Best Incense – August 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – The question du jour: When is Essence going to restock this? Yes, I know I haven’t come close to finishing up the box yet. Yes, it’s probably a waste to burn 50 sticks of this at once, but I won’t know for sure until I try. Anyway, while the answer is certainly ASAP, I hope my (mild) anxiety over this reflects just how totally and completely crushed over Holy Land I am. It’s quite likely to be my favorite incense for quite a while as only…
  2. Highland Incense – …is anywhere close to how I feel about it. In fact Highland here comes pretty darn close as a #2 and as the product of a retired Tibetan Medical College doctor, it’s not difficult to think about these two in the same breath. But where Holy Land gets the step due to its unbelieavable floral middle, which comes out the most when you’re not looking for it, Highland has such a balanced muskiness with a nice sweetness that it also constantly compels me to return to the box.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – Every premium series seems to have its own character and style and the kokohs aren’t any different. In fact the defining aspect, at least of the Byukaden and Jinko Kokohs, is more so the ingredients other than the woods. Particularly the borneol and spices which seem to be at about the highest, natural level available in these incenses. They help to make these among the most penetrating incenses available. Would love to see these in long stick form.
  4. Baieido / Kunsho – I think it dawns on anyone using any one of the five Baieido aloeswoods (in Pawlonia boxes) that the series is strong from top to bottom, but it really takes a good half a box to realize just how great they really are. I’d been a little late grabbing a Kunsho box, but so glad I did as every stick is an exercise in reflection. Sweet, deep, classy, refined, this one may be just as good as the next step up Koh En. Or at least I think so this week.
  5. Shunkodo / Kyara Aioi no Matsu – I’m so enamored with Kyara Seikan that it occludes my view on the Aioi no Matsu. The other issue is the AnM suffers pretty hard with aromatic fatigue, given that so much of its majesty is in the very top spice notes. But when you get everything, it’s truly extraordinary with a dozen or so different aspects going on. A tremendously complicated blend.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – I just can never get enough of this one, an easy all-time top 5 pick and my favorite Shoyeido premium. It’s dry and spicy/heavily resinated wood one-two attack gets me every time. The day I buy 135 sticks is the day it becomes a #1 pick for a few months.
  8. Encens du Monde / Meditation / Guiding Light – Probably because it’s fairly essential oil heavy, this incense does a fantastic job scenting a larger area over time. I really adore the smell of this one, especially after about half a long stick has burned. Even with all the oils this is at essence a very complex, very woody incense. Just one or two sticks a month tends to push it into my monthly best.
  9. Tennendo / Karafune Kahin-Gold – It took me a while to come around to this series, in fact had I written the review today I’d have compared them to the above-mentioned Baieido aloeswood series as they’re really that difficult to parse. Over time I’ve been noticing just how quality the aloeswood is in this and (in lesser quantity) the Silver. But now these are starting to really grow on me and I’m starting to notice more of the woody qualities. Sleeper hits for sure.
  10. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar – This one has fallen due to the Holy Land, which seems in comparison to be more of a B grade, but this is a B grade better than most A grades. The intensity of the spices isn’t as high and I suspect that’s due to juniper berry. But it’s still one of those incenses you can smell the musk straight off the stick and it only suffers in comparison to Holy Land


  1. Mark said,

    August 28, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Hi Terry, I think you hit right on it when you say batches vary both within and without—makes it even more precious when you come across one that really speaks to you since you may rarely if ever come across another with exactly the same qualities.

    RE: the ‘petroleum’ comment, it could be that YOUR nose is sharper than mine! Or it could be batch, or it could be body chemistry, etc. I’ll say once again though that I really love that particular mix regardless. I’ve received a lot of comments, even if I only use a tiny drop. One comment was that it smells ‘temple-like’. And like I said, after the first 15 minutes, the whole thing becomes sublime. If anything the ‘petroleum’ character is bracing and fixative if that makes sense–sort of lays the groundwork for what is to come.

    Back to the musk discussion, I’ve been reading a bit more as well. Frankly, it does make my feelings grow more ambivalent (make no mistake, the American-style PC is certainly a part of my own education). Anyway, it doesn’t seem that other parts of the animal are used since the meat is not palatable (these are quite small animals as well — 15kg max), and the individual hairs don’t remain securely attached to the skin when the fur is used. The ‘pod’ itself only appears on males, so hopefully animals are not taken indiscriminantly. However, I don’t think conservation and/or farming and live harvesting without harm to the animal have been very successful, and some populations of some species are endangered (nothing on the level of mold-infested Aquilaria however).

    (one article can be found at

    I’m just sharing thoughts. Mike please if anything I’ve said ventures toward trolling or invites exchanges that aren’t civil, just delete this post, okay?


  2. Terry said,

    August 27, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Hi Mark and Mike, you are totally correct about “some procurers” not harming the animal, but all to often I feel the animal is compromised in the process. The price of the musk overshadows the waste of the rest of the animal. Mark, my nose just isn’t as sharp as yours. I can’t find the petroleum notes you mention, but remember every batch is different. This is especially true with 100% oudh oils. The whole process is as complex as the individual trees the resin comes from, in that every tree has it own scent. I’m no expert here, but using oils for years, I’ve found that oils from the same batch/extraction have had a different scent. That’s not a bad thing though, it’s all mostly wonderful.

  3. Mike said,

    August 27, 2008 at 9:29 am

    The way I kind of look at the whole ecological aspect of these incenses is to allow that kind of discussion at any time as long as it remains civil. “American-style PC” is a perfect way of putting it really, but it’s definitely one world view among many worth discussing when it comes to animal musk, aloeswood and other endangered and controversial aromatics.

    I was reading up a little on this whole subject and there’s definitely some complexity to it. One thing I’m curious about is with muskdeer, given that a lot of the hunting and poaching of these animals exists in the more non-industrial areas of the former USSR, Mongolia etc, does anyone know if the pod is the only part of the deer used?

  4. Mark said,

    August 27, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but for those who are really interested in the real thing, you can occasionally find musk ‘granules’ which are 100% straight-from-the-gland :-/ The musk or ‘misk’ precipitates into dark brown or black crystalline grains with the consistency of salt or sugar. These grains are soluble on liquid, or they melt with heat or when rubbed on the skin. I think some procurers are able to harvest without harming the animal while others take the entire gland and sell it as is. Sorry, not American-style PC I know.

  5. Mark said,

    August 27, 2008 at 5:27 am

    Hi Terry, I was going to recommend the Black Musk w/ Cambodian Oudh too! It’s my current favorite. The tiniest little drop does go and go, and the balance between musk and aloeswood is pretty near perfect I think. Just one thought, these are wonderful oudhs, but they are formulated per Arab sensibilities and tastes–not Japanese. While one culture might deem a certain quality to be the mark of a lesser aloeswood, another might call the same quality the mark of an extremely fine one. For example the above mentioned blend for me does have an initial note of resin that is very faintly reminiscent of turpentine, varnish or even slightly crude oil or diesel-like. It’s definitely not unpleasant to me (on the contrary) and it fades in about 15 minutes behind the loveliest deep musk and spicy, resinous aloeswood that just lingers on the skin for hours.

    I’ve also tried the following pure extracted oudhs: Sufi, Laos, Cambodian, and Kalimantan. They’re all brilliant, but I’d classify the Laos and Cambodian as more toward the spicy/dry, the Kalimantan more toward the sweet, tobaccoey, caramel. I think Sufi is somewhere between those two ends.

    Also have enjoyed the Shangri-la. It’s a very complex sweet white floral with definite gardenia, jasmine, tuberose, and rose notes, but these mellow to allow musk, resin, spice and wood to come through after an hour or so.


  6. Terry said,

    August 26, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I have purchased from Sharif at Agarscents for some time. One good musk oil blend is the Black Musk w/Cambodian oil. One small drop will last you all day and into the night. Warning! It does contain musk from a real live animal for those of you that tend to lean away from that sort of thing. I have been told that no harm comes to the deer though. YMMV.

  7. Ross Urrere said,

    August 26, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Mark, thanks for the cool oud site.

  8. Mike said,

    August 26, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Thanks Mark. Any particular one or two you recommend?

  9. Mark said,

    August 26, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Oops! Meant to…

  10. Mike said,

    August 26, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Real musk is just so startling. I handed the box of the fresh sticks of Holy Land to my friend last night and his reaction was hilarious. With herbal musk and the like it’s just not nearly as strong on the fresh stick. Both Holy Land and Highland are just rank with it on the fresh stick. I’m looking forward to trying the powder myself!

    But do share about these blends you discovered. 🙂 Any links?

  11. Mark said,

    August 26, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Am so looking forward to trying the Highland powder on my heater as soon as my next order arrives from Beth. I’m definitely on a musk kick lately as I’ve discovered these amazing fragrance oil blends of true Moschus moschiferus and steam-distilled oudh—-‘supernal’ I reckon!!!! 🙂

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