Shroff Channabasappa / Natural (Charcoals) / Sandal, Agar Wood, Amir, Shamama Gold, Herbal

Shroff Channabasappa Part 1
Shroff Channabasappa Part 2
Shroff Channabasappa Part 3
Shroff Channabasappa Part 4
Shroff Channabasappa Part 5
Shroff Channabasappa Part 6

The latest group of Shroff incenses to reach Essence of the Ages has raised a question or two in my mind, the most urgent of which is the subline or classification scheme being used. As a tool to identify the types of incenses one likes, the newest sublines seem to have confused the issue a bit. First, we have two wet masalas, fair enough, although both strike me as similar enough to the semidrys (the Saffron is wet, but likely due to the oils). Second we have a group of 9 incenses under the Natural subline, however these appear to be two different groups, 5 charcoal incenses, and 4 wood based herbals. The most expensive of these incenses are in the former group. Finally we have a batch of seven incenses pinned to the end of the Dry Masala line, what was originally a group of mixed charcoals with oils, however the entire new group is nothing like these featuring incenses that could have been in the Dry Masala group. I’m not sure why the current delineation, but certainly my order would have a little different had there been more clarity.

However, wherever these incenses belong, they are from Shroff and are yet another installment showing more facets from this company in the creation of incense art. It’s really this natural group where the two newest styles lie, so I thought I’d tackle these first. And because the five charcoals in this group are not only the most expensive Shroff incenses ever exported, but they appear to be the highest end Indian incenses to ever come over here. And there appears to be one main reason for this, in all five of these charcoals are extremely expensive and high quality essential oils, some of them very rare indeed.

Over a decade ago Incense from India used to carry a small charcoal stick called White Sandalwood. At the time their incense packages were $1.50 and each package of White Sandalwood carried three small charcoal sticks dipped in a very fine sandalwood oils. This style is most definitely the precursor of the Shroff Sandal incense, however while I may have considered White Sandalwood expensive at the time, the new Shroff incense is nearly prohibitively expensive and may be the best example to demonstrate how rare and desired the wood has become in just a small period. Each 5g package is likely to have 5 sticks. They’re much larger than the previously mentioned White Sandalwood sticks and are dipped in a very fine sandalwood oil indeed. As all charcoals go, even ones with punks this clean, Sandal is a very smoky stick and at what amounts to about $30 a stick (per stick the most expensive incense on the US market, although not per inch), it most definitely packs a wallop and one is perhaps fortunate in that an inch of this is enough to fragrance a room. At first the sandalwood oil comes off with all the resinous middle you could ask for, but over time the scent turns out to be exquisite, showing that great sandalwood is as evervescent and multifaceted as a good aloeswood. One always gets the resin, crystalline qualities and gentle wood contour out of a sandalwood oil, however it’s uncommonly deep here, with a cooling menthol and lacquer like level, the imminence of freshly cut wood, the almost vapor-like qualities of the finest of evergreen trees and the depth of fine grain, whorl and pattern that evokes forgotten memories. In fact even now (and I’ll admit I haven’t even fininshed one stick of this even after four or five sessions) I still notice all sorts of deep and unique subscents coming off  this stick. In the end, what it does for me is wonder what the oil itself might be like without the charcoal as even by itself, even with this most inferior of bases, it’s a terrific scent, one that makes you wonder how good the original wood must have been.

I’d have called Shroff’s Agar Wood Oud, if it had been my choice as the oil upon charcoal mix most definitely presents agarwood in its most oud-like fashion and as such is so very different in style from not only all Japanese agarwoods, but the occasional Indian masala Agar Wood that we’ve seen from, say, Pure Incense or Mystic Temple. Like the Sandal, this Agar Wood is headily potent and very smoky, in fact among the charcoals in this group this is by far the most powerful and intense incense. It’s also superlative, featuring an oud oil of incredible quality, a scent that has so many levels that it’s really hard to check them off. Kaleidoscopic as it burns, the Agar Wood is a mix of resin, raisin, caramel, molasses, earth, sweet manure and the scents of harvest mixed in with that ancient quality only the best of the agarwoods have. Like some unearthly elixir, it etches the environment with scrawling tendrils, ethereal beauty and fecund darkness intertwined, dark, bubbling and volcanic, like a tar pit transmuted into golden aroma. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t send samplers looking for various oud oils as it’s surely impressive as many a Japanese agarwood, yet in a totally different and unique way. Truly one of the most complex incenses out there and at approximately $6 a stick, it’s more accessible in price than the Sandal is.

The price drops substantially when we get into the last three incenses, all of which are essential oil blends. The first of these is called Amir and we’re given the ingredients of olibanum, oakmoss and citrus essential oils as a starting list. It should be mentioned that while the Sandal and Agar Wood oils are obviously among the highest quality in oils, I think the same can be safely said for the mixes going in these other three, that is, the different between these, and, say, Maroma charcoals is just vast. The mix has an almost medicinal strength to it. Olibanum is often confused with frankincense, despite it being a slightly different resin, here that difference is made obvious with a unique resinous tone I’d suspect one doesn’t come across as often as one would want. The oakmoss gives it a very pleasant, earthy, herbal element and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a touch of the aforementioned oud oil plays a part in here, otherwise it would be difficult to guess what gives the base of this scent its strength – certainly something voluptuous is anchoring it all. At the top end lies the citrus elements, intensifying the olibanum scents to a very nice, refreshing note. As a whole, this sort of exemplifies all of these blends in that they reach across a spectrum of different notes, ones you might think clash but actually work together beautifully as a whole. The play of deep and bright is strangely complex, cooling and easy going while not shallow at all. It’s so much better than most charcoal oil mixes it might as well be in a different category.

Shamama Gold lists cyprus, galangal and kapoor kacheri rose and like the Amir it also juxtaposes different elements to a brilliant effect with more subnotes than you’d expect from just those three ingredients (and like the Amir the slightly-molasses like tint in the background makes one wonder if there’s a tint of the oud oil at the bottom end). First of all this is a really gorgeous and unique rose scent playing over the top, certainly one with enough of its own independent qualities to make it worth seeking out on its own. The middle and bottom are much more mysterious, the galangal at a potent root strength I’ve never quite witnessed before, giving the middle a lovely herbal tang. It’s an incense of the greatest intricacy, every stick revealing more and more subnotes as if it couldn’t possibly have less than 15 or 20 subscents to it, a real work of art that shows floral, fruity, herbal and sugar sweet qualities all combining and interacting fluidly. Like all the charcoals here, it’s like some sweet mystic liqueur, so potent even 1/3 or 1/2 of a stick is enough for a room. Of the three blends, this is perhaps the one to start with.

Herbal may be the odd incense out in this pentad, it’s at least by far the quitest and most subtle, both less intense and less smoky than the rest. While I find the charcoal base in all of these to be very quiet considering the style, if it interacts as a note of its own in any of them would be this one. The description of the scent marks resins as the primary note and while I do seem to evince hints of, perhaps, guggal gum or myrrh in the mix, what I notice most are herbal and grassy qualities, scents that remind me quite a bit of Fred Soll’s Happy Hemp blend. Also mixed in are a bit of a burnt sort of smell (perhaps the charcoal here?) along with a slight lemongrass tint and a bit of wood oil . Unfortunately it doesn’t strike me as quite as impressive or overwhelming as the rest of these charcoals, but given Shroff’s success at making you take your opinion back with further use, I’m hesitant to deny a possible complexity and sublimity that might arise with time.

So we’ve seen Shroff take on masalas, durbars, charcoal mixes and other styles and they manage to take on a few pure charcoals quite adroitly as you’d expect. But do be warned, these are very smoky and potent scents, with as good essential oils as you might ever find in the style, but given the prices I’d be sure you’re willing to tackle the head on intensity of these first otherwise you might end up tackling some disappointment. That is, they may come with Japanese prices, but they don’t come with the restraint of that style.

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27 Comments

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  7. Hamid said,

    January 25, 2010 at 8:00 am

    I have just received the Natural Sandal and the Amir.
    To take the latter last, the first thing that struck me was the same kind of citrus hit that is found in the Moonlight sticks, but at a much more concentrated level, and although it is very deep and layered it remains in balance with the olibanum and other complex notes. It seems to me that this part of the Shroff range takes the Shroff art of blending to new heights. A comparison would be a highly skilled perfumier like Andy Tuar. Its a superb stick, as good in its own way as Shamama Gold.

    The Sandal is wonderful as you say Mike. The very best of Sandal oils giving a kalidescope of sandally glints and shades. Ancient and timeless.
    And yet I have a reservation. Its a reservation which I did not expect to air with reference to a Shroff product, as a range they deliver so much for the money, their mark- up for the western market is modest to a fault . But this Sandal, notewithstanding its exellence, strikes me as extremely expensive.
    It may be that I am making an unfair comparison. Three or so years ago a bought some sandalwood sticks from the travellersteastores based in Seattle. They were very thin sticks of very high quality, and as soon as I lit the Shroff Sandal I remembered them vividly. Now much could have happened in three years as far as the worlds stock of high quality Sandalwood oil is concerned, it may have increased greatly in price, in which case my comparison would certainly be unfair… and those sticks from travellersteas were not cheap, but they did not cost anything like the price of the Shroff Natural Sandal. Even allowing for the thickness of the sticks and so on. But that was then and this now…. the travllersteastore online site has been down for a while as it is rejigged. They may not carry the same brand now of course, or their prices may also have risen. It will be interesting to compare if they come back online.

    • Hamid said,

      January 25, 2010 at 10:44 am

      The reference to ” Andy Taur” should read Andy Tauer. He is a master perfumier from Switzerland . I bought my wife some of his Rose Chypre perfume for Christmas, and yesterday in the car as I caught whiffs of it I wished that Tauer did incense sticks. He does do a lot of frankincense based perfumes.

      • clairsight said,

        January 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

        Andy Tauer makes some of the best and most thoughtful perfume around, plus he is a very nice person. Check out his website/blog at http://www.tauerperfumes.com/blog/. That Rose Chypre is great, nice choice.

    • Mike said,

      January 26, 2010 at 11:58 am

      Hamid, actually your story seems to resonate with mine, so I wonder if what you bought in Seattle was the same Incense from India White Sandalwood charcoals. Because the price is indeed incredibly different now, however I do think that the oil Shroff using is probably a little better than what I remembered.

      The Amir keeps getting better to my nose. I’ve mentioned elsewhere but I’m finding that a lot of these Shroffs are actually improving in what I’m guessing to be maybe half a year after they were first packaged. It’s as if once the initial perfumes die down just a bit, the incenses actually gain a better balance, something I especially notice in the soft masala group. I’m still amazed at how much better the Vanilla smells to me now, compared to how it did at first and even the Musk Flora I think has improved, as has the Moonlight. The Amir even in such a short time also seems to be merging a little more and I’m finding it terribly addictive now. The Herbal has also really improved for me, although I think that’s just my nose.

      • Hamid said,

        January 27, 2010 at 7:33 am

        Its hard to say Mike, because travellersteas had repackaged it with their own logo and so on. On relection the huge leap in price may be an actual reflection of the reality of changes in the wholesale price in the oils. Or after three years it could be that the travellersteas sticks were not as fine as I remember. There was certainly a distinct similarity, in a blindfold test I would be hard pushed to distinguish between the two, as I remember the travellersteas. How reliable a guide that is I am not sure !
        Shroff certainly don’t appear to be a greedy company as far as their exports are concerned.
        travellersteas seems to be down completely at the moment, so a comparison may never be possible.

        • Mike said,

          January 28, 2010 at 8:40 am

          Sandalwood prices definitely have gone up a lot in the last few years and my guess is the oil Shroff is using in this stick is atypically good, probably from much older trees. I definitely agree it’s no reflection in greed upon Shroff’s part, after all they have dozens of incenses at what are really extremely low prices. Anyway it sounds to me like you probably just got something similar to what I had.

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  11. Janet said,

    January 5, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Can someone help me with a question that may be one with an obvious answer? Since I have come to think of charcoal as being an inferior medium, often bringing an unpleasant undertone to a scent, as well as a lot of smoke, and since Shroff uses other bases for many of their incenses, why choose charcoal for these wonderful oil blends….particularly the Sandalwood? I know there *must* be a reason, as these sticks seem to be all about the EO blends, with no contribution from the woods and resins of an alternate type of base – so why is it that charcoal is the base of choice for these?
    It’s hard for me to think of paying that sum of money for a dipped charcoal incense, even though I know the cost of true sandalwood oil, even if that is all that is being used, justifies that kind of cost. But I can’t help but wonder why a base which included actual sandalwood was not chosen…

    • Mike said,

      January 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

      I think you’d probably have to ask Shroff to be sure, but I do think part of it is tradition, which is why I started out talking about the White Sandalwood Incense from India used to do, there’s obviously a lineage of these incenses. I definitely don’t think you’d want to mix inferior sandalwood in with an oil this subtle and to be honest I’m not even sure how an oil like this might mix with a similar quality of wood. That is, in both the Agar Wood and Sandal cases you do want the precious subnotes of the oil to come through. The Sandal is of uncommon quality, it would be like, say, smelling kyara for the first time after using decent aloeswood for a year, so I can understand a little why it’s so expensive (that is aside from scarcity issues). But like with all high end sticks I think the more you pay the more you’re paying for subtle rather than vast increments. The question I have of course, is where’s the oil? And of course you can find oud oils out there and probably a great, similar sandal oil if you’re willing to spend the money and perhaps that’s the way to go. And in fact I’d be more likely to do that than restock charcoals. Don’t know if that helps much, but it’s where I’m currently thinking on this sort of thing.

      • Janet said,

        January 5, 2010 at 2:00 pm

        Thanks, Mike!
        As little as I like charcoal bases overall, I love the Shamama Gold and the Amir, like the Herbal, and assume Shroff used the best base for the given blends….I just thought you might know more about how those decisions are made. At least on the first two I mentioned, I certainly can’t argue with the results! I hope to get a chance to try the Sandalwood one day…..

        • Mike said,

          January 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm

          I know exactly what you mean. Besides even good ones like this are the main reason most people don’t like incense. I burned some Sandal and Agarwood for friends and family and they were too smoky for all of them. I like them mostly because the oils show just how complex these woods can be, but no matter how good the oils are they’re still charcoals and they can be uncomfortable without good ventilation. I will say too that I wish I knew they were charcoals beforehand, certainly I’d never associate a charcoal with the word natural.

      • Hamid said,

        January 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm

        So Mike would you then burn the oils on a heater ?

        • Mike said,

          January 7, 2010 at 12:19 pm

          Maybe in a blend, but I think I’d be more likely to put a dot of it on my wrist and then “wear” it for a while, definitely with the oud oils anyway. In fact I’ve long wanted to buy a sampler from one of the good oud oil sellers, but I may be a year off or so from being able to afford it.

  12. Hamid said,

    January 4, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Indeed….
    There is a note in the Shamama Gold which reminds me of almond blossom. In february Spainish orchards are redolent with a high sweet almost ethereal scent from hundreds of almond trees, I was reminded of that scent in the overall mix when I first burnt a stick of this fabulous incense..

    • Mike said,

      January 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm

      Honestly we should nearly keep a list of the subnotes on Shamama Gold. The way the creators have mixed these oils so that they kind of bounce off of each other is just amazing to me. I really think one of the highest compliments I can give to an incense is what we call that “long learning curve” the idea that one will still be exploring the scent 10 sticks down the line or so. Which is why we’re so high on Baieido around here.

      • Anne said,

        January 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm

        All this praise being lauded on Shamama Gold here and elsewhere on this blog makes me really regret that I didn’t order a box! 😦

        Oh well, there’s always the next order at EOTA…

        • Maharani said,

          January 4, 2010 at 10:10 pm

          The Shamama Gold is so interesting! It is woody, medicinal, floral and sweet all at once. I suspect the galangal is the medicinal note, which to me seems to be the core, with the other notes weaving in and out around it. Very smoothly composed, too.

  13. Hamid said,

    January 4, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Thanks Mike, a real tour de force of a review. And like the Shroff range itself one that I will need to return to several times to appreciate its nuances. In the meantime I am very tempted to try that Sandal……

    • Mike said,

      January 4, 2010 at 10:51 am

      Thanks Hamid. The revelation for me with the Sandal was that the really fine stuff has Agarwood like levels and prices. The pocketbook just aches at the implications!


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