Administration, news etc.

We’re in a bit of a quiet phase here at ORS, at least outwardly, as time as been taken up for both Ross and I for different reasons. While I’ve meant to get some work up on the site, I haven’t had the right series of conditions for write ups, but hope (hope) to have at least one up by the end of the week.

I’m a little sad to note that Kotaro and Jay at Japan Incense have temporarily closed their “brick and mortar” store, having meant to visit in person the next time I’m in the bay area. I can only imagine the overhead in the Marina district must be very high, but do hope it returns as I’m sure anyone doing business with them will fully agree. We’d once again like to thank them for all their work in bringing lots of new incenses into the country and enriching our lives as a result. And as they’re still in operation as an internet store, we recommend dropping by.

I’m also delighted to announce that ORS is bringing on a new writer, Nancy Hyton! Nancy’s an acupuncturist and herbalist at the Center for Holistic Medicine, a new perspective on incense I think everyone will enjoy and appreciate. I should have her account up in the next few days and hand over the microphone at that point. I should also mention that we’re always open to new contributors here (we’re looking in particular for someone who’s good with Indian incense), so if you’re interested in joining the ORS team, please do contact me through the Review Information page on your right.

And more good news, it looks like we have the start of another incense-related blog here: http://synaesthesiae.blogspot.com/. With  the initial post on a visit to Shoyeido headquarters, this site is one to bookmark!

And a reminder to check over at Essence of the Ages, who is getting a number of new incenses. While there are a lot of NEW signs next to companies, don’t forget to check some of the standbys for new scents, I noticed new items in many of the old companys. We’re constantly amazed at Beth’s archaeological talent at digging up new scents and can imagine there’s some new gems in there.

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Best Incense – September 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. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The price on Shoyeido premiums necessitates some discipline in terms of frequency of burning, but despite all attempts at restraint, I’m closing in on the halfway point of my “silk box” and eyeing the bigger roll and wondering how I can afford one in this sinking economy. I just can’t get enough of what may be my very favorite incense. This one’s dry, unlike any other incense, heavy with high quality aloeswood, and the oil/perfume is stupendous. Just can’t get enough of this one. Extremely exotic and not nearly as immediate as the rest of the line.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – And almost for a different reason, Nan-Kun is nearly as addictive. I think my appreciation for musk is higher of late due to all the Tibetans and while Nan-Kun gets its muskiness likely from the very high quality and heavy use of spikenard, it still itches that same spot while hitting the aloeswood and spice buttons at the same time. This one is very animal and rich, with an almost poignant sweetness to it. Possibly the best buy for money in the Shoyeido Premium line. To my nose, I enjoy Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun as much as the expensive kyaras in the line.
  3. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Seikan sticks are thin enough to look like they’d break in a strong wind, but their aromatic power for such a size is always startling, even if one does have to quiet down to “hear” it. In many ways this is the kyara incense that really focuses on the wood and while there are obvious ingredients that bolster the aroma, the sweet, sultry smell of the wood is central. A superlatively brilliant incense that I can barely get enough of.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – Down to about 15 sticks left in my box and I practically need disciplined meditation to stay away from it given the wait for a restock (when I go nuts). The very apex of Tibetan incense, a stick that rivals any country’s best work.
  5. Highland Incense – Highland’s the trusty #2 Tibetan brand for me as I wait for more Holy Land, a combination of animal (musk, civet?) and herbal spice that is incredibly comforting and relaxing right before sleep (I often burn about 2 inches of a stick as I drift off). Becoming a standard around here, don’t let this one go out of stock before you try it!
  6. Baieido / Kunsho – My recent musing is wondering whether Kunsho, the third most premium of five in Baieido’s Pawlonia box line, might be equal or better than the fourth, Koh En. As I get to know Baieido incense, more and more do I think you’re getting your best value for money from their products. I could see Kunsho at almost twice the price and still be worth it. Slightly cherry-esque with a very balanced and noble wood to it, this is truly impressive incense.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles.
  8. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – I am returning to this Tibetan stick fairly often even though in doing so I keep sampling the rest of the line and wonder why I like this one so much more. I think it must be the curry-ish spice to it which seems missing in the others, a green-ish , exotic tinge that brings out the ingredient complexity.
  9. Minorien / Aloeswood – As I cycle through various incenses I often come across this one and am impressed all over again, particularly surprising as the two above it in the Minorien line are more refined and impressive. But there’s something so ancient and hoary about this aloeswood that it tends to scratch that itch I have with aloeswoods that aren’t too sweet. Like Baieido, Minorien’s products have a way of continuing to impress long after one’s initial purchase.
  10. The Direct Help Foundation / The Druid – I’m not sure this incense is still available, it was originally part of the Magic Tantra set and maybe one other, but perhaps it will show up again in the future. It’s actually somewhat similar in its salty herbalness to the Tibetan Medical College incenses, although not at all musky or dense like those. I’m not sure what the active ingredients is here, the mosses or something else, but the results are a very pleasant blend I hope comes back in the future. Because when TDHF get it right like they do here, they’re among the best.

New incense trading page

Incense Trading, Absinthe

One project I have to set up in the next few weeks is an incense trading circle. I had been waiting until my first big box of samples was received by some site friends before mentioning it. The plan is basically this: I spent a while getting rid of incense boxes that weren’t to my tastes and then sending them to the “next person on the list.” The recipients will do the same, keeping what they like, adding incenses they don’t like from their collections and sending the next box onto the next person. This, of course, can be done by anyone who wants to get involved (some of you may remember Steve’s giveaway a few months ago) and hopefullly it will be a good way of educating everyone’s noses. But at some point in the near future I’ll be creating a separate page for this activity, probably when the next circle participant is ready to send their box forward. Of course, feel free if you have any ideas on how to run this thing to comment here.

Second, I’ve been crazy busy the last month or two with my weekends basically taken up with other (fun) things, so for a few weeks I’ll be spreading my reviews out a little more, now that I’m down to five articles with notes finished and an Essence project I need to return to this weekend. One of the fun things that came out of last weekend happened during a surprise visit to the local Beverages and More store, where upon making comment about an absinthe bottle (apparently fake) at the front counter, was told that absinthe is actually legal in the US as of December 2007 (who knew?) Now you might be wondering why I’m talking about absinthe on an incense site. The revelance is that the herbal content of absinthe is actually very incense-like, with wormwood, fennel and sage all being part of its bouquet. I bought La Tourment Vert and prepared the absinthe for my company by using the traditional ice water over sugar cube in a slotted spoon method. What’s amazing about this process is that the water and sugar actually release the aromatics, so without having a sip, this aromatic blast of anise and fennel was not all that dissimlar to the herbs on a heater. And what occured to me experiencing the absinthe was just how similar its aroma was, in part, to some of the Shoyeido premiums. There’s just something liqeur or even winelike to the heavily oiled incenses that “absinthe” may end up being part of my descriptor list in the near future. And where aloeswood and other aromatics have a way of reaching into your head, absinthe, of course, is even more powerful.

Oud Blog

Check out the photos in the Oud Blog on the left side of ours under “Blogs”

Notce how they are pouring the oil into tiny bottles for sale. When I try this stunt with any liquid a lot tends to go on the floor. Imagine how much Oud is in these pictures…amazing.

-Ross

Kuenzang Chodtin Tibetan Incense

[This incense has either been discontinued or repackaged.]

Having had so much success with various high end Tibetans costing anywhere from the teens to the 40s, I thought, like Japanese incense, that you’d generally be safe with anything relatively expensive. While price is still often a good indicator of an incense worth buying, Kuenzang Chodtin (scroll down, second from bottom) incense appears to be one of those land mines worth detouring around.

There are a number of Tibetan incenses that use aromatics that Westerners are likely going to identify with tire rubber or other acrid and/or bitter offnotes. Despite a number of herbs and ingredients that give the impression that Kuenzang Chodtin incense is likely to be superb and an initially positive first two or three seconds for the light, my experience was blindsided when after relighting the stick later, a strange black bubbling tar erupted from part of the incense leaving a strange, ashy foamy deposit on the incense. The smell at this point was so chemical that it evoked for me those incense urban legends of companies who say a particular incense is made of natural ingredients, but aren’t actually giving full disclosure. It’s as if the the resins were switched out with asphalt.

Stickwise, Kuenzang Chodtin is pink in a similar manner to the higher grade Nado Poizokhang sticks. I didn’t have quite the same experience with subsequent KC sticks, but the incense has a number of ingredients that will largely be unpleasant to the Western nose, and I don’t mean that in an acquired taste sense. It’s possible the incense was meant to be a more floral Tibetan derivative in that some of the incense’s top notes seem to have a very harsh, almost Indian masala-like rose scent, which when mixed with the incense’s noxious base gives off very harsh notes.

It’s strange because there seem to be some pleasant elements. That richness when nagi is involved seems to be there in the top, but the base overwhelms this quickly. Sometimes the bitterness is so penetrating it’s like the aroma from a bottle of cheap, charcoal filtered vodka. I did some labwork in an organic chemistry lab a decade ago or so, and that’s always the smell chemicals like this evoke for me. There are incenses that are dull and average, not worth picking up because they have little to offer. Kuenzang Chodtin goes past this to where burning a stick is actually fairly unpleasant at times. Less a pleasant aroma than a chemistry experiment.

Mandala Trading / Ribo Sangtsheo, The Earth, Tibetan Peace

Nepalese company Mandala Trading are the creators of two of the finest and most accessible Tibetan incenses on the market, their long stick Tibetan Monastery and Himalayan Herbal blends, the former an unparalleled spice blend, the latter a minty evergreen breeze. If you haven’t had a chance to check these excellent and affordable incenses out I highly recommend doing so before tackling the three, shorter incenses (all five MT incenses are on this page mixed in with others, the three in review are down the page a ways) in question here. While they’re certainly nice incenses, the three in this review aren’t quite in the same league.

As with the two previously mentioned incenses, these three under consideration also have their ingredients lists listed on the inner wrapper. Ribo Sangtsheo is comprised of Spike Nard (Jattamansi) 20%, Other Medicinal Herbs 20%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Sandal Wood 10%, Agarwood 10%, Spices (Clove, Cinamon, Cardamon) 10%, Beddelium (Gokul Dhoop) 5%, and Ambergriss (Sal Dhoop) 5%. Of the three incenses in question here, Ribo Sangtsheo is the most similar incense to the Tibetan Monastery and Himalayan Herbal blends, although not quite as complex. Ribo Sangtsheo has a very unusual, coppery vibe for an incense. For one thing, it’s one of the few blends that is comprised of this much spikenard and it’s a fairly noticeable element overall, although unlike Japanese incenses that accentuate the sweetness, Ribo Sangtsheo also brings out more of the herbal and muskier notes. The agarwood, while not at the Japanese levels, actually does add something of a contour to the scent, preventing the incense from becoming too sweet or spicy by its obvious woody note. The entire blend has a slight fruitiness to it reminiscent of wine, but overall it’s that sort of dry, coppery vibe that sets it apart from the rest of the incenses in the line. If you’re over the moon with the HH and TM blends, this one is probably worth checking out even if it’s not quite up to those aromatic heights.

The Earth is comprised of Beddelium (Gokul Dhoop) 20%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Holy Basil (Tulsi) 15%, Other Medicinal Herbs 15%, Juniper (Dhupi) 10%, Valeriana (Suganhaval) 10%, Spices (Cinamon, Safron) 10%, and Mugwort (Tittepati) 5%. Strangely this and the next incense actually add up to 105%, which implies some rounding up. The Earth absolutely does what it says on the package, it’s one of the most rough, gravelly and earthy incenses imaginable and not only earth in the soil sense, but this one reminds me of granite and the like. As such it’s not a friendly incense by Western standards, with the juniper being accentuated. Strangely enough for an incense that lists its first ingredient as a resin, it’s not a big feature of this aroma, which is often very “campfire” like with off woody hints of rubber, tire and such. With each stick, I do tend to get a little closer to liking this one mostly because it really is earthy in all of its characteristics and it’s quite grounding.

Tibetan Peace (note: this is the first of two on the above linked page) is created from Sandalwood 25%, Other Medicinal Herbs 20%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Anthopogon (Soonpati) 15%, Roopkeshar 5%, Kusum Flower 5%, Spices (Cloves, Safron) 5%, Holy Basil (Tulsi) 5%, and Calmus (Bojho) 5%. Overall it strikes a fairly common blend in Tibetan incenses, a slightly sweet and very thick sandalwood-based stick that’s colored green with some variation. It’s very similar to the Green Tara on this page, if not quite as thick or refined, and as such it’s an incense that’s pleasant, inoffensive and maybe a little boring at times, not terribly far from the Himalayan Herbal incense without all the potent spices. If you can think of something like Dzongsar or White Pigeon being at the more difficult end of an axis, Tibetan Peace lies at the other.

Unlike Tibetan Monastery and Himalayan Herbal incenses, none of these three are likely to make you stock deeply, but those who do like them may get some mileage, particularly out of the unusual Ribo Sangtsheo, which is different enough from the usuals to be worth a sample. At the same time, all are affordable enough to make the risk a low one. However you’re likely to find similar but friendlier incenses than The Earth in the Dhoop Factory line and I’d recommend the above Green Tara before Tibetan Peace.

Nippon Kodo high end offer

Nippon Kodo are offering sampler packs of their higher end aloeswood lines, expiring on September 18th, although I don’t see a sampler pack for Tokusen Kyara Kayou, the highest end NK kyara I’ve seen for sale in the US. There’s also a small package of Kyara Taikan I haven’t seen before. This should be a neat opportunity to check out two scents that seem remarkably uncommon in the US and perhaps give us more of a taste of what NK can do with aloeswoods, as their company has always been light on the high enders here. The scents higher (in price and quality) than Kyara Taikan rarely ever make the boutique shops, so this will be one of your rare chances for a sample. The samples look to be in the same inner packaging the Yume no Yume series uses. As an example in price differential, the Gokuhin Kyara Taikan is about $0.413 per inch in the usual box where it’s about $0.792 per inch in the sampler.

Some thoughts on Direct Help Foundation incense

First, disclosure. Both Ross and I are working on a “weekend” side project for Beth at Essence of the Ages describing incenses in the Essence of the Ages lines (I’m not sure when these will go live yet). Obviously, none of these will be reviewed here, but as these incenses are created by the Direct Help Foundation for EofA, I felt it important to note that before I talk about the TDHF line itself.

TDHF incenses are a little confusing in that a) there are single rolls b) there are double and triple roll sets which include incenses not available in single roll sets c) many of the sets overlap rolls, for instance you can find Kumary House, Disciple of Lhasa and Indra Mudra incenses in several sets and d) purchasing a TDHF box is going to likely be affected by one’s attraction to the artwork. Particularly on this latter point, the love and care that goes into the handpainted boxes is pretty amazing, most of them look like they’ll be reusable for quite some time. As a fan of Visionary Art, which often uses eastern religious motifs, I’m quite impressed with all of this art, the vibrant colors and the symbolism. Honestly with the 30% sale I’m almost satisfied just paying this much for these boxes.

Incense-wise, Direct Help Foundation incenses seems almost purely natural and the ingredients vibrantly fresh. So even while I don’t enjoy the entire line, when a certain scent hits the palate just right this freshness gives it a little extra oomph. On the other hand those of you who know that certain ingredients that might smell better fresh than lit know that the fully natural route also has its hazards. The first incense that comes to mind is the Cinnamon, Vanilla and Honey. That’s a gorgeous sounding combination, but despite the stick smelling amazing, once lit, the incense has the same issues as these ingredients on their own. Without essential oils, the aromatic impact isn’t too great and cinnamon is very difficult to get right (Baieido Koh is one great example).

On the other hand, when TDHF do get it right, they hit bulls eye. The two-shot punch in the Magic Works box (now out of stock unfortunately) of Myrrlin and Amberlin is very fine, particularly the latter incense. Here we’re combining ingredients and I’m starting to feel this is where the Tibetan style really excels. The Magic Tantra box, also deleted, has the incense I liked the most in it, The Druid (moss, roots and resin), which even has slight hints of the same herbs in the Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and Nectar. Above all, none of the incenses are overstuffed with cheap cedar woor or other fillers and quite a few of them are surprisingly low smoke for Tibetan incenses. For example Ebionite probably has the same smoke content that Shoyeido’s Aesthetics series has.

A few minor comments on some of the others: Nag Champa seems fairly typical of Tibetan incenses in this mode, much drier than the Indian equivalents without the rich perfume oils. The Blue Lotus has a pretty nice Lotus aroma, although perhaps a bit too floral overall for my tastes. The musk in the high end Tibetans basically make the TDHF Green Musk a wash, there’s just no comparison. The multi-ingredient blend Kumary House (2006) is quite zesty with a slightly unpredictable nature and lots of evergreens. Himalayan Jhakri is very woody with slight spice and a very dry character.

While I’m obviously not close to finished evaluating these incenses, it’s hard not to see a highly level of quality at work here, even if the aromatic nature of these incenses are tempered by the rare or absent use of essential oils (or perhaps they’re just applied judiciously here, I’m not totally sure). But with 30% off and the incredible artwork, it’s hard to not suggest that you all give a box or two a try before the next wave comes in. At the very least it’ll be a place to store other Tibetans that come in the rattier paper packaging.

Incense Works / Rare Essence Incense Collection / Precious Sandalwood, Sandalwood Supreme, Triple Amber, Vanilla Amber

It’ll probably seem a little strange to lead off a Rare Essence (scroll down about a third of the way) review by talking about Shroff Channabasappa, but as the Indian incense company on my mind of late, it’s been making me think quite a bit more about incense composition. One of the ongoing incense topics is the use of perfumes and oils in incense, a use very common in Indian incenses, who, despite starting with a lot of other natural woods and herbs, often dip these sticks in oils. The result with durbars is often extremely fragrant, the aromas often leaking through inner wraps and cardboard packages (I often use durbar as an analog of champa and vice versa, the style of incense with a highly aromatic base of gums, woods and resins whose final result is still a little wet and gummy).

The question I have in mind, however, isn’t so much whether oils or used or not, but whether these oils are natural and essential oil based, rather than synthetic. And this is an issue that seems very obscure in the Indian incense market that seems to have started when the venerable Shrinivas Sugandhalaya blue box Nag Champa replaced some of their natural ingredients with synthetic analogs. Apparently this happened over five years ago and while I can’t admit to noticing the change with my own nose explicitly, it was around this time that my love for Indian durbars, particularly of the Shrinivas Sugandhalaya make, started taking a nose dive. I remember going into stores to pick up packages only to wonder what happened to the aroma I used to love. The biggest hit for me was Super Hit, possibly the company’s most popular incense after the Nag Champa, which I initially loved until I suspected something was wrong and (probably) incorrectly blamed it on stick age.

Adding as extra contrast was the Ramakrishnanda line. I first encountered these walking into a local new age store and seeing a new display, that is, after I’d already started getting the aroma half way to the incense section. Ramakrishnanda seems to present a series of durbars, apparently naturally based from the oils to the materials, and the quality seemed quite apparent, with the sort of subtleties and complexities only found with natural ingredients. At the time, the only durbars I was regularly using were the Incense Works Rare Essence series which I had been using so often, I was starting to get tired of them and Ramakrishnanda compared favorably.

Fast forward to now and I’ve been sampling the Shroff Channabasappa line, which is not only reminding me of my previous Ramakrishnanda experience, but perhaps surpassing it. As I start to discuss the Rare Essence line, I’ll be drawing parallels to other companies with virtually the same incense in a different package, with Shroff, every incense is not only totally different in aroma, but it reminds me of the aromatics I remember from my youth, the ineffable hints that have survived via memory. Mystic Temple, Incense from India, Shrinivas and Rare Essence all have aromas that cross over with over 90% similarity. One often wonders if a particular Indian incense company markets their brand to different companies in the US.  Read the rest of this entry »

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