The Olfactory Rescue Service 20 Best of 2008

While the Olfactory Rescue Service has provided monthly top 10 lists for the last year and a half or so, we’ve never had an opportunity to  provide a best of the year and thus present our first top 20 list. Before the countdown, however, are some disclaimers. First, we consider lists such as these to be anything but definitive. That is, they’re provided for a bit of fun and to perhaps spur some conversation and let us know what pleased our readers (the comments section is also open to YOUR favorites). As a combined top 20 list from the three ORS writers, consensus is rare, not just because we all have different tastes, but also because it’s unlikely all of us have tried each others’ picks given the diversity and quantity of what’s on the market. Thus the list is structured so that the first two picks are indeed a consensus among the three of us, while the next 10 or so are consensus among two of the three of us. The leftovers are provided as special picks from each individual, not only that we can get in a personal favorite, but also to balance out what is a largely Japanese-leaning list, undoubtedly the style of incense that has had the largest impact upon all of us. As an attempt at a group list, there are plenty of individual favorites left off the list, and we’ve also tried to concentrate to a slight extent on incenses fairly new to the market in 2008. As always this is for fun and to give us all a chance to remark on scents already reviewed elsewhere on this site. – Mike, Nancy and Ross

  1. Shoyeido/Horin/Muro-Machi – A remarkable full-on herbal immersion from Shoyeido‘s Horin line. High acrid notes and a deep and layered quality of roots, barks, and woods make this incense perfect for contemplative olfaction. Coming in at a diminutive 2.75 inches, this potent stick can easily scent a large room. Truly a masterpiece! Like Jihi below, this is a rare consensus pick for us, earning a top spot on this list. (Nancy)
  2. Awaji-Baikundo/Jihi – Awaji-Baikundo is basically the revelation of 2008, their first year of being exported to the US. Jihi is one of five AB incenses and is a scintillating combination of hydrangea tea, amber and spices. One of our two full consensus picks, Jihi abounds in oils and spices, creating a new and totally distinctive aroma that is friendly, sweet and memorable. (Mike)
  3. Tennendo/Enkuu – Arguably one of the best incenses in the world. A favorite here at ORS. Wonderful high grade aloeswood mixed with spices and herbs. Sharp, dry-ish and oh so elegant. Not to be missed. (Ross)
  4. Shunkohdo/Kyara Seikan – An incredibly potent stick for being so thin, this is kyara that cuts like a razor, every bit of aroma like fragrant euphoria. Sweet, pungent and totally memorable, it’s also one of the most affordable and genuine kyara incenses on the market. An ascendant version of Shunkohdo’s Ranjatai and one of 2008’s finest newcomers to these shores. (Mike)
  5. Baieido/Kun Sho – Any of Baieido’s five distinguished, pawlonia-boxed aloeswood blends could have easily been on a list such as this, but perhaps the middle incense, Kun Sho, could be the best deal for the price. Cambodian aloeswood with a cherry-like sweetness, this is smooth, elegant and startling in every moment of its burn. Definitely the sleeper hit in the whole line and a guaranteed conversation stopper. (Mike)
  6. Awaji-Baikundo/Wabi-Sabi – One of two recent AB exports, Wabi-Sabi is yet another totally distinctive and unusual blend created mostly from the caramel-like sweetness of spikenard and the herbal, tangy notes of reiryo root. What that combination doesn’t tell you is what a dark, aromatic and coffee bean like stick it is, hitting every note of what a coffee incense should be like but often isn’t. Improves consistently with use and familiarity. (Mike)
  7. Shoyeido/Premium/Myo-Ho – The deep purple coloring of this stick kind of sums it up. It seems to have a rather transformational and mysterious quality to it. It’s also a good bit less money then the top of the line Sho-Kaku, but to me every bit as deep and rich in taste. Top notch kyara, quite
    wonderful. (Ross)
  8. Tennendo/Tensei – A pungent blend of aloeswood and amber. Sweet and heavy, stimulating and intense. This incense lingers on, sometimes for days, developing into the resinous suggestion of aroma. A penetrating formula that awakens both the senses and the mind. (Nancy)
  9. Baieido/Jinko Kokoh – Dense, sublime and elegant. Baieido Vietnamese aloeswood at its best. Not inexpensive, but worth it, especially if you love aloeswood. This is done in a very classic style and lets the wood speak for itself. It is so very captivating and deserves the attention! (Ross)
  10. Shoyeido/Horin/Ten-Pyo – Yet another herbal  masterpiece from Shoyeido’s Horin line. The name translates as “Peaceful Sky,” hinting at the ethereal and mind-altering quality of this blend. Quality aloeswood is the base, with a harmonious, almost medicinal blend of herbs. Very smooth and tranquil. (Nancy)
  11. Shoyeido/Premium/Nan-Kun – Somehow the translation of the name (Southern Wind) really comes through in this blend. Never really sweet, but very fresh, like a desert wind through a lush oasis. Of all the non kyaras in the Shoyeido line this one just gets to me the most. There is also a certain similarity to Tennendo’s Enkuu. A side by side comparison is great fun! (Ross)
  12. Sawayaka Kobunboku (also called Koh) – An amazing sandalwood recipe from the masters at Baieido. Straight up
    wood in its truest, most mesmerizing form. So light and yummy, I am quickly becoming addicted to this one. Induces a meditative state like no other sandalwood I know. (Nancy)
  13. Shoyeido/Horin/Gen-Roku – The whole Horin line from Shoyeido is a good bet at any level. Gen-Roku is in the middle and the starting point where it moves into the woods rather than spices. Big aloeswood and resin presence in this one, quite nice and at a reasonable price. (Ross)
  14. Mermade Magickal Arts/Spirit Temple – Mermade uses the best ingredients possible and puts them together in wonderful blends. This one has lots of very high grade Hougary Frankincense plus aloeswood, sandalwood and others. A beautiful, rich and full scent and way under priced compared to Japanese incenses. (Ross)
  15. Tibetan Medical College/Holy Land – The ultimate Tibetan revelation, one of the most potent, electric and transcendent incenses on the planet. Woody, stately and created from unusual extracts and medicinal substances, this is a scent you will not soon forget and will haunt your memory and become an obsession. Tremendous mojo here. (Mike)
  16. Shroff Channabasappa/Red Sandal – Perhaps the best incense from perhaps the best line of Indian masalas, this is a classic in a range of classics. Like many Shroffs, it combines amazing sandalwood oil with natural and classy floral perfumes for a fragrance that is instantly addictive. This line was responsible for a personal Indian incense revival around these parts and  I burned through a third of my starter package in about two weeks. (Mike)
  17. Mother’s India Fragrances/Ganesh Champa – A lavender infused champa that is so delicate, classy and magnificent that it would have likely headed a personal top 10 of December had we not been composing this list. There are durbars and then there are durbars, this is slow burning and ultimately divine. Even those turned off from the usual lavender oils should give this one a sniff, it’s in a class of its own. (Mike)
  18. Kyukyodo/Yumemachi – A new favorite of mine from a company that predates the better known Shoyeido and Baieido. Blending sandalwood with orange peel in a most delightful confection. Yum! Very nice as a daily incense and a bargain at just under $10 per roll. (Nancy)
  19. Nu Essence/Nuit – A smooth, deep and sultry rose/jasmine blend for charcoal or an incense heater. Extremely high quality oils, resins and woods go into this wonderful blend. I find this type of scent to be one of the hardest to do well and Nu Essence makes what might be the “gold” standard. (Ross)
  20. Shoyeido/Premium/Ohjya-Koh – From Shoyeido’s Premium Incense line, an affordable offering from a series with a price range that spans from $15.95 all the way up to $599.00. The scent is very crisp, combining sandalwood with cloves and patchouli. It is refreshing and almost minty, with an obvious camphor note, cool and relaxing. (Nancy)

What was your best of 2008? Let us know in the comments, whether it’s one incense or several. Thanks to all of you for reading Olfactory Rescue Service and have a great holiday!


  1. Malchus Kern said,

    January 17, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I can recommend Pure-Incense as well, even thought i’ve only tried Sandalwood, Agarwood, Golden Champa and Son Champa yet.
    And i do like a few incense from the Indian Lotus line which are only available in France i think (these: (if any of you from ORS is interested in trying them, just send me an email).

  2. clairsight said,

    December 21, 2008 at 12:42 am

    I wish Sei-fu and En-mei came in longer sticks. That would pretty much make them perfect.
    I have not really tried Indian incenses in quite a long time and have decided to start sampling. Thanks for the input, will give these a shot.
    One nice thing about the Indians is that the price is so very low compared to the Japanese, makes the whole sampling process more practical.
    Which brings up a big question for me. Where does one find “super premium” Indian incense? I would think that they must be out there given Indian’s cultural history of scent.
    Although it might be better for my bank account if i did not find out 🙂

  3. Jerry said,

    December 20, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Shoyeido’s Sei-fu was my favorite of the year (thanks to Mike’s Japanese starter package from EoA). I also liked Gokuhin Kyara Taikan from Nippon Kodo (still have a stick or two of those samplers left). On the Indian side of the house, I discovered Laxmi Dhoop by Mysore Sughandi and it is now a staple. Hari Milan by Vasants is a perennial favorite and I went through many a pack. Finally, the Ashwamegha, Vinayak and Vidarbha sticks by Mysore Temple emerged as victors for “daily use”, edging out the infamous blue box Nag Champa.

    I just made my first order for 2009, and leaned heavily on the top 20 list above. I’ll get my first taste of Holy Land and some of the Shroff’s. Should be fun!

  4. Mike said,

    December 16, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Hey Rob, Yes the Ganesh Nagchampa was truly one of the most incredible Indian incenses I’ve tried, it’s really stunning in that it takes some common scents and combines them for something truly profound. There are lots of durbars that are too smoky at times, but this was almost stately in its output. I’m hoping the rest of the line is as good. The Red Sandal I could really go on about, it’s one of those few incenses you want to light a second stick of immediately. I just ordered 100g more of it.

    I wanted to thank you for the Shroff recommendations. I’ve tried nearly the whole available-in-the US line and so many of them are fantastic, I can imagine I’ll be adding many of them to the hall of fame list as they click. Amber Rose, the Jasmine, Indian Flower, well they’ve definitely turned my head on florals that’s for sure. I also tried some charcoals you recommended a while back, including Vinason’s Green Rose, which was quite nice. I will have to check out the Pure Incense line as well! So I definitely appreciate the tips. I can imagine 2009 will be full of reviews of these scents.

    Best, Mike

  5. Rob M. said,

    December 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Mike, Ross and Nancy –

    Thank you very much for your list of “The Best” It certainly gives me lots of try in the new year. I must say I totally agree with you on the ones I have purchased.
    The Holy Land is by far the best Tibetan I have tried. The mixture of spices, herbs and musk is very different while still acceptable to Western tastes. (Dzongsar is quite remarkable but I can’t get rid of the men’s-locker-room-after-the-big-game connotations
    Mike, I am happy to learn that you are a big fan of the Mother’s India Gonesh. It is the best champa I think I have ever smelled. The lavender is such a subtle and interesting note to add to the mixture. And – as you know – Red Sandal by Shroff is one of my all-time favourites; I have been using it for many, many years. To me, this is the fragrance I associate with India – heavy, woody, spicy and rich. (I used to order it in from The Incense Works in Hawaii.)
    You have certainly perked my interest about the Awaji-Baikundo line. I will have to order these on my next buying spree with Beth.
    Ross, I have been using the Transfiguration Monestary scents for a couple of months and find them to be excellent. My favourites are: Bethlehem – a subtle mixture of frankinsense and vanilla and Spruce Island which seems so appropriate for this time of the year.
    Aside from these I have been enjoying my Pure-Incense from England. The Blue Lotus, Parijata and Pink Sayli are excellent floral fragrances (and I am not a person who really enjoys most Indian floral incense – too sweet and heavy).
    I am really appreciate all the recommendation and descriptions.
    Thanks again and have a wonderful holiday.

    Best Wishes,

    Rob M.

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