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.