Okuno Seimeido / Kanbai

Okuno Seimeido have a small series of aromas that include  aloeswood, sandalwood, violet and this winter plum flower incense known as Kanbai. Most of these can be found in stock at the Asakichi incense store in San Francisco, although not on line. The stick is red, comes in fairly large size bulk and tends to the floral side in the same manner as many Nippon Kodo, Daihatsu and Kunjudo modern incense aromas. It strikes something of a balance between the plum flower smell and a scent more overtly rose-like or generic floral. Like many inexpensive florals, this tends towards the bitter side in its aroma, although it doesn’t go as far as, say, some of the NK brands and will likely be found pleasant by those who like modern incenses in this style. While most of the aroma seems to come from a perfume, the scent it gives off is often reminiscent of fresh petals itself, which gives it a bit of an earthy subnote. Thanks to Pinjie for the sample!

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Fred Soll – Pinon, Copal Negro, Magical Copal, Egyptian Musk, Ginger & Ginseng, Santa Fe Spice

This article will be the first in what should be a long series of exposés on the venerable American incense company Fred Soll who creates one of the finest and most original styles of incense sticks (and in some cases cones) available, a true domestic treasure. There are about 50 different blends available most of which seem to have a base of pinon pine resin and what we’d assume is some sort of charcoal or other method to keep the stick lit, although in nearly every case the type of off smells associated with charcoal or inferior methods of keeping a stick lit are totally missing. In fact for stick incenses these could be among the nicest bases around, usually exuding a sweet and fragrant resin scent that bolsters nearly every top scent for each incense.

Fred Soll sticks are actually something of a sight to behold. They’re quite long for one thing and usually rolled in whatever ingredient the specific incense has with the herbs resins and woods often surrounding the stick in a pleasantly rough fashion. In some cases there are additional natural ingredient applications to enhance the packaging. Often these sticks are semiwet and very sticky and are often so redolent in aroma that the smell will exude just sitting a stick in a holder and letting it sit. It should be mentioned that all these sticks are designed to be burned horizontally, although I will say in most cases you’ll have no trouble with a vertical application either. In a few cases the only downside is keeping a stick lit, in some of the formulas (none in this particular article) this can be problematic at times, which probably indicates a very low amount of material used to keep the incense lit. Generally these are all very natural with a high level of craftsmanship and as such they’re fairly expensive, although this is more so the case in incenses using rarer ingredients, such as the company’s champa scents. But in nearly all cases you’re definitely getting what you pay for.

I wanted to start this series by writing about the company’s Pinon stick as it seemed to me it was the closest in style to Fred’s base stick, which seems to me to always exude a little pine resin. However the Pinon stick is much more than the base itself. Incense lovers speak frequently about resins like frankincense, myrrh, benzoin and such, but I’m always surprised how little Pine pitch comes up given what a gorgeous aroma it is (perhaps it’s so inexpensive to escape notice?) This is the perfect example of why it’s such a brilliant addition to forest resin blends and such, as not only does it exude the classic pine needle fragrance, but the pitch itself moves into both apple- and pear-like territories, enough to make your mouth water. Only pinon resin on charcoal or a heater is richer than this stick, which could be the finest pine incense anywhere and is perfect for freshening up an area. One could do worse than starting here on a journey through the Fred Soll line.

The two copal incenses, Copal Negro and Magical Copal, demonstrate what a terribly sticky resin Copal can be and in stick form this stickiness perhaps doesn’t work so well with the packaging (but then again I can’t imagine what they wouldn’t stick to). All of the sticks adhere to each other and the packaging like glue making them problematic to remove, although you’ll be very glad you did so. In both cases I’ve had to remove the entire batch of sticks from the package (fairly ruined in the process) and separate them all to get a stick and in doing so it’s easy to damage and pull resin globs off the other sticks. But at the same time there’s something very visceral and interesting about the process. I suppose this is why you rarely find copal in stick form, but it’s worth the effort, with the cool, smoky, resin in both forms a delight. In Copal Negro’s case the top notes are somewhat muted leaving the scent vaguely similar to quality benzoin, however the Magical Copal, I would assume, uses Golden Copal or perhaps even Blanco, giving the top end the lime-like notes you tend to associate with great quality resin. Copal in all its forms is one of my all time favorite incense scents so I find both sticks fantastic and the additional pinon base actually enhances them both. There’s really nothing else like these in all of incense and it’s hard to not have impressions of shamanic rituals and ancient Mayan ruins and jungles while experiencing either.

Soll’s Egyptian Musk is one of the finest musk incenses you’ll find outside of those that use the real thing, so for those concerned over ecological issues when it comes to the use of animal products, this will be among the best of the herbal blends. I’ve experienced oil blends in this vein before, slighty vanilla-like, creamy, sultry and mysterious and Soll definitely uses a very fine quality blend to go with the sweet resin base. Again, it’s very different from powerful Tibetan musks but at the same time its difference is its strength and you’re unlikely to find a better musk in perfumes, incenses or anything else. It’s a real gem of this line and highly recommended.

Ginger & Ginseng is something of an unusual blend and one little tried in incense. For one thing, I’ve personally never thought of ginseng as having much of a pleasant aroma, usually one you’ll smell in strength with herbal supplements. On the other hand Ginger can smell quite nice, but it’s often too sharp or powerful, which made me wonder what it would be like in incense. However together the two herbs tend to cancel out the problems with the ginseng tempering the ginger’s stronger qualities and the ginger overwhelming the more negative aspects of the ginseng. With both herbs powdered and rolled on a Soll resin base stick, the herbs are balanced out even further with that sweet pinon-like smell. While I’m not sure I’d call it a success necessarily, which may only indicate my ambivalence to the ingredients, it’s certainly an interesting experiment and those who like the scents should certainly investigate. Perhaps I’m even only a few sticks away from truly appreciating the scent.

The final incense in this batch, Santa Fe Spice, was apparently imagined  while “enjoying hot chocolate and cinnamon cookies,” experiencing “the aroma of Pinon and Cedar as it drifted down the mountains.” This is a spice masterpiece. So often the combinations of cinnamon and clove like spices can fall flat in an incense but here the combination of cinnamon oil, which is very powerful on top, with pinon and cedar is dead perfect. I’m not aware of the origin of the other touches (for instance if there’s chocolate in the mix it’s fairly buried), but there are some unidentifables in smaller quantities. It’s a very powerful stick overall and perhaps best burned in parts as a full stick of this will be very potent. While many Solls are best described as the stated ingredients mixed with a resin base, here the concoction is a bit more complex. But truly, this is brilliant stuff.

We’ve got a lot more of Fred’s work to talk about in the near and not so near future. I’ll be writing about his champas and jasmine incenses in my next article and I believe Ross will also be joining in on this series at some point, so there will be plenty to talk about and rest assured there are a lot of brilliant scents in this line and few if any poor ones. This is a company with a deservedly strong reputation and joins Mermade and Nu Essence as one of the stalwarts of American incense.

Top Ten for June 2009 (from Ross)

These are not listed in any kind of order of preference, they are jsut what i have been most attracted to this last month. Onward!

1. Seijudo’s Shiragiku – White Chrysanthemum

This is new for the American market and is one of three scents that Kohshi has brought over in the last month. It is Aloeswood as opposed to the other two scents that are Kyara based. However it shares a lot of the same scent qualities and. at about one forth the price, it is a deal. Then again so are the other two when compared to similar scents and their prices. This is beautiful, with a sort of sweet musk and spice middle note to go with the heavy resin woods. A real winner and not to be missed.

2. Seikado’s Solitude / Hitori-Shizuka – Sandalwood

I love this stuff, It has a wonderful perfume and spice note ridding over the Sandalwood that just seals the deal for me. Its elegant and calming with just the right amount of spice ( ginger?) to keep it upbeat. Very much a modern scent and very well done.

3. Nippon Kodo’s Tokusen Kyara Taikan Aloeswood

I keep coming back to this one. It took some sticks to “get it” for me but when I did I realized it is really good. Sort of like they took the Kyara Taikan, cleaned up any rough edges and used a much better wood in this mix. Everyone I have burned this for immediately notices it and asks what it is. I find the scent to be very relaxing and elegant, great for late nights. Its really not like any other Kyara blend and once I sort of put it into its own category it works for me. It is a bit hard to describe the scent, not quite floral, some perfume qualities and a nice resin/wood base note.

4.Bosen’s Superior grade Vietnamese Hoi-An (Jinko)

This is a “straight up” Vietnamese Aloeswood style stick that also comes in a much bigger size, if you want. Very good quality wood at a good price. For those times when you just want to smell the Aloeswood, hold the spice. Bosen has a lot of different grades that span a large economic spectrum, their uber high end Kinam (Kyara) is amazing but also a lot more money. This is sort of their 2nd level but it is also really good and a great place to get an idea of what Aloeswood smells like without all the additives.

5. Baieido’s Kaiunkoh

I think that this is one of the best deals in Japanese incense, if you like woods and spices as opposed to floral’s. It is pretty potent and authoritative, a great scent to ground or re-center one after the day’s  “adventures”  🙂 ) I find myself going for this when I want a classic scent. It has a solid Aloeswood, Sandalwood and Borneol Camphor plus clove mixture that will cut through everything else. It is priced very reasonably and is a great stick of incense.

6. Baieido’s Kun Sho

This is called “The Rising Scent”, in that its scent rises up to heaven. I find this description quite appropriate. This is ever so slightly “sweeter” then some of the other woods in Baieido’s line up. There are just some days that that quality really works. As in most of Baiedo’s offerings there is a long and happy learning curve and by paying attention you get to discover new aspects with each burning. I like to burn this at night or after work for its calming effects. Simply wonderful.

7. Mother’s India Fragrances GANESH

I have not been a big fan of Indian incense, but this has started a conversion. It has all the classic scents of good quality incense from India without any of the synthetic scents and then the lavender / vanilla comes rolling in somewhere in the middle notes, Simply amazing. These are very potent sticks and I have found that I don’t need to burn much more then a ¼ of a stick to do up the room. It blows my mind that this kind of quality can be made for so little money.

8. Awaji-Baikundo’s Jihi

This is quite possibly the best amber scented incense on the market. It’s amber mixed with a big dose of Borneol Camphor and Hydrangea Tea to produce a very deep, yet at the same time upbeat blend. It is very potent and one stick will fragrance a room for hours after it is done burning. I love to burn a stick in the morning to scent my cloths for the day.

9. Mermade Magickal Art’s Golden Bough

A loose incense for charcoals or better yet, an electric heater. A blend of raw Labdanum from Crete, the finest Hougary Frankincense of Oman, rich amber /vanilla Tolu Balsam , healing Chios Mastic from Greece with Sandalwood . Exquisite and comforting, really a fantastic incense to be savored and enjoyed. Made with the very best of ingredients. Another winner from this company.

10. Mermade Magickal Art’s Labdanum Raw Resin

This is the real deal from Crete, Labdanum is the basic building block of most amber based scents( other then real ambergris, which amber sort of mimics) and this is the finest of its kind. Really potent and rich smelling. I like to use a small amount on my incense heater and sometimes mix in other raw materials. This is the same material that Mermade uses in their incense’s, it is top quality( as are the rest of the stuff on their raw materials page). One bag should last awhile, well, given a little self restraint!

Enjoy  -Ross

Incienso de Santa Fe / Seven Scent Sampler (by Nancy)

Incienso de Santa Fe is a company that is in love with wood; they have been making single note wood incenses since 1964. All of their offerings come from trees that are native to America and, in the spirit of conservation, are made from only dead or fallen trees. They have seven varieties: alder, cedar, fir, hickory, juniper, mesquite, and pinon. Incienso does not make sticks or cones, but pressed bricks. These require special burners to keep them upright so that they will burn correctly. The Seven Scent Sampler includes one of these holders plus 7 bricks of each variety, plenty enough to get a good idea of what each different wood smells like. If you’re looking for something a little more artistic, Incienso also offers a line of really cute hand made terra cotta burners, modeled to look like adobe houses, teepees, log cabins, kivas, and the like.

Since these are single-note incenses, it is very difficult to describe what they smell like to someone who has never been exposed to these woods. You may be familiar with alder, mesquite, and hickory because all of these are used to smoke meats. Like pinon, balsam fir and juniper are evergreen so they have a noticeable pine-like aroma. Perhaps you’ve smelled a cedar chest? This wood’s essential oils are a natural insect repellant, making it perfect for the storage of organic fibers like wool and cotton. These incenses are all very, well, woody. (What can I say?) They are distinct from each other, but only in subtle ways. Mesquite a bit more resinous, pinon a bit more sweet, for example. All are very nice and scent your space like you’ve got a big stack of logs burning in the fireplace. Cozy indeed!

Aromatic woods are a major ingredient in all quality incenses and, at under $10, this sampler gives you an affordable opportunity to experience some of these woods as individuals. However, even though all of the 7 different woods are quite nice, the tendency in the end is that they begin to blend together. Also, even with the special burners, it is difficult to ignite the bricks so that they burn well. They are a little brittle and seem to flake apart or separate while burning, sometimes leaving half of the incense brick burned down and the other untouched. Still, it’s hard to criticize Incienso for these technical details when their incense smells so good! After all, one of the best aromatic experience in the world is a good campfire, and these incenses evoke this quite well. What could compare to the smell of giant chunks of wood burned out in the fresh air? Surely this must be the original incense experience!

Mandala Art & Incense / Guru Padmakara, Kalachakra, Mahakala, Medicine Buddha, Vajrakilla (Phurpa Dorjee), Yellow Jambala

I’ve covered one other line from Nepalese company Mandala Art & Incense in the past, basically a six incense series of very thick and close-to-smokeless incenses sticks that were mostly very similar in style and aroma, only varying with one main ingredient. These were wrapped in paper with a Boudha leaf and an attached tag describing the incense. The company also has a second line whose six incenses can be found in both stick and powder form. I’ll be covering the stick versions here with the assumption being made that the powder versions are probably a bit more pure due to the lack of binder ingredients.

Like the paper wrapped line, these incenses are all very similar, with bases that seem quite common from scent to scent. Even with a list of, usually three, ingredients the commonality of the scents is increased. The thing about this company is that their incenses are relatively modest, affordable, decent quality but relatively unspectacular. That is, you get what you pay for and for the most part you’re not paying for a lot off off notes, but you are paying for a great deal of common evergreen wood that is very common to Nepali incenses in this price range.

Guru Padmakara lists its main ingredients as cedarwood, spikenard and ambergriss, although given the line’s claim that are no animal extracts used and the low price, we’re assuming this is an herbal ambergris approximation rather than the real thing. Like all the incenses in this line, we have some basic cedarwood and juniper wood making up the lion’s share of the scent and while these scents are generally quality enough that the harsh rubbery scents that come along with evergreen mixtures are subsumed, the large quantity of these woods along with the binder relegate the other ingredients to slight notes. Fortunately they’re quite nice in this one and the spikenard gives the scent enough of its attractive aroma to make this one of the most friendly incenses in the group. It even approaches real ambergris in scent due to a slight saltiness in the mix. Again, the base prevents this from being astonishing but at a few dollars a roll it’s a very fair price for what is a standard Nepali scent.

Kalachakra lists agaru, ghanten khampa and juniper berry, the latter two ingredients also common to another couple of incenses in the same line, starting a series of scents that are perhaps too close to truly differentiate. This seems to have the same very low quality agarwood common to most affordable Tibetans, basically unresinous and slightly musty, but the lesser qualities are balanced by a nice cherry-like flavor from the juniper berry and a tangy herbal quality from the ghanten kampa (assumed because this quality is present in all the incenses here that use it). Although unspecified, the middle has a bit of cinnamon-like spiciness to it which helps to bring this to the same level as the Guru Padmakara, a decently tinged but ultimately average Nepali scent.

Mahakala contains anthopogon (which I believe is a species of rhododendron), ghanten khampa and titepati. As previously mentioned, the herbal tang from the ghanten kampa is also in this one, however the rest of the ingredients don’t give this scent a great deal of its own character with the evergreen base and binder material coming through in a much more generic fashion. There appears to be a bit of sweetness to it, which I’d assume is the titepati (a scent that can really make an incense shine in certain cases) , and a slight touch of anise or licorice, but overall this is a very mediocre scent even for the line.

Medicine Buddha differs very little from the previous two scents or perhaps it strikes a medium with its sandalwood, juniper and ghanten khampa. Only the sandalwood presence, which almost seems slightly toasted, sets Medicine Buddha apart and there also seems to, perhaps, be a very small presence of agarwood in the mix, which is fairly common for this style of incense. The overall effect is kind of tea-like, but despite a little spice and tanginess, like Mahakala, its basic presence is still closely definitely by the common woods and binders, leaving the whole fairly undistinguished.

Vajrakilla (aka Phurpa Dorjee) contains juniper berry, red sandalwood and gurgum, and like most incenses with a decent amount of red sandalwood comes off fairly dull and somewhat middle-less. Overall it’s a very basic incense with very little personality, and the lack of spice or tanginess renders it all fairly boring.

The best of the line is Yellow Jambala, possibly because it was the first one I tried, but over time I think it’s because it’s the most potent beyond each incense’s basic woods and base. This one contains juniper, beddellium, nagi and ambergriss, although like I mentioned before we must assume the latter two ingredients are herbal clones. Needless to say pehaps the slightly larger list of ingredients helps to give the basics a bit more character and this incense has an almost banana-like scent with a great deal of spice and tangy qualities in the mix. For some reason it just seems a bit richer than the others with a slight kick to it. Of all six scents this would be the one to start with.

Perhaps the powdered versions of these have quite a bit more presence and less filler material, as this line suffers a bit of monotony while at the same time not sinking to the worst of Nepalis incenses and staying quite affordable at over $3 a roll. Yellow Jambala is the best and certainly well worth trying at its price, but it’s hard to recommend the others unless one is starting from scratch with Nepalis and needs some basic every day incense that’s quite inexpensive. Overall they’re tough to call because while not being unpleasant, they’re so basic they’re almost hard to describe with the woody characteristics and filler material being a bit too dominant for them to excel. But their lack of true harsh notes is certain a plus for the whole line.

Report #3 on Newly Imported Incenses

Well I’ve had a chance to go through the most recent Shroff incenses (basically all the ones Beth has listed as new at Essence) at least once through. Unsurprisingly the second time is really showing me what these are made of, which is very typical of Shroff, they all get better with experience, as notably so as any incense company out there. Honestly the Champa blew me away the second light, it was almost like burning a different incense, definitely as good a Champa as you’d hope from this company (it might even be better than the Bam which would be saying something). Akash Ganga also really improved on a second go as did Jungle Prince. Moonlight reminds me more of the floral champas akin to Incense from India’s Enchanted Garden scent. But in that case I still find it hard to beat Enchanted Garden which has a lemony subscent that helps the floral oils to not cloy too much. The jury is still out for me on Moonlight.

The Masala Base line is a tough one to describe and I really wonder what I’ll even be able to say with some experience. They’re basically all charcoals with heavy floral oils. Most of them, however, have bases that are flecked through with something a bit more masala like, similar to Sugandhi Bathi, and in those cases I felt the charcoal was balanced quite a bit better. But despite that I find this an inferior incense carrying system, there’s no doubting that some of the floral oils here are like fine perfumes. Both the Lilac and Lily 1938 were very impressive, as was the Night Rose which was deadly potent. In all these cases I can imagine you’ll not want to waste time on these as their intensity will likely fade pretty quickly. Overall though it’s hard to say more about these as I take it they line up floral to floral pretty straight through the line.

The larger line, as I mentioned elsewhere has a couple immediate gems with the Natural and Paneer scents, neither of which I could describe that well, but they’re potent and beguiling and I can’t wait for the second stick bump on both. They do a mighty fine Mogra as you might expect, a little less oil and a little more masala like than most mogra sticks out there. The Jasmine was a bit more natural and drier than the 1940 version but not as immediate either. I liked the Natural Loban a bit more than the Singapore version, it was not quite as earthy with the hoarier feel of the benzoin turned down quite a bit. I don’t remember much about the Poona Amber, except I liked it and it was different from the other ambers I’ve reviewed and I’m also a bit vague on the Rose Masala which I remember liking a lot and the Rosy Sandal which slips my mind. The Sandal itself is an excellent and fairly typical masala in this style with a fresh, potent but not too expensive oil on top.

I took a quick 5 second sniff of a number of Pure Incenses and found about half of them amazing and half of them typical. The ones I remember liking were the Vrindavan Champa (which totally earns its hyperbolic description), the Blue Lotus (almost like a hepped up Primo stick), both Agarwoods (the better of which was the first Indian stick I’ve tried that really had agar-like traits akin to the Japanese sticks), and both the Golden and Green Champas. The Frankincense and Myrrhs were both fairly typical masalas in style but both seemed to have an edge that was quite impressive. The Jasmine was disappointing with too much charcoal. But overall it looks like a strong line with some real gems in it.

I’ve only tried two Maromas, which doesn’t really give me much of an idea of the 30-40 incenses in all its lines, but I found one of them to be a nice if typically aromatherapeutic oil on charcoal blend but the other, Champak, was excruciatingly bad, I’m even wondering if the sample was old enough to have retained its oil as all I got was a harsh charcoal punk that ended up giving me a headache. Here’s hoping this was a fluke.

Still quite impressed with the Shechen red box in that line, a really strong incense for its price. The Blue’s a bit less potent, only striking the mildest of the Red’s notes. The other two Shechens in cellophane and in the $2-3 range are fairly typical for that range with cheaper materials lowering the potency somewhat.

And I have to say the Jinko Yozei by Gyokushodo is really something special, it even gives off notes that seem to indicate an incense at least twice the price so it’s well worth procuring a box. And I’m still just blown away by Mermade’s Aphrodesia, I’m quickly coming to think it’s one of the best floral incenses you can buy. Anyway that about wraps it up prior to true reviews which will be eventually forthcoming on the Shroffs and Shechens one of these days.

Seijudo’s Enju, Seiran & Shiragiku ( from Ross )

Seijudo has been involved with incense since the mid 1800s. Much of it, apparently, as suppliers of raw materials. Judging from the quality of these three incenses they must have saved up some pretty deep stock piles of materials to use in making their own sticks.

Quite simply put these are amazing, two of them, the Kyara Enju and the Kyara Seiran are heavily Kyara based with that oh so wonderful smell in great abundance. The third, Shiragiku, I would have bet was also Kyara, but Kotaro at Kohshi has said this is not the case. It is however a great Aloeswood. I have seen incense shops write ups from Japan that wildly praise this line, with good reason. As one of my motorcycle friends says ” Man, these just RIP!”

Kyara Enju (Long Life) This has the classic Kyara scent in huge quantity as well as quality. Rich, deep and multi-leveled, not something for the casual moment, rather something to focus on and just let it take you away( why yes, there are aspects of the way of incense that are quite similar to the way of the stoner 😮  ) Really this is superb. It is pretty much what most of use have been taught to be the “real” or “best” Kyara scent. A little goes a long way, very potent. Not to be missed.

There are a lot of comparisons that can be made with Shoyeido’s Sho-kaku (Translucent Path). To my nose they seem very much alike. But since I do not have a stick of Sho-kaku handy I will have to rely on memory. In Japan this seems to win out, but I do not think my nose is so well trained or sensitive to be able to tell which might be “better”, which is most likely a personal preferences call.

Kyara Seiran (Heavenly Orchard) Perhaps a bit lighter in scent ( but not much ) with tons of that Kyara/musk perfume mixed together with a huge wood presence. Somewhat easier to deal with in that it is not quite as dominating as the Enju. Still captivating though, something to be savored for a special moment. There is mention of different kinds of Kyara in this mix, purples and yellows besides the green. Having never knowingly smelled any of them (in other words, that were labled as such) I can not say for sure. But whatever, it is a really beautiful mix and borders on being psychoactive.

Shiragiku (White Chrysanthemum) This is, in some ways, the most interesting to me. When I first smelled this I assumed it was Kyara based. Kotaro at Kohshi says its aloeswood ( and since he is and can read Japanese I am going with his call ). That being said, there is a very distinct resemblance to the two Kyaras mentioned above, for a lot less money. It is a little less smooth, not as strong yet still really good and very lovely. A great buy and a really classic scent. I highly recommend this one, especially as a place to start your journey into high end Japanese incenses.

I read a review from a store in Japan that said basically this company had decided to make these with the best materials they could get for as long as the supply held out. These are all really wonderful and priced so one can actually afford them, especially the Shiragiku (White Chrysanthemum). Thank you Kohshi for bring this into the US!

-Ross

Report #2 On Newly Imported Incenses

Indeed the semi-wet masala line by Shroff are major slow burners. Last night the lion’s share of the incense sampling night was taken up by that line’s Jungle Prince. Jungle Prince is a lot like taking one of the Shroff florals and upgrading it to more of a durbar style. Again I’m probably going to have trouble describing many of these for a while, they’re all unique perfumes probably containing dozens of unknown elements for me. This one’s exotic and sweet, but very very nice, the best of the few I’ve sampled so far.

Tried the Shechen Red. I think it might be the first Nepalese incense I’ve tried that has a noticeable musk side to it. Seems like it will be a good one for sure and very affordable. Hard to explain though, kind of dry with some unique tones and the usual evergreen mix, just at a generally better level than most Nepalis.

I sampled two Purelands incenses and have to agree with commenters on here that they’re just beautifully done. The Rose and Saffron is to die for with a great rose oil, a higher than normal saffron presence for an incense and probably due to the combo something of a red, hot and spicy feel to it. This one took me back to my earliest incense days, utterly gorgeous in every way. I love how utterly fresh and potent these are.

The Rasa Leela – also gorgeous and was very reminiscent but not quite identical to the old Mystic Temple Reservoir of Pleasure stick for the common reason that it does have quite as much halmaddi as it use to. The halmaddi use to make the sticks a bit thicker and gooier. But everything else is the same, the stick color and general aroma, I’m really glad to have this mix of honey, cocoa and floral back, it’s just a great incense stick. Both of these are going on the Indian Hall of Fame list.

Finally I put a bit of Mermade’s Babylon on the vaporizer. I have to admit I’m really loving the vaporizer tool, I can get resin blend scent with a minimum of fuss. I think Ross reported on this one a while back but it was a nice combo of woods and resins, in fact I seem to remember something very myrrh-ish about this one. And I was surprised to find that it was really smoky on the vaporizer, perhaps the wood content?

Also burned a fragment of a stick not available in the US as I know of, in fact we’re generally pretty hesistant to review incenses that we can’t give you a source for, but I suppose referencing it here wouldn’t hurt, an incense called Khangdru that is distributed through Zambala, apparently incorrectly considered a Samye Monastery incense. It’s very unusual, I almost didn’t like it at first but it’s really grown on me, definitely a high end Tibetan with the usual ingredients but with something of an insular, woody and bizarre aroma to it. Not quite as challenging as, say, Dzongsar, but a little less friendly than the usuals.

Report #1 on Newly Imported Incenses

Last night I got to try some new incenses including a few of the new Shroffs. I was interested in all the new incenses of course, but particularly so of the new semi-wet masalas which I guessed would be the Shroff versions of the champa/durbar style. As I’ve been so impressed with the dry masalas that they do, I wanted to see what magic they could do with this other classic Indian Incense style.

So the first one I tried was their Champa. I should mention that nearly all of their semi-wet masala incenses are actually pretty skinny and I’d guess you’re getting quite a bit of incense for the price. Shroff’s Champa, as you might imagine, is actually both familiar and very different from the scent you usually associate with champa. In their case it seems to tilt a bit more to the floral side. I took something of a risk and went for 100g boxes of the 7 incenses in this style, assuming they’d be superb and while it’s too soon to say if I’m right they’re certainly very unique. The oils are almost eye stingingly rich, I assume because they’re all so fresh, yet they seem to be different in some way I can’t quite word yet.

I then tried the Vanilla and realized about half way through the stick that it would reduce my sampling time for the evening as it burned for at least an hour if not longer. It’s one of the more natural smelling vanillas in that it’s more like the extract than the typical, say, ice cream or candy aroma and was very different from any of the other vanilla champas I’ve tried. It’s extraordinarily potent and like the Champa I wasn’t sure what to think, while considering that once I get used to both of them I might like them very much indeed. But more on these when I get to reviews…

I switched to Akash Ganga next because like the semi-wet masalas, it came in a yellow box. I’m not sure if it belongs with the original cellophane wrapped group or the semi-wets, it really could go either way as while the stick seemed fairly dry it still had an almost champa like feel to it. I could barely describe it though, it reminds me of an unusual floral with some sandalwood hints in the background. Also very potent.

My last Shroff of the night was the Jaji in the Masala Base group, all of which look like they’re florals in the Sugandhi Bathi or Nargis 1931 mode, that is, kind of a sandy flecked black stick infused with perfume oils. Like the lion’s share of Shroff florals it was quite nice, but I have really no benchmarks on which to compare it to other than the aforementioned Shroffs. But at least I feel I’ve tried enough of these to know that my true feelings are likely to come out around the third or fourth stick once I get used to how exotic they are.

I didn’t burn any of the Purelands sticks yet but based on sniffing the unburnt sticks I can already make some observations as I’m familiar with 2/3 of them under different names. My guess is the Indian manufacturer that makes these is the same one that Mystic Temple and/or Incense of India have used in the past. Emphasis on the past, as all of these seem like they must be incredible. Both the Golden Champa (nothing like most incenses under this name) and Saffron & Rose (which was extremely impressive fresh) seemed unique to my nose. Purelands Flower was almost identical to Mystic Temple’s Green Floral Champa, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere, the strong camphor element made it quite obvious. Their Sandalwood is reminiscent of many of the better sandalwood masalas I’ve seen under different names in both the MT and IfromI lines, but heavily rich with quality oil. My favorite discovery in the bunch was to find that the Rasa Leela was the same aroma that Mystic Temple’s Reservoir of Pleasure *used* to be, which was one of my very favorite incenses of 10 years ago or so, so I’m really psyched to be finding it again and can’t wait to burn a stick. If the burning aroma also matches up to this I’ll need a larger batch for sure. And the Shanti is the classic scent that’s close to Satya Natural, Incense from India Honey Dust and Mystic Temple Vanilla, the aroma and lavender colored stick gave it away. But I must say every box looked at its highest possibly quality level reminding me more of the scents as I used to know them rather than what they’re sold under these days. In fact I used to love Honey Dust when I first tried it and felt it was one of the hardest hit scents when the ingredients started changing, so I’m hoping this one reminds me of the old version.

The best discovery of the night for me was the Dzogchen Monastery Lotus Ground Incense. Beth, you really outdid yourself on this one! What an incredible incense and so hard to explain. For one thing it’s a high end Tibetan for sure, but at its price it’s probably the best high end buy in Tibetan Incense right now. It’s like a combination of spicy and musky all at once with such incredible depth and a vibrant red stick. Those of you who like Holy Land, Highland, Medicine King, Samye et all just can’t miss this one, it’s phenomenally good yet very different. Over the moon on it and at $13 a roll it really brings the Chinese/Tibetan style closer to most price ranges. But then again I’m wishing I went for the double now.

Anyway I’ll continue early mini reports on these as I sample, since I know there’s been a lot of interest on all these new brands and at this point it could be months before I absorb everything enough to do good reviews on them. And of course a caveat that my opinions are very early on these so buyer beware, I’ve occasionally done about faces over time.

Synthetics vs Organics

Our task, if you will, to describe an incense is made somewhat difficult by what we might call the secret of the recipe. That is, like a magician who would refuse to show you exactly how he performed an illusionary feat, an incense maker is only going to give the public the barest and most obvious ingredients of any incense recipe. You’ve seen it dozens of times, the vague “and other herbs and spices” (or ingredients, oils, medicines etc.). This is the no-mans land of the incense recipe and to be honest a great deal of activity goes on in this space because, as you known, any incense scent is more than just a combination of sandalwood, aloeswood, clove, cinnamon, patchouli and/or the dozen or more other ingredients that the makers provide us with. In fact, this secret recipe may be even more veiled when it comes to India where we’re often given no more than the one base scent an incense is to resemble, if that.

The basic definition that separates an incense using natural ingredients vs synthetics is a synthetic is “prepared or made artificially” and artificial in this case means “produced rather than natural.” That is, an artificial scent is one that is likely created via chemistry rather than, say, oil distillation. But this creates some semantic issues because oil distillation may be using natural products, but it’s not a natural end, so to speak. That is, jasmine or patchouli oil are distillations of natural aromatics in an intensity that is itself not natural. But in nearly all cases, particularly in the incense world, when we use the word synthetic, we’re not talking about the use of a natural oil, we’re talking about a chemically created product meant to resemble a natural scent.  In these cases the product is made to cut costs due to the expense of an oil if it were made from rare natural product, which is why you will see synthetic oud and rose oils far more than you’re likely to see synthetic orange or patchouli oils. And at the same time the strength of an incense stick, usually indicating the use of oils, doesn’t necessarily mean that said oil is synthetic.

The word synthetic brings a host of semantic associations with it. A synthetic oil is automatically assumed as inferior as it’s a copy of the real thing, so to speak. A copy can be a photograph of a seashore or a recording of a live music show, but unlike these examples there is usually no intrinsic downside implied like there is with a synthetic ingredient, after all both of these have implicit positives such as the ability to take pictures and recordings home with you. However, the fact that a synthetic ingredient is often used to approximate something natural carries the semantic association of it being inferior in some way and often it is.

However I think a mistake is made by creating a link between synthetic and unpleasant sensations. Lots of woods can be bitter or offputting, including cheaper aloeswoods and all of this happens outside of a laboratory. Poor quality myrrh or guggal gum can be extremely awful, sometimes approaching a bad accident at a barbeque. If you make an incense with poor quality natural ingredients, it hardly matters whether or not a synthetic ingredient is involved. And despite whether it’s imitative or not, a synthetic ingredient won’t necessarily make or break an incense, but certainly the advertising of such will likely do this nonetheless as it triggers those associations we have that synthetic equals inferior.

The main issue, however is the types of scents that are synthesized. In many cases it’s expensive florals that need synthetic analogs because the expense of distilling enough rose petals to make fine quality rose attar is high enough to impact the cost of an incense. The second issue is that there are generations of soaps and perfume products that use floral aromatics in them, which have created the associations that florals are often bitter, soapy and offputting. This is likely because a $5 bar of soap will not be imbued with a quality rose oil, it will need either a diluted rose oil or something synthetic in order to keep the costs down.

Likely this is what also happened with the Shrinivas Sugandhalaya incense line when the costs of halmaddi started to rise, in order to keep the prices in the same range, substitutions needed to be made. Certainly incense connoissuers would be likely to pay the increases in price, but a worldwide corporation marketing 10g packages of Nag Champs across hundreds of stores are thinking about their bottom line. I know I’m happy to pay decent money for a good champa, however the casual head in a smoke shop or the intermittent incense buyer in the local new age bookstore will probably take a pass and likely this is the lion’s share of intake for a big incense company.

So as substitutions are made, byproducts start to set in while the changes are relatively invisible to the consumer. The incense could smell smokier or seem harsher, and it certainly won’t smell the same. However, with the abovementioned rose oil, it’s relatively unlikely most incense buyers will have experienced a similar effect like the changes to Nag Champa incense, instead associations will have been created via soaps and inexpensive, commercial perfumes, many of which use chemicals created in laboratories to approximate the scent of a rose. So generally speaking you’re far more likely to find synthetic or synthetic-seeming aromas in the floral groups. But again, I think it’s somewhat treacherous to be 100% sure about these things unless you’re literally told an incense has a synthetic ingredient. But with all this said there are a couple things to look for that might help to identify synthetic ingredients.

Many incense companies (I’ll quote Baieido, Shoyeido, and Shroff Channabasappa off the top of my head, although there are a lot more) claim to use only natural ingredients. I think it’s incumbent upon us to trust their word on this without other evidence. However it’s also clear that Shoyeido use a lot of essential oils and perfumes in their incenses while Baieido probably only uses oils in their modern lines. But with Shoyeido I think it’s important to note that even though the oil contents in their incenses are high, they are apparently natural perfumes. But the point is that with the prevalence of incense companies that make these claims, it brings a slight cloud of doubt over those that don’t make this statement. One can’t necessarily make the judgement that the “other” companies DO use synthetics, but surely they’re more likely to.

Natural aromas tend to have depths that we assume synthetics don’t. With incenses that are under evaluation for the presence of synthetics, we often make the evaluation that the aromatic curve of an incense is going to end faster for a synthetic smell than a natural one. That is, after repeated use of an incense, if you don’t notice subtleties and new aspects of an aroma, and the scent generally stays static, I believe this increases the likelihood of a synthetic presence.

Overall, I’d sum up the situation this way. A) We don’t know for sure, unless we’re explicitly told otherwise, if an incense contains a synthetic ingredient, we can only guess. B) Unpleasantries in incense are perhaps more likely to come from synthetics but don’t count out poor natural ingredients as a source for unpleasant scents. C) if you can smell an unlit stick of incense, it’s likely to contain perfume oils, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re synthetic no matter what the strength. D) Scents that might be synthetic are often thinner or have less presence or subtlety than natural scents, but without further evidence there will always be uncertaintly involved.

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