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.
Of the four aromas (the whole series appears to be ten) here, the first two are unique. Rare Essence incenses are extremely intense and these two sandalwoods are among the line’s most smoky and rich durbars. Precious Sandalwood goes for a more oil-based approach than the line’s other sandalwood incense, with a potent and rather alluringly spicy sandalwood oil on top of the durbar base. It’s slightly sweet due to its champa-like nature, but overall the incense oil is so powerful that it tends to overwhelm its base at time. Fortunately the oil is quite nice, although I have slight doubts about its purity in that I don’t detect the sorts of finer sandalwood notes that I do in the higher end Japanese brands.
Where my friends almost to a head seemed to prefer the Precious Sandalwood, I actually liked the Sandalwood Supreme a little more, due to what seems like less of an emphasis on the oil and more on the wood nature, even if it wouldn’t surprise me that these qualities were also oil-based. If Precious had a sort of sweltering perfume on top, the Supreme’s quite a bit grittier with more of a sawdust-like sandalwood aroma. It’s easily one of the richest and smokiest durbars on the planet and thus eventually overwhelming in a small room, but walking into such a room from the outside will demonstrate what’s quite a quality champa. The gummy durbar base does tend to give the whole stick some sweetness and spice, but there’s quite the heavy wood powder on top as well.
It took me as much as ten seconds to recognize Triple Amber, as it’s highly reminiscent of the Incense from India Amber Resin blend*. Amber, of course, is one of those aromatics that varies widely in incense, from the sweet and powdery pink/red ambers, to the black oil-based “royal ambers” and on into a number of champa like blends. Triple Amber, as the name implies combines a number of different amber qualities into a tart, pungent and penetrating blend that is instantly recognizable and likely to make you snuff it out or become an instant convert. The differences between Amber Resin and Triple Amber is that the latter is a bit more in the Nag Champa vein than the former, which if I remember correctly was a bit dryer. But the rich and slightly sour resin notes are certainly heavily apparent in both.
Vanilla Amber is an extremely common Indian durbar among companies, not only one of the most aromatically long lasting incenses available but also slightly one of the more deluxe (before I explored Japanese incense I might have called this a high ender in one of its other guises) in the style. I first encountered the aroma as Mystic Temple’s Vanilla Amber Champa in all its dry and intense glory and have nearly always had one of the versions in stock. There really is a depth to this one absent in most champas in that it’s a good one for aromatic memory flashes later on and in this case I think it’s due to the ingredient combination than any specific wood or herb. There’s definitely quite a bit of sandalwood in this, but overall it’s the vanilla that comes out the most, in a way blunting the scent’s top note to a muted roar. Incense from India also has (or had) a variant on this one, but I’ve forgotten the name (Golden Vanilla perhaps?) and Blue Pearl’s Vanilla Champa is also close, but not quite close enough for me to call it an analog.
It’s been many years since I tried some of the other incenses in the line, but other than Golden Frankincense and Patchouli Supreme (other styles with analogs), most of the others, while nice, weren’t quite to my tastes. Moon Goddess I remember being somewhat confused in personality with too mellow of an oil to really compete with its base. White Lotus is similar and more difficult as it doesn’t strike me as being particularly close to a real lotus aroma (possibly, again, due to the base). But overall the quality from box to box is pretty consistent so it may be more of a matter of what types of aromas you are drawn to. And in conclusion, I’ve noticed several dealers either don’t stock this line or are incomplete, leading me to wonder if the brand’s on its way out.
*I’m about 90% sure on the title of this one, having to go through some decade-old notes to remember which it was, but I want to say there’s an outside chance it’s one of Incense from India’s other many ambers.