in both sticks and cones, the latter perhaps a little less expensive per box. While I haven’t tried the entire line and may not for a while, I do get the impression that the whole line is pretty user friendly and at least two scents in this current list are among the best-selling and most popular in the line.

The Kayuragi Aloeswood reminds me a lot of their new Kohden aloeswood incenses, where those familiar with the difference between sandalwood and aloeswood bases will immediately note that all the aloeswood play is in the spice or oil notes rather than the base, with the sandalwood being as dominant as anything in the blend. This gives me the impression of a sandalwood stick being dipped in aloeswood oil, rendering the entire aloeswood scent in this influence as surface notes. It’s as if they eliminated all of the depth and expansiveness of aloeswood and kept the sweet top notes, spicing everything up for Western noses. It’s a pleasant incense, sure, but, as an analogy it feels like one’s drinking an American commercial beer rather than a Belgian tripel ale.

Bitter Orange was a scent I was really hoping to like, as I’ve never tried an incense that captured citrus to my liking. But I found the scent to be fairly cloying and offputting, which may mean that I’m not really fond of the Bitter Orange flower as opposed to a bitter/orange combo. Every stick of this has basically made me like it that much less, but I don’t think I’d chalk that up to the quality as much as to my resistance to the style. While Kayuragi incenses don’t tend to have much of a soapy, synthetic offnote, if there was one scent close to that it would be this one.

Osmanthus was recommended to me at a local store a while back and appears to be one of Kayuragi’s most popular lines. It’s easy to see why as this is a very mellow, floral almost watery incense that’s extremely accessible. Of course, this also means that there’s not a whole lot of depth to the scent, but those who like very mellow florals (think honeysuckle for example) will probably enjoy this easily. Unlike Bitter Orange, there’s nothing offputting at all about this one.

Pomegranate was my first Kayuragi and still remains my favorite of the four I’ve tried. Fruit-based incenses aren’t often all that succesful to my nose (a lot of the times it seems the woods and oils are at cross purposes), but this one more or less nails it on the head, it’s got a tart, berry like note that tends to dominate the base and should be recognized as pomegranate without a lot of head scratching. Again, this isn’t likely to appeal to those who want complexity or depth to their scents but it’s certainly a better alternative to scents like this that come from spray cans. Occasionally I find this mixes it up quite pleasantly.

So really, Kayuragi seems to strike a decent balance between its base and top scents and should really appeal to those who might be adverse to more traditional or exotic scents. It’s generally one of Nippon Kodo’s better lines in this vein, if a bit on the pricey side, and definitely one of the more smartly packaged brands around.

Minorien / Frankincense, Fuuin Sandalwood, Fuuin Kyara

Minorien export four incenses to the United States market. Three of them are in the title, the other I reviewed a little while back. All four incenses have in common a unique earthiness that accentuates the natural ingredients and base materials of the incense more than any spices or oil top notes. For those looking for sweeter, friendlier incenses you might find the Frankincense to  your liking, however the rest of these might be termed difficult incenses in that the notes are generally strong wood, an almost wet type of aroma and little in the way of balancing the aromas to make them friendly to Western noses. All incenses are quite affordable, although the highest end Fuuin Kyara is likely to be pretty costly despite it not being in the usual kyara price ranges.

The Frankincense seems to have been specifically created for the Western market and it’s likely to appeal to anyone who enjoys the type of resin blends burned in Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. While it has an obvious woody base due to the format, little of that aspect of the stick gets in the way of what is more of a blend rather than a pure resin stick such as Tennendo provides. It’s kind of a triumph in a way, as I’ve never tried an incense stick that was anywhere close to this kind of resin blend and found it instantly user friendly.

I also found the Fuuin Sandalwood to be very nice. As someone who grew up with various Indian sticks and dhoops, a lot of the purer high end old mountain sandalwood sticks don’t actually appeal to me as much as less costly, often accentuated Indian sticks do, which is one of the few reliefs to my pocketbook. Minorien’s Fuuin Sandalwood is actually very similar in ways to some of the better Indian dhoop sticks with the wood containing a more saturated sort of smell that’s slightly sweet and a bit more powerful than most purer Japanese wood sticks. In fact this could end up being one of my favorite sandalwood sticks and it definitely has the Minorien signature “wet” smell, something perhaps a bit more attractive for sandalwood than for aloeswood.

Fuuin Kyara is Minorien’s high end stick, but don’t let the kyara name evoke the very high end Shoyeido and Baieido kyara sticks; this isn’t even close to the same league as those and I’d bet that the actual level of kyara in the Fuuin sticks to be very low; it would have to be to be sold at this price. As such, this stick isn’t all that far off from the Fuuin Aloeswood, with all of its aristocratic, bitter characteristics. The kyara leavens the unfriendliness of the wood a little and you’ll know when your stick hits the ingredient, as the aroma will get a bit richer and friendlier.

Overall both the Fuuin Aloeswood and Kyara sticks are very unique in that neither has a lot of softening ingredients, leaving the wood to be brash and in your face. I actually find this to be the strength, rather than the weakness, of the whole Minorien line, that the sticks can provide a contrasting bitter, woody note to other sweeter and spicier incenses. It makes them fairly unique among all Japanese incense sticks.