February 2011 Top Ten

This is, more or less, what I have been using this last month. It is winter so I find I turn towards some of the heavier scents. I also just got around to ordering some of the new Indian incenses that have come on the market but it was a late order so they didn’t make this list.

Onkun Koh by Kunmeido: I have had this for awhile; it got buried and then resurfaced recently. It has a deep, somewhat bitter, yet also smooth scent to it with a touch of green notes. There are lots of Chinese herbs and spices floating across a nice woody base. It’s not very expensive, lasts quite awhile and delivers a pretty well balanced ride.

Tokusen Syukohkoku by Baieido: Subtle, complex and a long learning curve make this a great incense. It also happens to use some of the best Aloeswood around. This is something that could easily be overwhelmed if not burned first. There are an infinite number of layers within  this blend, I consider it one of Baieido’s best.

Ranjatai by Shunkohdo: Deep musk mixed with a superb Aloeswood, this is one of my all time favorites, it is also(considering what you are getting) a very good deal. The bundle should last quite awhile, even with “excessive use”. It has made a lot of Top Tens for a good reason.

Sarasoju by Shunkohdo: This is a very good straight up sandalwood, with a minimum of additives. It delivers a very nice Sandalwood scent that is neither sweet,  wet or dry, just, you know, Sandalwood. Great stuff from a very traditional maker.

Kyara Seiran by Seijudo: On a Japanese site that I have seen, this is appears to have both green and purple Kyara plus musk, how can you not like it? But really it’s just stunning; it is also quit strong and potent with a huge amount of depth and complexity. It has all the interesting Kyara notes that twist and turn between bitter and sweet with the musk and spice notes somehow interwoven throughout the mix. I notice that Essence of the Ages has sampler sets from this company.

Tensei by Tennendo: This is another that I rediscovered. Tennendo makes some of the best incense around and this is one of their Aloeswoods blends. It smooth with a nice touch of herbs across a good grade of woods. It is not sweet nor is it bitter, yet at different times it just brushes those notes. Elegant.

Kyara Coils by Yamada Matsu: These are available from Kohshi and they are stunning. If you are similar with Shoyeido’s Tenpyo, they are along the same lines but this is much, much more. I am pretty sure these are using wood instead of perfumes/oils to achieve the scent, it is very deep, smooth and full of that Kyara scent that also has a touch of musk. Not inexpensive, but worth it.

EverGreen Forest & Sacred Grove by Mermade: These two are the deep evergreen, cedar and aromatic woods duo. They are the perfect scents if one has been indoors for too long. These are some of the greenest scents I know of and I use them a lot. They have both been reviewed and talked about here and are simply great. Katlyn goes to great lenths to use the best materials around and it show.

Dragons Blood by Blue Star Incense: Blue Star Incense makes some really nice blends at an incredible price, especially given that he is using natural ingredients plus real essential oils. This one uses a good helping of Dragons Blood resin to produce a very grounded and soothing scent with a nicely done woody base. It’s relaxing, smells great and does a great job of scenting a room at a insanely low price. He also puts samples in with orders. A winner.


Oud – An Introuduction

I’m thrilled to be a member of the ORS team, and I especially look forward to writing about oud oils and to reviewing some of my favorite scents. I thought I’d start off with a little background information by way of introduction.

“Oud” (in Arabic, “gaharu” in Malay) is commonly distilled from the resinous wood of Aquillaria species that are endemic to the hills and plains of south and south-east Asia.  The precious resin is produced in the heartwood as an immune response to the invasion of a fungus through naturally occurring or artificially produced wounds, possibly assisted by insects. Since ancient times the resin has been said to possess supernatural and psychoactive powers (the psychoactive part I can personally vouch for!). It has been used to banish evil spirits, to aid meditation (scientific research has shown that inhalation of agarwood oil vapor sedates mice) and is a component of Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, and Yunani medical practice. Countries in the Middle East are the largest importers and consumers of oud oils, however the multitude of recently released alcohol based perfumes featuring oud (mainly synthetic, poor approximations of the scent) attest to its rising popularity in the U.S. and Western Europe. The traditional oud oil perfumes, that are used to perfume the body and to scent cloth (be careful if you apply it on clothes- it stains),  can be purchased in pure form (Dehn al Oudh/ Dehen al Oud, literally fat of wood)  or in blends called mukhallats (mixture). Unfortunately the number of reliable sellers with Internet sites is limited.

Agarwood oil is produced using either hydro or steam distillation. How “good” the finished product smells depends on many factors. One is the grade of wood chosen by the distiller, which is defined by how much resin it contains. Because older trees contain the greatest amount of resin, and because “wild” trees generally contain more resin than plantation grown trees, the price of oils distilled from old, wild trees is higher. The expertise of the distiller- how long he soaks the wood (soaking makes extraction of the resin easier), how long it is heated, how carefully the temperature and/or pressure are monitored and controlled, how carefully and completely the collected oil is filtered and the trapped moisture particles are removed, AND weather the oil has been aged in the bottle- also affect the quality and price of the finished product.

In my next post I’d like to discuss the different scents of woods associated with distinct geographic regions, unless a bolt of lightening strikes and I feel utterly compelled to write about something else 🙂 If anyone has specific questions I’ll do my best to answer them in future posts and please feel free to come up with ideas and suggestions.

Thoughts about incense and perfume

I read Christian’s comments on in the ORS-News post about “incense note” perfumes and laughed. I recently ordered about 15 different samples from Lucky Scent (great selection) of perfumes and such listed as “incense note”. I realized that the word  or note “incense” means two very different things between the worlds of incense and perfume. In perfume it seems to refer to frankincense more than anything else while, really, the term incense is so much broader.

Many of the notes that make a piece of burning or heated quality sandalwood or aloeswood so special and unique are very hard to capture in a perfume. The element of heat adds an entire extra dimension to the scent. More even the heat of wearing it on one’s skin. The same is true if you heat a drop of sandalwood or aloeswood oil. Another set of notes come out to play. This might be very difficult (if not impossible) to replicate in a perfume. Possibly using synthetic molecules but not sure at all about using the naturals. Even smelling the best aloeswood/oud oils is nothing like heating up a piece of good Kyara. The same goes for sandalwood, it is rare to find good quality sandalwood for less then $100/oz, never mind the cost of high grade oils.Even if you perfume were 50% sandalwood in no way would it smell the same as, say, Daihatsu’s Sliced Sandalwood on an incense heater.

It occurred to me when looking at this that burning incense seems to compress the time between scent notes that most perfumes are built around,  in other words, the length of time between the top, middle and base notes is delivered all at once. Also incense seems to favor the base notes more. The tops and middles tend to mix together with the bases, there is quite a lot going on at one time when an incense stick is burning, while an incense heater can tend to stretch out and slow up the delivery.

Many of the standard citrus top notes would get lost or simply not work well in the incense medium, the same being true for many of the floral’s. They can get lost very fast (having just watched a seemingly large amount of Rose EO somehow vanish in an incense mix I made). Of course the smoke aspect of incense plays a huge roll also, even in the smoke-less styles available now, there is still some and that effects how you are going to accept the scent.

None of this is to knock one or the other, I like both! It’s just a few thoughts that have been passing through of late. Thanks for the input Christian! – Ross

Nathaniel’s Redolent Repository


This is the new shop link for independent incense and perfume creator Nathaniel Musselman whose work we’ve enjoyed in the past.

ORS News

First of all I’d like to extend a warm welcome to our newest staff member Marian Williams!

Second, we will be slightly expanding the scope of ORS in the near future in two ways. First we will be stretching out into reviews of perfumes and ouds, especially those that would be appeal to incense lovers. Second we will be starting to review the more inaccessible and unexported Japanese incenses in the near future. Staff has actually been debating this last one longer than I can remember, but decided that we do a better service by letting everyone know what’s out there.

Feel free in this thread to let us know what you’d like to see reviewed or for any other ideas.

Mermade Magickal Ever Green Forest, Eastern Temple & Kyphi 2011

Three new loose mixture incenses from Mermade Magickal Arts

All of these are best used on an electric incense heater and that is also how they have been reviewed. You could use a charcoal, but really, you would be cheating yourself. Mermade sells a great heater at a very reasonable price.

Ever Green Forest: Elemi, Hougary Frankincense, Copal Blanco, Lodgepole and Pinion Pine Resin blended with Cedar tips (wild crafted) , Himalyan Juniper, Grand Fir and Port Orford Cedar, Fir Balsam and Cedar oil.

This is the greenest of green. A full emersion in a pine and cedar forest when the mornings mist has cleared away and the sun has come out. Fresh, strong and very clean. You only need to use a little in an electric heater to scent a room. It has a stimulating and at the same time grounding quality to it, which combined with the scent is a  pretty unique combination in incense not to mention any room scent I have come across. It is also completely natural and of the highest quality. Something that Mermaid is well known for. Just the thing to lifts ones spirits up on a winter day.

Eastern Temple: Premium grade Sandalwood – Ground Emperors Agarwood – Hougary Frankincense- Port Orford cedar wood – Hinoki Wood Essential oil- Powdered Star Anise and Cardamom from Sri Lanka:

This also is a fairly strong one, with a very deep Sandalwood/Agarwood base. Riding over this is a sort of  Japanese and Indian spice mixture that has a slightly sweet side to it. Lots of lift in this mix and some great silage, it really spreads out nicely and does a fine job of infusing a room. Given the spice mixture there is also a hint of a cinnamon like scent moving through. I think of this one as having a rather elegant and at the same time approachable scent to it. This is in no way a “potpourri” or “Christmas” style blend ( I suppose it could be, but it would be a stretch) Its name does a very good job of describing the scent.

Kyphi 2011: Hougary Frankincense, Yemeni Myrrh, Labdanum, Persian Galbanum, Turkish Storax, Chios Mastic, African Omumbiri resin, , Juniper Berries, Honey, Wine and other sacred spices, woods and resins

Kyphi is one of the oldest recorded incenses, its formula (well at least one version) has been found on Egyptian Temple walls. One of its hall marks is the length of time it requires to properly compound and produce this incense. There is also quite a lot of maturing time involved. This is not something one throws together on a Friday night for sale over the weekend. Mermades version has a long history which you can read about in earlier posts. This particular offering really has it all, a very deep sultry base with some lighter, almost sweet herbal/spice notes across the top. I think the addition of the African Omumbiri resin adds to the overall scent by giving it even more depth then last years, which was pretty amazing in itself. There is no one predominate note in this, the aging process has done a wonderful job of fusing all the different aspects into a perfectly unified work of aromatic art.

Enjoy -Ross

Mandy Aftel ..The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells

I love the raw materials of incense and perfume. Many of them tend to have very blurred borders in their usage between one and the other. I have come to realize that I am a somewhat “materials oriented guy” when it comes to this sort of thing and because of all this I started gathering up a lot of essential oils, absolutes, resins, herbs and all the rest of the raw materials that go into creating incense and what has been termed by Octavian Coifan as “The Eighth th Art” or perfume.

There are no schools for incense making in this country, or if they exist they are pretty well hidden. So I decided to try another route and take perfumery classes. I had read Mandy Aftel’s book “Essence and Alchemy” and was captivated by her insights into the worlds of scent and its references to metaphysics. It didn’t hurt that I had studied some of the ideas within the Alchemical teachings and figured I would feel at least comfortable and probably highly intrigued in a class taught by her. It’s also very convenient that her studio is nearby and close to some of my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, how could it not be wonderful?

I still remember my first class, being clueless as to what to expect in such an environment, although I was sure it would not be anything like, say, a Microsoft Network class (amongst other things I am also an IT). So I studied up in Mandy’s Level One Work Book and left for the first morning of class praying that I would not look or act too much like a neo-barbarian or whatever other low life images came to mind.

When walking into Mandy’s perfume studio one is greeted by the sight of what I now always think of as “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”, and yes, I do see this with capital letters. It’s done up in light creamy white walls and a stunning amount of polished   wood. There are wooden book cases and shelves everywhere (totally filled) and on one side is a large glass container with at least five pounds of high-grade Frankincense (my eyes went to this very quickly; it’s an incense thing, kind of comforting). But what really just sort of rivets ones attention is the huge wood perfumer’s organ. A quick estimate tells me there have got to be at least five hundred bottles on this thing, all nicely labeled and sorted. My little “materials oriented guy” brain goes into shock – just think of all the wonderful smells in them! OK, I was a little short on how to really use them, but…damn, five hundred bottles!

Now it is my third time coming to a weekend class with Mandy, but it’s almost always the same reaction when walking in. It is a beautiful space to work and study in, well designed for its purpose.

Class starts, there are six other students besides myself and they are from, in this class, from all parts of the US. In other classes I have been in they have been from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The class starts out by everyone introducing themselves and why they are here.

This is where things become so much more than you could imagine before getting there. Mandy, as the teacher, is incredibly passionate about what she does and as far as I can tell she never really stops being that way. There always seem to be ideas coming up on what to do next. She is really an entrepreneur of the first water with a huge imagination and a lot of focus.  Plus she has that special ability to pass on what she has learned in a manner that is validating and seems to be perfect for the person she is talking to. She has seen or  made most of the mistakes that someone starting out will run into and is not scared to tell you about them on the off-chance that you will then not need to go there. She is also out front about what it can cost in terms of time and money to go down this road, both of which can be high. In fact she mentions repeatedly how many times she has tossed out the test blends, experiments and just plain mistakes. It is amazingly reassuring to the beginner to hear someone who is very high up the perfumers ladder say what amounts to, it’s not all going to work and it does take some real live time, energy and money to make it happen. She is being very truthful as she says this, but there is also a smile on her face. It is a rare teacher who can laugh at themselves and she does have a wonderful sense of humor.

Mandy and feedback to the class

You also get to bounce ideas off of your classmates, which is invaluable. Every one of them has a different way of looking at any given assignment. Each day in the Studio will last about seven hours and you will make anywhere from three to five scents, based on what the class wants to go for or what Mandy thinks would offer the best experience. It becomes a very focused and intense time. You might be surprised at how concerned one can become over what one drop of say, Cade, will do to your blend and the clock is ticking. One DropYou  get to have honest feed back from her on where each scent is at and you also get to hear the same thing about your classmate’s endeavors. She is incredibly good at discovering where the mistakes are and how to correct them. This is invaluable information to the beginner.

As the weekend progresses you find yourself trying many new ideas, not just because there are so many new raw materials to try, but because you get to see and smell what everyone else is trying and then see where you could incorporate some of this into your own creations.

At some point Mandy will create something from selections the class gives her. This is one of the more profound moments. It’s one thing to open a bottle of say, Jasmine Sambac, and just smell it, it is a whole different level to open the same bottle and know what it is going to smell like right now and then in fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour and so on as it dries down. Plus, what happens when you add it to other E.O.’s, absolutes and whatever else is in the mix, remembering that each one of them is also going through its own evolution within the bottle. Being a perfumer is a lot like conducting a large orchestra. It’s really about how all the separate essences (instruments) will mix together (harmonize) and how that scent (sound) is going to be received by the world. So to see someone who has put the many hours necessary to educate the nose and now has a very good idea as to what is going to work with each other and under what conditions is a real treat. Right there you can see that it is really all about taking the time to educate yourself on how the parts can play and harmonize together with each other.Your wrist, a perfumers best friend!

By the end of the class you have seen and done quite a lot. You have a much better understanding of how the materials work together and when to use which ones. You may have meant people who you can bounce ideas off in the future, which will be a great help. You have gotten to play in the “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”! You will walk away with many more ideas than when you walked in and a much greater appreciation of the possibilities that can open to you.

Making perfume really is an art and there are many, many ways to go about it, being taught some structure and techniques and receiving honest feedback can go a long ways towards helping one with their goal. This is probably (at least for me) one of the most valuable lessons I learned. Oh yes and Mandy’s opening statement (somewhat paraphrased) “This class is not about making anything good, it’s about spotting the mistakes and fixing them”.

I would like to thanks Mandy and her husband Foster for a wonderful time along with all my fellow perfumers in training (all three seasons worth, you know who you are). I feel honored to have gotten to study with all of you… Also thank you Michelyn Camen at Cafleurebon.com with some editing input and help.

  Hey, anyone know where I can get my hands on some antique Sandalwood oil or Boronia?  One can get very spoiled with access, even for a short time, to Mandy’s collection  😮 )

Cheers    -Ross

Shechen / Red, Blue, Riwo Sangchoe, Surpo

Shechen monasteries are apparently located in Tibet, India and Bhutan but it seems their incenses hail from Nepal, based on recipes from Mindroling monastery. Essence of the Ages carries four scents from Shechen, two in boxes indicated by their color, and two roll incenses. By price the two boxes seem to be the most premium items.

The Red box incense is slightly the premium of the two colored boxed and it’s actually no surprise that the recipe originally came from Mindroling as the incense here is very similar to Mindroling’s Grade 3 incense. It has that almost common mix of woods and berry found in many Nepalese incenses with some musky/dusty tones that are similar to the Mindroling, but I suspect the difference here is that Shechen probably uses herbal ingredients to get this layering. Overall this is a very common type of incense, but more or less a superior form of it, so well worth starting with here if you haven’t tried it.

If you have the Red it’s unlikely you’ll need the Blue which definitely seems to be sort of a Grade 2 version of the Red with a little more in the way of that filler wood/campfire scent. Given that the two boxes are only separated by less than $1, there’s really no reason to not go for the Red. The Blue’s rather nice on its own merits, but since the musky sorts of tones are more subdued (by replacing some of the red sandalwood content with juniper) it’s less interesting as a result.

The two roll incenses are much less impressive, both have very heavy amounts of cheap wood and little in the way of character, in fact both seem more ceremonial based than aromatic. The Riwo Sangchoe states the inclusion of red and white sandalwood on the wrapper, but I find it difficult to detect either. It does have maybe some slight musky/musty tones that are reminiscent of the Red and Blue boxes, but these tones leaven the rather dull woodiness very little. The Surpo isn’t much different, mostly made from filler wood material (probably cedar and juniper) but having some slight floral notes in the mix. The wrapper mentions ingredients like yoghurt, milk, butter, molasses, honey and sugar but I couldn’t really tell where any of these sat in the aroma.

There’s really not a lot new here if you’re already well stocked in Tibetan incense. I think I liked the Shechen Red more when I first purchased it, over time, it’s struck me as fairly static, but it’s a nice incense (although I’d guess you might find something similar in, say, the Stupa line at a more inexpensive price. Unfortunately the two rolls aren’t likely to do much more than irritate your sinuses.

Unknown / Pure Frank Incense, Pure Aromatic Jasmine, Pure Aromatic Pine, Pure Aromatic Vetivert

In terms of unfavorable reviews this one’s going to be in nuclear territory, so if you don’t like them I’d skip this one. These are four incenses out of a total of at least 30 different kinds that all fall under the “Pure” appelation and nowhere on the wrappers of these four is any indication who’s responsible for these, in fact my guess is they wouldn’t want to own up to it. In fact it’s already problematic at the wrapper stage, these incenses are bound so tight that to get them out you nearly have to destroy the packaging.

In many previous reviews related to Nepali incenses and those Tibetan monasteries now in India, I’ve often compared them to poorer incenses, well these are a really good example of the poorest of the poor. Quite frankly these incenses seem designed to get rid of large quantities of cedarwood, by adding a dash of “flavor” to each one. My guess the cost to make these is almost negligible. In fact each individual scent is barely worth discussing on its own. The Frank Incense is perhaps the strongest of the group in terms of the individual scent, but the reason for that seems to be the perfumey nature of what ever frankincense oil or synthetic they happen to be using that ends up covering up some of the wood. The Jasmine is even more cloying, there’s no way such a gentle floral should ever smell this awful, it smells like a bad soap. I can’t even really detect pine in the Pine, it mostly smells like burning pencil shavings. The Vetivert is at least somewhat detectable but overall it’s little different from the Pine in terms of getting a noseful of cheap burning wood.

Based on the these four, I wouldn’t touch the others in the line, especially since Nepali incenses are all roughly in the same price range where you can easily find much better incenses (like from the Dhoop Factory). I should also mention that I did these reviews based on maybe a stick at the most of each one, it’s really all I could bear.

Pure Incense / Absolute / Black Sandalwood, Sandalwood and Lavender, Sandalwood and Rose, Patchouli, Patchouli and Rose

This is the fifth installment of the Pure Incense range, for previous reviews please refer to the Pure Incense link on the left (categorized under Indian incenses). In this installment I’m going to cover a small handful of sandalwood and patchouli incenses. [NOTE 10/8/21: Due to variation in natural products it is unlikely Pure Incense reviews written from 2009-2013 will be completely accurate in 2021. Links below are to new versions, so please use caution in purchasing. Pure Incense uses different grade levels and you’re likely to find their best work in their Connoisseur and Connoisseur Vintage ranges.]

It’s probably worth reminding everyone that Pure Incense is an English company offering incenses made by the Madhavadas family which is also the source for Primo incense. There’s definitely some overlap between the two companies, so it’s a good idea to check what you have first. However, not only does Primo not offer the hybrids Pure Incense does, but Primo seems to stick to the inexpensive, so you’re far more likely to find quality incense via the Pure Incense route. But what all the Madhavadas incenses have in common is a sort of vanilla, charcoal and sandalwood base and in particular the former ingredient is quite noticeable in almost all of the line’s incenses, a trait that doesn’t always work out.

Black Sandalwood presents an alternative to the line’s regular Sandalwood, which can be found in both Connoisseur and Absolute ranges, however this variant is only found in the latter. The differences between this and the Absolute Sandalwood, however, are far more subtle than noteworthy. Like with the other sandalwood, the vanilla aspect of the base comes through quite strongly and changes the contour of the wood. The level of oil seems more matched by other elements that aren’t part of the Absolute Sandalwood, with a touch of mellow spice in the mix that tends to give the Black Sandalwood more breadth where perhaps the Absolute Sandalwood had more depth. Be sure you love the Absolute Sandalwood a lot before grabbing this one as the two incenses are very close.

While the fresh Sandalwood and Lavender stick allows one to sense both the sandalwood and lavender oils in the mix separately, like with many other Pure Incense “duos,” the two ingredients merge into something more hybrid-like while burning, and in this case the results are quite spectacular. For one thing, while you can smell the lavender oil on the fresh stick, the oil itself is more submerged in the burn allowing the lavender’s best aspects to rise to the top. It also helps to keep the ubiquitous vanilla scent a bit lower in the mix. The play of elements on top is particularly fascinating as the merging strengthens its floral characteristics. This is a good example of a scent being much more than a sum of its parts.

While the previous two scents are masala types, Sandalwood and Rose is a definite black charcoal-based stick, which is a style I’ll probably never fully embrace as the charcoal subscents always get in the way due to the sheer amount of smoke produced. While the oils are quite good, the vanilla is probably a bit too strong to work well and thus there seems to be as much charcoal and vanilla scent as there is the rose oil and a vague sense of sandalwood in the background. I expect the shelf life, like other charcoals, isn’t high and I’m wondering if the sample I was provided had already lost some of its power. Needless to say be sure you like strong charcoal scents before taking a chance on this.

Pure Incense’s Absolute Patchouli is quite a bit different from the Primo version although it’s similar in its green color. The oils are much richer on this one and in many ways this actually removes the scent from the more typical patchouli scent in the Primo. There’s a bit of lime hint in the mix (slightly similar to the Vrindavan Flower) that mixes with a soft almost uncharacteristic patchouli oil and the base’s usual vanilla and sandalwood mix. It all makes for a pleasant and unique patchouli variation.

The Absolute Patchouli stick can be detected almost as a subscent in the Patchouli and Rose and although the rose oil is strong, it mixes in quite nicely with the previously mentioned lime note. As with several of the (non-charcoal) hybrids, the blend of the two ingredients creates something new as a result. The oil mix does remind me of furniture polish to some extent, due to the rose somehow increasing the citrus-like qualities of the patchouli variation, but don’t take that to mean this isn’t a friendly incense. Like the Absolute Patchouli this is quite unique and it makes you wonder what other combinations would work well with the company’s patchouli.

This installment is not the final one in this series, but is the last of the samples I have at present and I’d like to thank both Pure Incense and Essence of the Ages for providing me with enough samples to be able to review the line. Since I received them, there have been several new additions to the line including Frankincense and Rose, Night Queen, Rhus Khus, Rose and Lavender, and Yellow Rose, so I hope to eventually get to try those out in the future.