Mother’s India Fragrances / Arjava, Hansa, Lavanya, Om, Purusha, Sattwa, Yajna

Since the last installment on the newly released Mother’s Fragrances Nagchampa incenses, the company kindly sent me what I’m dubbing the “Nag Champa Construction Set,” which is a series of ingredients that go into making their fantastic bases. One thing I learned fairly early about incense is that information from the east on these treasures has actually been remarkably sparse and so I’m extremely thankful to have received a further education from the creators. Not only has the set helped to show me where the sandalwood works into the base, but in particular having a sample of halmaddi resin has really helped to narrow down just where this works into these incenses. And overall my already high respect for the creator of these incenses has grown when I consider what the base smells like compared to the finished product. These are just works of art on every level.

So I wanted to say a few words about halmaddi resin before getting to the “back seven” nagchampas. This ingredient is particularly interesting in that the actually fresh smell of the resin itself (almost like a combination of chocolate and turpentine elements) is completely different from the smell while it’s burning, which is floral (likely that element similar to the champaka flower), slightly bitter and very balsamic. Not only is this obvious from the resin, but also from the base stick. Even on its own this a pleasant scent but what struck me is how much of a chameleon halmaddi must be since the oils that go into the incense change the nature of the relationship. Also, the Mother’s bases, while soft, aren’t gooey like the resin or many of the incenses I used to burn 15 years ago and as I intuit from the oils, there’s a really impressive level of balance and restraint here.

I wouldn’t have even recognized the base stick in the Arjava Nagchampa, which is the first of four incenses in this group that was not part of the original 12 incense sampler I received months ago. If there is a slight wildness to the halmaddi, you wouldn’t find it in this incense, which has a level of gentleness that is quite surprising. Where the descriptions of many of the other incenses list as many as 5 or 6 ingredients, there is only one specific listed here: rose. It’s interesting in that this is one of the new 14 that really stands out as being quite different, there’s an unusual herbal note at the top that is quite exotic and unique. The central scent is almost akin to some of the herbal-rose combinations found elsewhere and this all lies on a wood level that has been turned up a notch, while remaining pillowy soft. While it could be said that this is another wonderful contrast of spice and floral elements, the results aren’t quite so piquant as they are in the other scents, leading to a very sublime finish. Particularly because when I burn this I feel like I’m always trying to reach a description of the end, one that’s essentially elusive and mysterious. Like all great incenses the final notes end up as part of one’s memories.

Hansa Nagchampa is similar to the Arjava only in that it also has a fairly noticeable woodiness in the mix, but essentially this is a scent that returns to the floral/spice mix of many of these incenses. A lot of the main players in the whole line are in this one, including kewra, vetivert and lavender, but as always the addition of other ingredients modify the aromatic contour substantially. In fact, of the entire line this is perhaps the incense I find the most difficult to describe as the ingredient combos seem familiar, but the overall scent has been changed enough to be completely unique. Perhaps part of this is the golden champa scent in what I’d describe as the fourth fifth from top to bottom.  The amber here isn’t as strong as it is in the Om Nagchampa but it definitely flirts with the attention around all the floral notes and in many ways actually accentuates these notes so one feels that the florals are dominant to the spice mix in the background. And overall it’s the Kewra and Lavender that make, incrementally, the boldest statements in the mix. But in the end it’s puzzling because perhaps the best word to describe this incense is kaleidoscopic, because at any different time it’s possible to see new interactions among the ingredients. Which means in the end any static description won’t do this justice, as the base and the vetivert that tie it all together are really the only constants.

Lavanya Nagchampa really clicked with me after a couple sticks when it became obvious that the central part of the incense is very evergreen and spicy. I’ve discussed some of the incenses that contrast florals with a spice that could be roughly described in the cinnamon/clove/hot area, but this seems to get part of its spice from the use of resins as well as cedar, so that the spice note feels more green than red. Users of resin blends may have come across those that are resonantly foresty and that would be the comparison here. But it’s only a beginning and a platform because what dances on top is the jasmine and ylang ylang, and like the Arjava the results are just so delicate. It constantly strikes me that among Indian incenses, many of which can be incredibly strong and aromatic, that these are among the most refined and gentle, something only a master perfumer could gauge so perfectly. In the end it’s almost as if your aromatic senses try to convince you of its floral nature as the bewitching, rich evergreen and liqueur like background bubbles underneath, creating an almost yin/yang like paradox.

In fact as you use these incenses it’s really hard to separate one masterpiece from another, but there’s something in the Om Nagchampa that has made it my fastest used incense in the whole line, I literally have trouble trying to keep from burning my stock up in a couple days. It basically presents a triangle of amber, vanilla and cassia that is simply breathtaking and close to my sense of aromatic nirvana. My idea of the perfect incense is something that manages to be dry and rich at the same time, hinting at sweetness without being cloying. The cassia in this incense is just so perfectly placed that it’s a sheer delight and the amber notes are virtually flawless. As this scent burns it becomes so sublime by the end of the stick that it manages to represent the concept of Om in a way that might evoke ain ineffable response in the user. In fact it’s even difficult to want to burn another incense after this as it leaves such a powerful energy in the air after the last elements go up in smoke. By a long shot my top incense of August and it could be a reigning favorite for a while now.

Purusha Nagchampa is another of the dominantly lavender incenses in the line, which follows the absolute success of the Ganesh Nagchampa. Mother’s uses a number of different lavenders, however, and in this case we’re seeing an English lavender at the front, a note that is probably the most dominant lavender scent in any of these incenses. But while sitting on the top, the ingredients from the base up do a lot to modify the scent. For one thing this is one of the few, if not the only incense that has a sage note, an ingredient that seems to be far more common in American incenses (specifically southeast or Native American blends). Here it’s used to modify the lavender, and the results seem to bring out some of the wilder, herbier elements the two ingredients have in common. I’m not as familiar with orris, but I suspect this has a great deal to do with the more unfamiliar middle subscents that help to give this incense its individual personality. Closer to the base, the patchouli blends with the balsamic nature of the halmaddi to help make sure the top notes don’t go overboard. In the end this is definitely on the sweeter side of the Mother’s range, but it’s got just that touch of wildness to rein it all in.

Sandalwood is a main ingredient in all these incenses but it perhaps makes its presence most known in the Sattwa Nagchampa. With kewra, lavender tuberose and vetivert in the mix, this is definitely something of a cousin to the Atma and Hansa blends, if you can imagine the biggest change to be an increase in the amount of woodiness used. The vetivert here also seems to be turned up enough to give the scent a pleasant and sharp subnote and adding this to the woods and halmaddi base helps to balance the florals without reducing the richness of the scent. Overall this is a very pretty incense with a lot of activity in the mix and it’s among the bolder scents in the line. And like its cousins, the mix seems gauged to reveal its complexity slowly over time, something a review really can’t account for without an excessively lengthy preparation period.

Continuing a number of incenses with a strong lavender element is the spicy Yajna Nagchampa. However, if some of the Mother’s scents tilt more to a floral side, this is a decidedly spicy incense with woody notes, nagarmotha oil, patchouli and oakmoss all combining to imply a spice that also reminds me of cinnamon toast. This is also a very woody incense, however the type of wood scent it reminds me most of is akin (but far superior to) Satya’s Patchouli Forest scent, with that sense of crystalline, green resin that that incense evokes. Not only is the Yajna spicy, but it’s also devilishly complex in that there seems to be a lot of elements that make up this level of the incense. The oak moss is particularly noticeable here, almost more than a subnote at times, and with the patchouli it grounds the scent as something far more earthy the fire-like. In the end as you notice all this spicy, grounded activity it makes the presence of the lavender on top such a surprise and delight.

I’ll have to admit nearly every incense in this line is at a level of intricacy that they’re very hard to do justice to in words. So many of them are like a puzzle, because I feel that in a lot of other incense lines you wouldn’t expect some of these ingredients to work together like they do and in the end appraising them is like looking at a beautiful painting and switching between the singular elements and the composite final work. I may have mentioned strongly how much I love the Om, but over time I have no doubt that I’ll switch from favorite to favorite because in the case of complex aromas like found in the Hansa or Yajna, you get the feeling that it will take at least 10 sticks to feel that you’ve got a full grip on what’s going on here. And in the end I think this is the real joy in the use of incense, that what you have has the potential to continue to surprise and elate you as changing circumstances provide the varying viewpoints to smell new facets of complex bouquets. Because in the end with this line of Mother’s Nagchampas, all 19 exquisite treasures, you have some of the finest incenses available, particularly at an affordability that is quite astonishing. And please do check out the previous article for buying options, as I suspect in less than a month’s time they should be widely available to most of our readers.

Top 10 August 2010

This is, more or less, my top picks for the month. This does not mean that they are really in any kind of order (well OK, the Kyara Kokoh really is the top dog). There are also a lot more then ten incenses that I burn but we try and hold the line for the write up’s. I did find that as it got hotter in the Bay Area  my use of the Electric Incense Heater went up, as did my own blending for things to put on it. Great fun by the way!  -Ross

Kyara Kokoh by Baieido: I burn, maybe,  one plus sticks of this a month, in small “installments”. It is somewhat of an almost religious experience. Baieido says that this one is hand made by the owners using green oil Kyara that had been specially selected and I can believe it. It is pretty much beyond words and just gets better with each “installment”. Not inexpensive, but quite wonderful. Note to Baieido, if any of that green oil kyara is laying around ’cause it did not make the cut, I could find a use for it 🙂

Ogurayama Aloeswood from Baieido: Baieido is all about the woods. This one is from Vietnam and is considered a “sweet” scented Aloeswood. I love to put a small amount on the electric heater and let it gently infuse the room with it’s beautiful and very smooth scent. Trying to describe this is not easy, but basically it is about as pure of an Aloeswoods experience as you can get. If you like Aloeswoods then this is a great way to really start to understand them. Baieido’s Hakusui is another to try, actually any of them would work! At some point (when we get really brave) I think we might be doing some full reviews on the Baieido woods and possibly the Rikkoku (Six Countries) Set.

Saimei Koh from Gyokushodo: This is a wonderful Aloeswood and Sandalwood mix with a nice helping of spices, resins , herbs and  camphor. I do wish it packed a bit more “punch” and often find myself burning two sticks at once. It has a very classic “Old Japan” type scent. There are some similarities to a number of other makers scents but(at the moment) I think this one stands out.

Ranjatai or Kyara Seikan from Shunkohdo: Rajantai is one of my favorite scents; it pretty much has it all. Really good Aloeswoods combined with musk and resins. It’s deep, dark and wonderful, plus you get enough in the bundle to go on a real incense burning binge! Kyara Seikan adds Kyara to the mix and is also much smoother, it also cost more and is worth it (but not so “bingeable”) I ended up using both of these a lot during the Mystery of Musk series just to get a straight up scent logon for musk.

Honey Amber by Fred Soll: This is one of the very few incenses in the world to actually use Ambergris(beach caste). It has a really deep, yet clean amber note to it that the honey aspect adds an even deeper sweet note to. It is pretty strong so one stick can go for quite a few burns and still do up a room quite nicely. I think that Soll’s incenses are one of the best deals in the world and this one is right up there for me.

Copal Negro by Fred Soll: I would have to term this one as “heavy hitter” copal. It is smooth with a touch of sweetness in the background that kind of tempers everything together, but all that is riding on lots of deep dark copal. Wonderful stuff, great for grounding the environment of a room(or a person).

Japanese Musk from Koh Shi (Daihatsu): I am pretty sure that this does not use real musk, that being said it does really convey the idea of musk. It is  strong and has a nice, not too sweet, quality to it. It produces a wonderful scent to a room that also feels quite clean.

Swallows in Flight by Les Encens du Monde(Kunjudo): I had not used this a while and then “rediscovered” it last month. It is very complex, uses very good quality woods, resins, spices and maybe oils. Sometimes it almost seems a bit over the top in how much is going on here (another long learning curve)but having never been adverse to excessive excess, I just light another stick and go with it.

Deep Earth Premium – 2010 from Mermade Magical: This is something for the heater, to be gently warmed over a period of time. It has many musk like elements to it as well as resins and spices, It is a very deep, complex and meditative scent that really shows off Katlyn’s skills as well as the use of very high quality materials. It also takes quite awhile to make with a lot of ageing involved, which is reflected in the complexity of the scent. Beautiful.

Healing  from Mermade Magical: One of Mermades incense triangles, which is along the lines of a cone. This has a very clean and clear scent to it, I find it refreshing and uplifting; it seems especially good during the summer months. There is a great play between the resins and woods Somewhat unique and very nice.

Mother’s India Fragrances / Nagchampas / Agni, Amrita, Atma, Bhakti, Jyoti, Lila, Moksha

After being introduced to and living with Mother’s India Fragrances’ original five Nagchampas, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t have asked the question “How come there aren’t more of them?” After all the originals are a phenomenal quintet of nagchampas in an era where the form has mostly degenerated. Where so many companies have either eliminated or reduced the content of halmaddi in their products, often creating inferior recipes that only resemble the incenses they used to create, Mother’s have managed to continue a line that not only still contains the ingredient (also called mattipal) but considerably expands the art form.

That is, when nagchampas were made 15 years ago or earlier, the incenses were so full of the gum that the sticks remained so wet you could easily pull them apart. The Mother’s Nagchampas don’t aim for a similar effect and while the incenses are still quite damp, often visibly through the inner packagaing, they all have a uniform consistency that follows the original five scents to what is an incredible 14 new scents. And for those of you already well familiar with the original five, these are going to surprise and elate you as in most cases they have brought the form up to a new level of complexity. Almost all of these incenses have as many as five or six different oil or material sources not even counting the halmaddi/mattipal and honey base. The results are so impressive that it’s difficult to feel that even after sampling several sticks of them that the full story has been told.

I’d like to thank both the home company of Mother’s India Fragrances and their Dutch distribution company Wierook for not only making Olfactory Rescue Service aware of them, but by providing a bounty of gifts and samples in time for me to get some reviews out just before the products come to the United States (not to mention one of the most informative and descriptive English language documents I’ve ever seen for a line of incenses, something that strongly assisted my reviews). Where it was difficult to label only five incenses as the finest Nagchampa line available, now that the total is up to 19, there’s really no question that this is the top line of its format, with a fascinating and aromatically superior range that doesn’t stop to recreate any old recipes and instead uses superior essential oils and absolutes to create a wide range of impressive and intricate scents. This installment will cover the first half of these 14 new incenses with the second half to follow shortly.

The first of these incenses is Agni Nagchampa. Perhaps the most simple description is that this is more or less a musk nagchampa, but it’s far more complex than that. It’s essentially a French Musk sort of scent, which bears some comparison to Shroff’s incense of that name or even the old Blue Pearl Musk Champa, however we know from the description that the central musk scent is created from ambrette seeds. My experience with musks created this way is that they usually aren’t quite this sweet, so one has to look to the other ingredients to see how the bouquet is formed. Obviously the halmaddi and honey anchor this quite nicely at the base as they do for all of the incenses here, so it’s really the middle of the aroma where the magic is. The pivotal ingredient here is neroli or orange blossom oil, an aspect which is the first of many through these incenses that show an incredibly clever perfumery at work because it’s a scent that is mellow and doesn’t overpower while anchoring the musk to the base. The cedar seems to bring out the balsamic aspects to the scent more which both balances the neroli and ensures the fragrance doesn’t go over the top on its way out. Make no mistake, this is still a decadently rich and sweet incenses as any sweet musk would be, but you can almost feel the restraint nonetheless.

As rich and sweet as the Agni is, the cinnamon-laden Amrita Nagchampa is almost a study in contrasts. Even with the amazing halmaddi and honey base, the results are very dry and of this seven, this could be the most direct incense. The cinnamon is very beautifully drawn, in fact the description the company uses is “edible,” something easily understood with a sample. However the cinnamon does have its supporting actors, including patchouli, cedar and some unnamed woods and resins. There are some elements in this that remind me of Nippon Kodo’s Silk Road incense except with a much more genuine feel) but the comparison hints at an exotic subnote that really helps to transmute the base to support the overall dryness.

The Atma Nagchampa is also a restrained piece of work, but in this case it doesn’t transmit a single essence like the previous scent did, instead it portrays a balancing act with a number of different notes at work. What’s amazing about it is that even with so many players the composite aroma remains gentle and subtle. On top we have the dominant floral oils at work, some lavender and what seems like a closer mix of geranium and kewra (pandanus or screwpine) notes. But like several incenses among the new aromas, Mother’s have chosen to contrast these floral elements with a spicy backdrop (including clove), something the company is clearly adept at. The results are actually akin to a standard (if exceptional in quality) nag champa with a soft floral in touch. What it loses without a particularly aggressive bouquet, it gains with a gentle aura and since everything seems to work on such a subtle level, it’s one of the most difficult in this group to get a hang on. But by the last stick I had out it was really starting to get under my skin.

Bhakti Nagchampa is something of an instant classic. As mentioned with the previous incense, Bhakti goes for a floral spice mix that is extraordinary in that it seems possible to pick out the individual elements as they interact with each other. The rose/tuberose/geranium mix on the top could be the best among a number of incredible floral elements across all these incenses and this is perhaps because they not only have strong definition but they’re contrasted perfectly with the patchouli and cedar base. In fact the only question I have is whether a scent like this might lose some of this fantastic definition with aging, because the balance here is like a highwire act with all the base elements a stage for the florals to dance lightly over.

Jyoti Nagchampa has some similarities to the cinnamon heavy Amrita, but here the scent is less monochromatic and more of a tangier multi-spice blend. In fact, it seems likely some of its spicier attributes come from the mix of myrrh, vertivert and patchouli, a group of ingredients that all have great transmutational qualities in different blends. In fact any time Mother’s uses a larger amount of resins in its incenses, it seems to trigger the more balsamic and sometimes evergreen qualities of the base. The mix definitely leaves me very curious about the quality of benzoin used in the ingredients as I recognize none of the usual subnotes and a quality that is truly exquisite. Again this mosaic (which also pulls in kewra to a slight degree) really hits a great balance with a vanilla and spice presence that is just perfect.

Lila Nagchampa is a patchouli heavy incense whose other ingredients really shift the whole tonal balance you normally associate with the herb in new and fascinating ways. For one, this is an incense as sweet as the Agni or Moksha blends, something particularly unusual for something so prevalent with patchouli. Sharing the stage with the patchouli on the top is tuberose, which has already shown its effectiveness in the Bhakti, but where that incense contrasted the floral and spicy, the Lila goes for the composite approach, like a rainbow color chart changing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Undoubtedly the vetivert changes the patchouli element some, always a great partnering, but perhaps where the benzoin and oakmoss lies is where the true transmutation occurs as it falls into the sweet base. The informational material also calls chocolate as a note as a result of the benzoin and you indeed find a powdery cocoa-like subnote in the mix of all this interaction. Like so many of these beautiful scents this seems like one that will have a learning curve as long as the best incenses because it’s not at all what you’d expect in the long run. It’s better.

Moksha Nagchampa …. well if you think it couldn’t get any better than what I’ve already run through then we’d have to at least call this a gamechanger. Champa users may be familiar with a lot of the intersections between style and addition, but the incredibly lily of the valley scent (muguet) that crowns the Moksha is positively ecstatic. And Mother’s doesn’t shy from the contrasts here either, setting off on a trail of oriental woods and saffron notes that end up creating a very rich depth before giving one a floral shock that starts with the rose notes, part of which are described as “citrusy rose petals” which seem to be what I’m picking up as a slight melon-like fruitiness. It all results in the most incredible, kaleidoscopic aroma that has the feminine, floral notes of so many modern perfumes but with the depth of the traditional. I’ve had a few incenses with lily of the valley in them, but none quite so stunning as this one.

One thing you’d expect from a great company is that in expanding what was a really impressive quintet, Mother’s haven’t sat on their laurels and tried to spin similar variations off of an already established success, they’ve possibly surpassed them, or if not, they’ve added such an incredible amount of variation to their line that it breathes new life into the whole line and makes you want to go back to the original quintet for reevaluation. With each stick I became far more deeply involved with each one to the point that picking a favorite is very difficult, there’s really not a blend here I wouldn’t want consistent stock on. There’s just no question that this is the crowning line of the modern nagchampa and I’m fortunate to be able to bring seven more to your attention in the next installment.

Coming up…

Been busy on the incense front. First of all upcoming is a look at the series of 14 new Nag Champas from Mother’s India Fragrances. Both the home company and their Dutch distribution have been tremendously supportive (and they’ll definitely be in the US eventually as well) on the samples end, which also means there will be a lot more Mother’s scents to go. I’ll do this in two parts, with the first part already nearing completion. Those who loved the original five will find some really fantastic new concoctions, and best of all they all have halmaddi in them and the company has an informative, explanatory document on the champas which has really helped.

I’m also moving closer to completion on the full Shroff line, I’ve got notes written up for all the Masala Base florals and am currently working on the other seven Masala Base incenses that came in in the last batch, so I’m hoping to have these done, at least until any new ones might come in (crossing fingers).

There will be a couple more installments in the Pure Incense Absolute line. I don’t have a few of the most recent incenses yet, but when I do I think we’ll be up to date on those as well. The notes on the next batch featuring mostly the Cedarwood mixes are finished. After that the Sandalwoods and Patchoulis.

In the Tibetan category, there’s a couple from Tengboche, the wooly Tibetan Yak, and a sampling from Stupa, all notes are finished. Shechens, Domas, Luckys, and Arogyas farther down the line.

And Ross and I will be doing some more stuff from the Triloka book as well.

I also plan on going over the Baieido aloeswood playbook, but this is on the slow track as I’m still not  to the point where I habitually use my heater as much as I’d like to. Plus there’s nothing like a heated chip of Hakusui or Ogurayama to make you drop everything you’re doing and go astral.

And I’m still working through the new categories as you may have guessed from the longer side bar on the left, I think I’m well over half way through the 2008 posts.

Incense from India / Deja Vu, Maharaja, Fantasy, Vision

Almost every time I tackle a line’s series of durbar/champa style incenses I’m always afraid I’ll start ranting on about the lack of halmaddi in them and how much they’ve changed in a decade, while at the same time I often realize that not ALL of them had a lot of halmaddi in the first place, and that my nose has changed quite a bit in a decade as well. Add all this up with the dearth of information we tend to get on incenses due to the language barriers and you’re often wondering what is fact and where rumours and myth get started (I’m always hoping not here). A company like Incense Guru which produces Incense from India, possibly the largest line of Indian incense in the Western World, undoubtedly procures all these incenses from various sources under their label so it’s difficult to know what the original sources are (although that they break them up into particular styles has always been greatly helpful).

I do know, however, when I started buying incenses from this company well over a decade ago, just on a visual basis I can tell they’re different now. Many of the earlier incenses, particularly Maharaja, were definitely more hygroscopic then and pulled apart with quite a bit of wetness, now the incense is as dry as a masala. On the other hand I’m not so sure about Fantasy and the others, I feel like I’m tackling older memories here. But I introduce all of this because this “history” has a large influence on me; I’ve known these incenses for a long time and sense some sort of degeneration in their effectiveness, which means I’ll have a different perspective than anyone coming to these scents anew.

Deja Vu is a powdery and undescribably distinct modern durbar type, both sweet and dry in a way that makes you notice one element and then the other and back again. It’s light, dry and airy in a way that makes you wonder if halmaddi was every involved. It’s also a cousin to Incense from India’s very popular Snow Apricot scent (which from memory was never particularly hygroscopic) in that Deja Vu could also be considered a fruity incense. Unfortunately, in the end, it’s a lot like Shrinivas champas in that so many of them are perfume heavy and don’t have aggressive enough personalities to be particularly memorable. I mean if I was to burn a stick of this today, by tomorrow I’d have mostly forgotten a lot about it except in generalities. Pleasant yes, but ultimately generic, in fact even the company’s description doesn’t go farther than calling this a “stronger Nag Champa type fragrance.”

Maharaja (Mystic Temple has this style as Maharaj) used to be one of the style’s stone classics when it was made with gooey halmaddi, in fact in remembering the incenses that really put me on the road with it all, the original Maharaj was definitely one of them. But the problem with the incenses in this style has always been that even though they’re all remotely in the same aromatic area, they differ just enough with every purchase. And so very quickly, even a year from my first stick Maharaj/a had lost its hold on me. And today even if the sort of anise and spice mix still keeps the modern version roughly similar to what I originally loved, it’s now very dry and the spice cookie/spiced tea like scent that use to merge perfectly with the honey and halmaddi now just seems kind of unbalanced. So in a way this is kind of a perfect example of how memory interferes, as I highly doubt anyone coming fresh to this might not like it.

And speaking of old favorites, Fantasy was another, definitely solidly in my Incense from India top 10 in the old days. But where I have memory of Maharaja transmuting like a chameleon, with Fantasy I remember the early batches and then this one. I do remember it being a bit softer in the old days than it is now, and the bouquet of it does seem drier now, but it’s a lot closer in scent than some other drastic recipe changes. It’s roughly in the same style as the Deja Vu, except it’s scent is much more in the slightly floral, herbal and especially) spice direction with hints of saffron and sandalwood in the mix. And thus unlike Deja Vu I can usually get a mnemonic picture of Fantasy’s aroma in my head. While I do enjoy it now, it seems sort of mediocre compared to the Shroff, Pure Incense and Mother’s fragrances we’re seeing now.

Vision perhaps due to them all being part of the same review, reminds me a bit of a mix of Deja Vu and Fantasy (it probably is partially because these are all relatively skinny champa sticks). There’s more patchouli in this and something of ammoniac smell I’m starting to notice in some Indian incenses, but ultimately it’s still that sort of sandalwood, vanilla and sweet oil sort of scents that most champas are like these days when they’re not deluxe. Ultimately it’s hard to break down the elements more than this as so much of the scent is derived from a fleeting perfume scent. Perhaps the fact that I don’t have as much of a memory of the original incense makes it hard to dig up further impressions, but like Deja Vu this is another one of those generic champas that have lost their ability to force impressions.

So this is sort of an unusual quartet in that ten years ago I might have picked at least half of these out as examples of the best champas available, however now, I’m starting to feel these, some of the Mystic Temples, so much of the Shrinivas and Nitiraj lines are all sort of in the same boat, pleasant undoubtedly but not up the best of what’s available out there.

Mystic Temple / Red Tara (Red Dragon Durbar), Green Tara (Dragon Temple Blend), Kali Champa (Durgar Rose), Tigerwood (Dragon’s Blood)

In terms of big incense moments for me, that is those points in history where I can actually point back to and say my current interest in incense is partially because of, my first encounter with Mystic Temple incense in the late 90s was one of the biggest. This was not only the era when halmaddi was used in abundance, but one in which the oils and perfumes often seemed to be richer. There was a little store maybe a block or two down from the Haight Ashbury intersection in San Francisco which I stumbled upon that had a number of their incenses in stock, so I bought as much as I could and started to realize just how superb Indian incense could be.

But it wasn’t just Satya Sai Baba’s blends that took a hit over the next decade, the same thing happened to Mystic Temples incenses. As halmaddi started to disappear the company’s recipes started to change, certain blends would come and go and just a few would disappear forever (I’m still forlorn over a Mystic Temple stick called Ascendance which must have only lasted in their catalog for a couple of years). And where Mystic Temple’s blends used to be close to the pinnacle of Indian incense, we’re now in an era where Shroff, Mother’s and Pure Incense have taken over the spot. And now I’m left having to describe scents with the memories of better days hanging over.

The four scents in questions here are all incenses with coloring. All but the Green Tara are red in color, all but the Tigerwood are durbars of a sort (in at least they’re modern day champa or flora type incenses). The first two in this batch are thick enough to be considered floras and are obviously related given they’re both “taras” and they both use the word “dragon” in the description. I do remember the Green Tara from my early experiences a decade ago, but Red Tara I believe to be a bit more recent.

In days past this Tara style was particularly deluxe, an incense so variant on the Sai Flora formula that its similarities mostly exist on the thickness of stick. But where Sai Flora has a complex bouquet that’s partially a result from how huge the aroma is, Red Tara‘s is a lot more simple as if it’s missing something in the middle. It’s similar to most red colored champa variants with fruity tops and spicy bases and in this case the overall aroma isn’t terribly far from the Madhavadas Magnolia (found in both Pure Incense and Primo lines). But I also get quite a bit of strawberry and that strange note that always reminds me of a fresh box of crayons. Overall it’s definitely a nice scent but like a lot of modern durbar styles where the base has changed, there’s a harsh note that becomes an irritant over the burn, an element exacerbated by the high smoke content. And I probably should note when I first tried a small packet of this I liked it enough to buy in bulk, but I haven’t been particularly impressed by the bulk package version, as if even in the last 5-6 years it may have had a recipe change.

The thing I remember most about the “Green Tara” version of this stick (I think it commonly goes as Dragon Temple Blend), was that even though it had a very alluring aroma, I could never keep any of the sticks lit, as if the contents were too dense. This problem isn’t apparent in the newer versions but then neither is the alluring aroma. In the end this actually ends up being fairly similar to the Red Tara, with a similar “crayons” subnote, although the changes are obviously that this is has some green notes and is a little less subdued and quite a bit hotter. In the old days these green notes had hints of wintergreen and kind of a deluxe perfume mix, the newer version seems by comparison like a more generic green note somewhere along the lines of an evergreen/mint mix. Like the Red Tara, it’ s a very smoky incense and thus problematic in the same ways like being a bit on the harsh side and strong without having much of an assertive personality. It’s still intriguing in its own way, but I’d definitely stick to getting a single packet (and I should mention that it’s inexpensive enough where an experiment would be justified).

Kali Champa is a red colored champa stick that is a variant on several incenses across both the Mystic Temple and Incense from India spectrum that feature a mix of champa elements and rose/floral, cherry and/or strawberry hints in the mix. Even in the halmaddi days I never thought this type of mix was particularly exciting but at least then the sweet honey in the base gave it some breadth that the modern version is missing. But unlike the previous two  incenses, there’s no particularly harshness here leaving this scent sort of generically friendly and thus likely to be pleasant to most who prefer floral and fruity notes. In fact the cherry tartness right on top is probably the scent’s most pleasing aspect, even if it essentially fails as a rose stick overall (and even then only due to the “subtitle”).

The Tigerwood is definitely the odd scent out in this batch, included here more as a sort of convenience. This is a masala incense that I’d probably categorize more in the poorer category. The dominant characteristics seem to be a combination of dragon’s blood resin and sandalwood (or more likely cheaper woods), but it’s largely drowned out by a strange floral perfume in the mix which seems to compromise the dragon’s blood scent, leaving the mix rather unbalanced. Overall it leaves one with a sort of bitter or sour type of scent that I didn’t find particularly pleasant although I should add a caveat that dragon’s blood isn’t really one of my favorite resins, so if you’re more inclined to it you might like this better than I.

Again, this is a rather small subsection of a very large incense catalog, so I consider this an ongoing series whose completion may rest upon any particular future enthusiam. I will admit that in this groups there aren’t really any winners or losers so much, the line does have some impressive scents that you can read about by clicking on the Mystic Temple category somewhere on the left.

Kunjudo Karin Select (aka Tokusen Karin)

Kunjudo’s Karin is a wonderful incense in our Japanese Hall of Fame.  If you search for a review of Karin here on ORS, it’s possible you may experience some confusion, as the French incense distributor Essence du Monde has an incense line called Karin (confusion #1!) that includes an incense called “Forest of Flowers”, which is actually Kunjudo’s Karin (confusion #2!).  As a final confusion (#3!), I’ve heard that subsequent samples of Karin and Forest of Flowers may not so closely resemble one another, though whether this is a true delineation between the two incenses or just inevitable differences over time from batch to batch is anybody’s guess!  Well, with all that clear now  😉 , let’s revisit Kunjudo’s Karin and its more deluxe sibling, Karin Select (aka Tokusen Karin).  For simplicity, I’ll refer to the original Karin as “Regular” and the new Karin Select as “Select” for the rest of this review.

Mike summed Regular up best in his earlier (Essence du Monde categorized) review: “…an affordable and fantastic blend of sandalwood, Daphne wood, and cinnamon that hits a number of different buttons. It has hints of amber even without the ingredient listed as well as wood, spice and floral and it manages to spin out different combinations of these elements like an echo of expensive aloeswoods. It’s fresh, vibrant, wonderfully spicy and addictive…”  I would add that there are even hints of talcum powder, which may be a trick of the amber and florals playing off one another.  Clearly a multi-dimensional scent.

Kunjudo introduced Select in December of 2009, and this recent addition has already gained a number of supporters here on ORS.  As compared to Regular’s orangey-brown sticks, Select’s are more pink.  While it’s clear these are sibling scents, Select comes across as smoother and more refined.  This is a result of the top note – that intoxicating amber/floral combination – being higher grade in Select.  My conjecture would be that by upping the quality of spice and oils, and perhaps some reformulation towards the sweet, the scent remains multi-dimensional but the presentation comes across more unified, with the “ridges” between individual components less obvious.  This top note is more sultry in Select, with the Regular’s having more of a punch to it (I won’t go so far as to say Regular’s top note is harsh in comparison, but it is certainly less rounded.)  Friend of ORS, Janet, had an insightful comment on this difference – “…the roles of various components are reversed, with the slightly pungent herbs taking a back seat to the sweetness…”  It’s unknown if the quality of the sandalwood in the base has changed, but with Select’s smoother top, its contribution to the whole is more evident and enjoyable.  Think Regular Karin and Kyukyodo’s Yumemachi combined.

Ironically, I’ve heard a few comments that Select is more spicy.  A possible theory is that with that smoother, sweeter floral top, there is more open space for the cinnamon to shine through.

We’re fortunate to have two fabulous takes on Karin from Kunjudo, and certainly either is a worthy, even required, addition to a well-rounded Japanese incense collection.  You can’t go wrong with either, but with the bargain pricing of Karin, and the negligible price increase for the Select version, it’s an easy decision to upgrade and the recommended way to go.

Highly recommended to those new to Japanese incense looking to survey different styles, wood lovers who have hesitated approaching florals, and the connoisseur looking for a good palate cleanser or additional entry in a daily incense lineup.

Drezang Kuenchap, Nado Poizokhang Zimpoe Grade A, Lhundup

From the looks of this group it would seem that I’ve already reviewed 2 out of 3 of these incenses before, but as it turns out, I actually haven’t reviewed any of them before, for reasons that will be made a little clearer in the respective paragraphs. All three of these, as with the Tsenden incenses reviewed last week, were provided as samples from Sensia, whose owner had recently received all these new incenses after a trip to Bhutan.

The first of these could be my favorite of the entire group. Drezang Kuenchap comes in both long and short sticks and is as robust, tangy and hearty a Bhutanese incense as you’ll find anywhere. I tend to evaluate any stick on whether its aroma exudes a greater or lesser percentage of fine ingredients as opposed to cheaper woods and in this case you’re definitely getting a stick that asserts its own character. In fact this is an incense that seems more Nepali than Bhutani in scent and strength. It’s difficult to pick out any specific elements since the whole thing seems a perfectly balanced mosaic, for instance the woodiness seems to be match perfectly with a certain sweetness in that the woods never verge too much in the campfire direction and the sweetness never overpowers. My guess is some of the elements of this will likely be familiar but it’s hard to criticise how this one was put together. To say I went through the sample fast would be an understatement and I’ll end up having to buy a pack at some point in the near future.

Nado Poizokhang incense seems to provoke intense reactions from its users, as the comments to my previous review of the top three grades demonstrates. What’s clear is that the company does indeed tweak their recipes severely as what I received from Sensia is an entirely different incense from the Grade A I reviewed years ago. Fortunately, I suppose, I’d never formed an intense attachment with the formula I previously reviewed and I think this current version is also an excellent incense, a well rounded, sweet, woody and herbal blend that most will enjoy. However I think it’s possible that due to costs there’s a greater level of juniper in this new version, however one not so high as to do anything but impart a round berryish scent to the mix. And the big change between the old and new is that this seems to be more Nepali in style and less like the snappy, plastic like stick style found in previous years. It all makes for a lot of confusion where Nado is concerned as noone seems to be sure what they’re getting, but at least for now, this well balanced stick is the new Grade A and it would likely only disappoint those expecting the old style.

I did some sampler notes on the Lhundup Grade A a while back, however what I received as a sample is the Lhundup in the regular pink paper package. I didn’t have samples to compare side by side, but by memory, this particular version seems to be a little less stronger than the grade A but roughly similar in style. I’d have compared this to the Nado Poizokhang Grade B of a couple years back, as its almost classic Bhutani in style, with a plastic-like tensile strength and that mysterious mix of spices that makes it difficult to differentiate specific ingredients. I don’t remember the Grade A having the sorts of mild characteristics this one does and as such this seems to be rather reluctant to assert a personality, certainly pleasant enough, but compared to the previous two incenses, this doesn’t really reach out and grab you. But essentially, given its price and now that Nado seems to have changed its style, this might not be a bad place to start to get a “ground zero” Bhutani blend as a base.