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. 

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.


  1. Ricardo said,

    October 12, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Incense Works Rare Essence Collection are repackaged. They are manufactured by a company in India and repackaged by Incense Works. I have loved Triple Amber fragrance for years as well as Patchouli Supreme. I would like to know which company makes these fragrances, specially Triple Amber. Is it Incense from India as Mike suggests? Does anybody know?

    • Mike said,

      October 13, 2009 at 7:22 am

      Hi Ricardo, I wasn’t actually suggesting that about Incense from India. Most imported Indian incense is bought from any particular family or company and repackaged under an English-speaking company’s name. I think it’s possible two different English companies might purchase incense from the same Indian house, but I think when it comes to recipes like the Triple Amber what is more likely is it’s a common recipe that two different houses use, as while they’re very similar they do differ enough to obviously come from different batches. But I highly doubt that one American company repackages another American company’s incense.

      • Ricardo said,

        October 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

        Hi Mike! Thanks for your answer. I got confused thinking that Incense from India was the actual manufacturer of the incenses they sell. But what I meant by repackaged in Incense Works is that the same incense could be found in a well known Indian brand avilable in the US. For example Incense Works used to have an incense they called Earth Goddess which was one of Shroff fragrances, and they also had a Lotus incense which was the same as Firdous by Ratilal Premji, both can be bought in the US in their original brands. So I wanted to know if this case applies to Triple Amber and if so which is the original brand name of Triple Amber.

        • Mike said,

          October 13, 2009 at 1:12 pm

          Sai Flora has a very similar aroma to Mystic Temple Golden Champa which has a very similar aroma to Blue Pearl Golden Champa which has a very similar aroma to Incense from Indian Golden Champa. They’re all the big thick stick with a powerful, eye stinging aroma and a background earthiness. But despite the fact they’re all very close, if I got down to comparing them I could probably describe some slight differences that at the very least might show them to be from different batches, if not different companies. My guess this would be like what they call an “open source” code, a common recipe that isn’t protected and that anyone can play with.

          I’d be interested in seeing which Shroff incense you feel matches up with Earth Goddess. I mean even without comparing them myself, I remember the entire Rare Essence line being dipped in a sandalwood powder that falls off the stick, while that doesn’t seem to be the case for any of the Shroffs, even those in the semi-dry masala line that contains the Shroff equivalent of champa incenses.

          I remember a third incense available over 10 years ago that was also similar to the Triple Amber. It too did not come with sandalwood powder like Rare Essence version and was closer to a dry masala than the durbar that Incense from India sells. It was also a bit more sour if I remember right, but it’s part of the basis that makes me thing this is just a common recipe than their being a home brand name. But, I too guess and I can’t imagine that any of the US boutiques would even necessarily want the information regarding their sources to be public.

          • Ricardo said,

            October 13, 2009 at 6:26 pm

            Mike ! Earth Goddess and Lotus that I was refering to belonged to a line by Incense Works called Maui Lani with a hawaiian theme, not Rare Essence, a line which no longer exists. I am 99% certain that Earth Goddess was the same as Shroff because I still have it and I have Shroff and is the same as Amber Rose by Shroff. Incense Works is a big distributor of incenses in the US (probably one of the biggest) and what they did was take the some of the best indian incenses and give them a better packaging in a line with selected fragrances. Been a distributor, they sold their line together with Shroff and Firdous and hundreds of other Indian companies and recommended these to their retailers, specially Shroff. But I dont know if Rare Essence today follows that, would like to know though.

            • Mike said,

              October 14, 2009 at 7:38 am

              Thanks for the clarification Ricardo. That is true about Incense Works (who I believe is related to the Incense from India line), they were definitely responsible for bringing a ton of incense to the US but also making something of a mess out of the origins of the incenses, in fact my guess is the whole Incense from India line probably comes from a number of different Indian companies.

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