Absolute Bliss / Bholenath, Exotic Sandal, Navanath, Samadhan

This latest group of Absolute Bliss imports covers what are largely very lightly dusted charcoal sticks. Two of these are florals in the vein of the old Shroff florals (most of these were in what was called the Masala Base line), one is another sandalwood variation and the first one I will start with is something of a merger of a number of different oils.

In fact some of you might remember being a kid and going to the local 7-11 or Circle K and making what used to be called a “suicide” where you’d get to the soda counter and just fill it with splashes of everything on display. While Bholenath is certain much more thoughtfully assembled, the number of different notes in it is almost bewildering, leaving one with a very exotic, complex and intense sort of palate. First of all there is some deep floral in it. Given everything else it’s mixed in I feel like I only get this in snatches and I’m reminded of carnation and pink rose and even lotus at times. If you’re familiar with Temple of Incense’s Ganesha then you might be familiar with the way super pink florals start to push towards Valentine’s Day heart candy. But it’s only part of the aroma. There’s a definitely woodiness to it that hints at sandalwood and oud as well, although I would highly doubt there’s real amounts of either in there. The woodiness never fully materializes when the floral is sitting on it. There are levels that are almost leathery, cologne like and then others that are more like cooking spices, dill, coriander or even something like celery salt. Stephen once sent me notes that included Zest/Irish Spring (which is particularly obvious as the first note in a stick), clove, tuberose, orange blossom and ginger blossom and yeah all of these show up as well, although with every single element in the incense it seems like it’s arm-locked with its neighbor. Bholenath is an almost kaleidoscopic display of notes and as such I am going to call it both utterly brilliant while at the same time cautioning that it might not be to everyone’s taste. But to me this sort of incense audacity is exactly what I want. There’s just nothing else like it in the entire catalog.

Exotic Sandal on the other hand is almost exactly what you’d expect. As every new sandalwood incense from the AB-TOI axis comes forward you do end up finding it difficult to separate the differences and my first burn of this made me feel like it just wasn’t really all that different from the AB Mysore Sandal or the Temple of Incense Sandalwood Extreme (or a bit less so the Pure Incense version or Happy Hari Absolute/King Sandal). The difference with the Exotic, perhaps more apparent with further use, is there’s some level of feeling that much of this exists with trickery. It’s a sandalwood with a lot of lemon in it and that combination of lemon and wood is actually very similar to furniture polish post use. While the incense does have a rough sandalwood profile there’s very little in the way of complexity or depth to it, all of which implies that there may not be even a drop of sandalwood essential oil in it anywhere. I believe Corey sells this for exactly the same price as the Mysore Sandal, which is a much more satisfying burn. So unless you are a huge fan of lemony sandalwoods, I would stick to the Mysore.

As I mentioned earlier, Shroff Channabasappa used to do what they called a Masala Base line. I think perhaps what was meant by this is the charcoal of a masala base because most of these incenses were dipped charcoals. The point of these was to portray a number of different floral incenses. Some of these florals also fell within their dry masala line. But many of these covered all sorts of flowers from mogra to lily to lilac to night rose and so on and so forth. The trouble with reviewing a lot of these incenses is where you might know some, a lot of native Indian flora are not as readily available in the west and it can be really tough to remember the oils, especially on many incenses I reviewed years and years ago, many of which I was not inclined to keep or restock. But both Navanth and Samadahan fall in this category. They are essentially floral oils on charcoal. The issue with a lot of incenses like this (and Stephen reminded me of this) is that charcoal is masked the least with a floral and there can be notes that are a bit like burning hair. I think once you sink into the incenses a bit that’s not as noticeable but it’s worth bringing up. Navanth reminds me of a few different florals but I am wondering mostly if it’s a Mogra incense of some sort, as that is often something of a classic Indian floral (and it also will bring up old head shop associations as well). I’m not sure how to describe a Mogra vis-à-vis a lot of different florals as they are so specific, but if this ended up being something like a lilac or another flower it wouldn’t shock me. I would guess it’s probably a synthetic of some sort but on its own it might have some level of character, but it’s hard to tell fully with the charcoal base blasting away.

Samdahan is really little different, it’s just a different floral oil. But in immediate comparison to Navanth it is a much pinker sort of smell, less exotic, perhaps more classically feminine. I think of carnations and roses with a scent like this and would rerefer you back up to my Ganesha connection up in the Bholenath paragraph. Strangely and perhaps due to the kind of floral it is, the charcoal doesn’t strike me as quite as conflicting with this one, although that doesn’t stop the bit of burning hair (to me this one even reminds me of the scent of a salon with someone sitting under a perm machine). But in the end, at least to my nose, it’s no less fatiguing as an incense as the Navanth. The issue, really, with both of these if in this fresh a form, you’re already getting this much charcoal interference then it’s going to lose the battle with age pretty fast. And both sticks also burn really long, so there is no recommending this unless the base of a charcoal stick doesn’t bother you. This isn’t so much an incense quality issue so much as a format issue; one of the reasons I really try to avoid reviewing pure charcoals is the complaint is often the same. If you can drown it out or maybe dust it up enough than you can mitigate some of the issues, mild and gentle floral oils just don’t really stand a chance.

As always, there are no current plans to actually put these incenses up at the Absolute Bliss website so it is highly recommended and encouraged to contact Corey directly using the methods at his contact page. My experience is that you can find what you want and ask him for a Paypal invoice. Please note that currently Absolute Bliss only ships to the US.

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Olfactory Rescue Service: The holidays and beyond.

ORS will be doing a downshift for the rest of the year and I’m sure some time into the new year. In terms of my own pattern of writing, when you start getting into a rhythm with it there becomes an inevitable feeling that the quality will start to drop off at some point and I have become a lot more aware of this threshold where writing goes from inspiration to just slight a bit of a chore and it’s at this point I think it’s worth mostly signing off and recharging, at least through the holidays. There will still probably be a scattering of occasional reviews and so forth, I have some more Dimension 5 goodies to share and I think both Stephen and I are planning on doing end of the year top 10 lists. And who knows what else. But the pattern. after tomorrow’s Absolute Bliss review, will be more intermittent.

Anyway thank you all for reading and weighing in, it is nice to meet a lot of new friends this year, see a lot of old friends return, and to finally have ORS back and looking a bit less aged finally. I’m hoping to do more site upkeep at some point, but it’s the kind of thing you have to be in the mood for and I’ve waned out a bit for the time being.

Dimension 5 / Urrere Unlimited

One of the sad parts about resuscitating ORS earlier this year was that the man who was practically my original partner in running the site passed away not long after I announced the site’s return. ORS might not exist if it wasn’t for Ross Urrere. Historically, this site started when I started posting about incense on my own blog. Ross joined in quite a bit and then there was some discussion about actually breaking off the incense part of the blog and creating something independent. Ross agreed to start writing, christened the site fairly quickly and off we went for many years. Ross also was interested in making his own incense and over the years went from afficionado to a revered creator in his own right. Ross was very generous and kept me fairly well supplied with samples of his incenses like Ocean of Night, Comfort, Souked Aloeswood or Sandalwood with Ambergris, all of which were brilliant. I am sad that I have completely run out of Ocean of Night even though, I was probably the benefactor of 4 or 5 vintages of it, but I do remember it fairly well (there is some truth that the inspiration to start up the site again came from revisiting a lot of vintage incenses that I actually ran out by the time I pressed go). Ocean of Night was a remarkable incense, almost sui generis from an incense standpoint, with an oakmoss presence that really set it apart from many of the heatables on the market. And I know I wasn’t the only fan of it, in fact I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like his incense work, a work I might add that was informed by studying perfume as well. In fact it is his friends in Mandy Aftel’s circle who inherited Ross’ recipes and I can certainly say for myself I look forward to the day that these return to availability.

Another appreciator of Ocean of Night is Josh Matthews at Dimension 5 who actually created this really wonderful tribute to Ross, an incense that includes Ocean of Night as an ingredient in the blend (as well as a tiny touch of the original in order to suss it out in his blend). We did make sure to OK it with Ross’ inheritors and very much appreciate their graciousness in allowing Josh to offer this wonderful stick of incense. So first of all, Ocean of Night included sandalwood, oakmoss, frankincense and the usual unlisted herbs, resins, spices and woods. To create Urrere Unlimited Josh uses Vietnamese and New Guinea agarwood, as well as other spices, including cardamom. Just reading this again, I like the idea a lot to use this unique spice in the mix. If Ocean of Night included any agarwood it was largely marginal so this uniquely crafted stick that actually marries that scent to fine aloeswood is a perfect tribute. I like the unique take of matching up the cardamom spice with the oakmoss front of Ocean of Night. I also like the way Urrere Unlimited reminds me of Baieido’s Kai un Koh in its relative unsweetness as Ross was a huge fan of that stick. The aloeswood here has a nice sense of dry elegance and bitterness that I think matches the incense quite well. The blend also reminds me a lot of another favorite of Ross’s, Shunkohdo’s Ranjatai. All of these things make me feel like Ross would have appreciated this stick very much. And overall there is a lot to listen to, after a few sticks I think you’re very likely to sense a lot more of what is going on than just the surface.

Like Tibet With Love, Urrere Unlimited is also part of Dimension 5’s Eclectic Collection sampler. Reviews of the final three scents in this sampler as well as a new batch of incenses called The Terra Collection are all forthcoming here, but are all now available. If you are interested in any of these incenses or previously reviewed sticks, please contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com. I will say again that these are wonderful treats for the incense connoisseur, made from a collection of very fine materials, many of which rarely show themselves in stick form. In that sense many of these are completely unique in the market.

Nado Poizokhang / Happiness Incense, Jaju Grade 1, Jaju Grade 2, Cinnamon

I like to think of Nado as something like the Nippon Kodo of Bhutan. They definitely seem to be the largest and most widely exported, but surprisingly, in the West, they are also sold by disreputable sellers who are selling fake Nado. This has led to Nado, to me, being very inconsistent. Sellers like “Incense Guru” sell fakes that come with names like “Bhutanese A” or similar, and when you get them, they have Nado Poizokhang labels with little stickers over ‘made in Bhutan’ and replaced with ‘Made in Nepal’.

I bring this up because, at this time, only Incense-Traditions sells non-counterfeit, authentic Nado incense in the west. All others I have purchased from have unabashedly sold me counterfeits and when I bring it up to them, I either get ignored, ghosted, or have my account deleted from their site.

Starting off with Happiness Incense. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims that it is a product of Bhutan, the country of Gross National Happiness. I’ve always appreciated that in the 70s and 80s, the leadership of Bhutan was so turned off by crass capitalism that when they showed up to a world summit, other leaders were asking what their GDP was and the king answered, “We don’t measure out output in money, we measure it in the happiness of the citizens”. I am familiar with this and have bought this many times from multiple vendors. Of all the recipe changes, this one surprised me because I had imagined these were ancient family recipes that you only change at your peril. Compared to my notes in my incense journal from 2015, this stick has changed a bit. I find it is less sweet and more on the ashy/bitter end of the spectrum, which feels like a misfire because my 2015 notes say that this is a spicy and sweet stick.

What I’m getting from this is a more muted sweetness, covered under a smell similar to burning slightly dirty charcoal as the base scent and then adding the spices and a touch of sweetness to it. If I had one complaint about Bhutanese incense is that it all tends to smell very similar to each other, so with this change in the recipe, you actually have something that comes across as more unique in the Bhutanese incense because I feel like the bitter/ashy component brings more gravitas and presence to the incense. However, as “Happiness Incense” I feel like this reformulation misses the mark because to me, I feel like the sweetness and spices of the original was more ‘happiness’ than this profile, but that could just be me.

Cinnamon is a really interesting creature. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims it as “Cinnamom” (see top pic for this) which leads me to jokingly call it the “Mother of all Cinnamon Incense”. This incense lists only one ingredient, the bark of a cinnamon tree. This produces a very delightful cinnamon scent that is surprisingly complicated for one ingredient. This makes me feel like other incenses that use it are using only a bit to get a hint but since this is 100% cinnamon, you get all the notes, from sweet to spicy and the interplay keeps it from falling into a boring one-note drone of an incense.

Unlit, the stick smells like a freshly opened bottle of cinnamon sticks. But when you light it, you’re treated to a whole spectrum of cinnamon-based smells, from the candy-smell of the cinnamon oil to the bitterness of the wood, to the overwhelming denseness of the central cinnamon scent, this smell is concentrated up close, but if you get into the next room, it does smell like someone might be baking cinnamon cookies.

Jaju Grade 1 sticks come in a paper wrapper, which is completely green compared to Grade 2 which comes in cellophane. These tan sticks are about 50% thicker than the Grade 2 sticks, making the 2 sticks for daily use and the 1 sticks for special occasions. Lighting one of these up is easy thanks to the nicely ‘fluted’ edges. Immediately, the smoke comes off this with sweetness like opening a box of raisins. My understanding of Bhutanese incense is that all the ingredients are macerated into the wood powder in a special vessel and left to age together in these cold mountain monasteries. At least, the traditional incense came like that, since Nado is a factory, I’m uncertain if this is still produced traditionally like in the videos.

As I dive into this, you get a chance to feel a bit of each of the ingredients here, and I’m going to guess there is milk, honey, wine, along with aloeswood and sandalwood of different grades, as this has notes that shows off a bit of each, but the notes are definitely married together notes and not single notes that define exemplar scents. So no salty sandalwood, just a woody presence that mutes the milk and honey into something less food-like so I’m not thinking about eating while smelling them.

Spending more time with this, I have found that there is a spicier, saltier tail to this scent that gets picked up by me after I’ve spent time with the sweeter part and start looking for something more. I can sense some of the cinnamon, clove and saffron in here now, hiding behind the sweeter front scents. Definitely a good incense for those who love the Bhutanese style.

Jaju Grade 2 sticks are exactly the same length, but thinner than the Grade 1. While they look like they are made from the same dough because they are the same color, lighting this up shows off that they share different formulas. I’d say this comes across more with an opening like a spicy raisin. Like a raisin rolled in li hing mui, sugar and cinnamon. This definitely has a bit of a ‘rough around the edges’ like maybe it has lesser quality ingredients or perhaps they don’t age it as long. However, it does come across a few dollars less per roll and with it being thinner, there are more so this seems to be made for economical daily use.

Overall, the two scents are close to each other, and doing them back-to-back has helped me spot a few of the differences. I think because this one is a bit smokier in its undercurrent(I notice my clothes smelled like smoke after sitting next to it for a bit) that this one definitely has the cheaper ingredients.

Pure Incense / Bulgarian Rose Masterclass, Saffron & Rose Masterclass, Camphor Masterclass, Connoisseur Laos Agarwood

This (final for now) installment of the most recent Pure Incense 2021 reviews ends up as something of a miscellaneous section, but includes a couple rose incenses.

The first of these is the Bulgarian Rose Masterclass. One might consider this the most high end upgrade of the Connoisseur Rose, even if it is geography specific, as it still has a lot of similarities. This latter formula is one of the incenses that has maybe traveled the most in scent through the years. In many ways any Pure Incense Rose I’ve sampled is still the conglomerate aroma of the rose oil being used along with the vanilla, charcoal and sandalwood of the base, and it can be fairly difficult to comment on the rose perfume being used without being cognizant of how much this base shifts that. In this case the base provides something of a sweet note that certainly cuts in, but I don’t think it obscures the fine delicacy of the rose oil being used here, which has enough resolution to it that it actually starts to resemble the actual scent of roses and not an approximate pitch at a related floral. Before telecommuting I used to work across from the California State capitol park which has a very sizeable rose garden in it and when this thing is in bloom, walking through it is a veritable lesson on what a lot of roses smell like at once. I will say, first, that it’s something of a confirmation that roses may not be my most personal favorite scent even at its most natural so I’m not always the one to give the right take, but I would say the Bulgarian Rose Masterclass comes as close to any natural rose scent as I’ve seen on an incense and that is highly commendable. For one of the few times I’ve ever said this I actually wonder what this oil might smell like without the ever competing vanilla scent and on a more pure charcoal delivery system because it really seems like a fine absolute. But certainly if you love the scent, you will want to check this one out.

The rose is moved to a bit more of a back note with the Triple Saffron and Rose Masterclass. Here the saffron is in charge and it’s a reasonably resolute saffron note with that sort of tangy, spicy-herbal note you tend to find in most saffron incenses. Saffron is of course the stamen of a crocus sativa flower and so even the raw materials tend to break down a huge supply of these flowers into the cooking spice and then one might have some idea at what it would take to turn even that material to an oil, absolute or otherwise, with the expense of such perhaps raising the question to how much real saffron is in this. The rose becomes less resolute in the face of such saffron heft and, as a result, loses some of its clarity to become a complementary note. I do feel with this one that the intensity of the oil does tend to mask the base more so it’s not cutting through as much and it tends to prevent this mix from getting too sweet. There is, fortunately, some level of interplay to the saffron and rose that makes it interesting nonetheless, but I would guess that whether you like this or not entirely depends on how much you like saffron. High end Pure Incenses can be pretty successful with saffron, for instance I very much enjoyed their Saffron & Musk incense, so again this may also be where I sit with rose as described above.

The scent of the Camphor on the Masterclass stick is actually much stronger on the fresh stick than during the burn, which disappointed me a bit because that note is almost exactly what I’m hoping for (camphor is one of those medicinally-related scents that not everyone likes but I most assuredly do). Alit, the vanilla of the base comes through almost shockingly loud and while you think it might create a conflict, once you get used to it it’s actually surprisingly comfortable. At this point the camphor tends to fade back into roughly the same place that it fills in some of the agarwood or oud sticks. There’s some intriguing dryness to this scent as well, almost as if some level of buttery sandalwood also wanted to be part of the profile. Overall though one thing I do like about camphor wood and it’s even true to some extent on a campfire is that kind of weird cooling vibe that it exhibits (I mostly remember using it for cold sores). So while this stick may be much more than the single note itself, it’s a nice stick nonetheless. And it is certainly different enough to feel more like a genuinely unique incense stick than just a variation.

And finally, perhaps circling around to the Oud group in some way, is the Connoisseur Laos Agarwood. There’s some level of similarity to the camphor on the fresh stick but it’s a bit sweeter here and not as pure a note. This is actually quite an intense agarwood, similar to the general Connoisseur but quite a bit denser in aroma. While it’s labelled as an agarwood and not an oud I have to stretch the imagination a bit to even say what the difference could be as this seems like it could fit in with the oud reviews fairly easily. It’s perhaps not as spicy as some of the others, but generally speaking this sort of wood tends to have that element even at its mellowest. Like the Oud Kathmandu, this has some level of actual wood presence in terms of resolution and definition. In fact based on a recent box of the generic Connoissuer Agarwood I’d easily recommend this one over it, perhaps because the oil seems pretty intense. Like most Pure Incenses there’s still some level of vanilla in the base but the oil mix more than makes up for it. In the end I think if you’ve tried any of the ouds I recommended in that review then it depends on how much you like them in terms of whether you want what are essentially variations on a theme, but then again most of the variations are all the kind of incenses that aloeswood lovers are going to go for.

Kyukyodo / Murasakino

As a quick recap, we have not only recently covered some of the high end Kyukyodos with reviews of Musashino and Sho Ran Koh, but with the incenses in the Hōun Gift Set we have covered just about all of the higher end imported Kyukyodo incenses except Kyukyodo’s Murasakino (there is one more even deluxe gift set but this is not imported to the US currently). Murasakino is actually probably the top of the aloeswood line other than the line’s Musashino kyara and like Sho Ran Koh it comes in two sizes, a small box that is somewhat analagous to the Musashino with a small container inside a larger, and the large box (in picture) that is similar to the Haru no Yama and Akikaze boxes, including a beautiful silk roll nested within a very large pawlonia box (I would wager that these are about as long as pawlonias get in Japanese incenses and they take up a lot of space in a drawer). Keep in mind when you look at the price on the large box, something that is obviously in a kyara range, that you’re getting a 90 stick, 10 1/2 inch bundle, which is a mighty amount of incense no matter how you look at it. So you’re paying a bit for quantity as well if you go large.

In fact when I was starting to think about reopening ORS earlier this year, I had the remaining stock of all three large pawlonias left in the collection, but had eliminated both the Haru no Yama and Akikaze by the time I had started to review again. I had more Murasakino left, but my box (as you can tell in the picture) is actually quite old, and probably dates to the mid to late 00s. Once again I have to thank reader JC who inspired and assisted me in the review of the Hōun Gift Set for stepping in and sending me some fresh sticks in order to be able to review this from more recent stock. I will also compare it a bit to what I have left in order to see if it is instructive.

Murasakino is very much the bridge it appears to be from the kyara Musashino and into the Haru no Yama and Akikaze. It is a green color stick like the Musashino (and unlike the next two) but even though it still keeps some of the musk notes from the Musashino that bright and more evergreen touch of kyara has been replaced with what must be Kyukyodo’s next highest grade of aloeswood, the one that tends to permeate the next two incenses down. As discussed often in reviews here, Kyukyodo has a sort of creator stamp you find in most if not all of their incenses and this is perhaps the most impressive version of all of their incenses in that this has both a strong aloeswood note without getting at all into the more bitter or less adjusted features of the wood. Murasakino appears to be Japanese/kanji for “purple” and that actually makes a lot of sense when you start in on this incense. Purple sticks and purple cloud and similar ideas can be fairly common in the upper ranges of Japanese incense. You can actually think of this in some ways as a higher range Sho Ran Koh in style, but with the musk much more turned up and the mid level spices adjusted in a different direction. In fact one of the things I am noticing again burning new stock is just how much some of this middle has faded with age. The woods have largely survived but there’s a whole element of perfume in the center that really compliments them. It is an extremely beautiful incense, classy and noble.

But it’s interesting as the old sticks feel like almost a completely different incense now and I’m not sure I can completely chalk it up to age. There is some difference in the wood stock for sure, although I’m not sure I would make a judgement call that the wood was better or worse, just maybe somewhat different. It feels like a much drier incense in a sense that I’m not sure the loss of the perfume notes can completely account for. Sure a lot of the musk has obviously faded, but so have a lot of the spicier elements I sense more in the new stick. I’m not sure if that means the recipe has shifted in a way to make up for more than that, but there doesn’t feel like there’s even the faintest residue of some of this left. But overall it is very interesting to compare the same incense that I would guess is at least a dozen years apart in provenance. One thing you do notice is no matter what has faded there is still left a quite excellent incense nonetheless. Overall Murasakino has survived stock changes at this point and is well worth seeking out as one of the finest of high end aloeswoods.

Tibetan Medicine Company of Traditional Tibet College (Tibetan Medical College) / Holy Land, Holy Land Grade 2

The Tibetan Medical College and the Holy Land incense are some of the first Tibetans I tried that were actually from Tibet. Up until this point, the “Tibetan” incense I bought at places like Whole Foods or similar were not from Tibet, but from the Tibetans who fled Tibet during the illegal Chinese Annexation (which happened around the same time as the illegal annexation of Hawaii, which I always found amusing when I saw well-meaning white people with their “Free Tibet” bumper stickers not realizing Hawaii is the same thing, a kingdom where a bigger power deposed the leader and annexed the nation. But enough about the politics of that region, just putting a bit out there for people who still hold a candle for “Free Tibet” can actually bring that sentiment home since we have our own annexed and exploited kingdom.)

As my first foray into real Tibetans, around seven years ago, the only place to get them was Essence of the Ages (now out of business), where reviews from ORS were posted gushing about how awesome these are.

Well, as someone who has kept this in stock constantly and moved from Essence of the Ages to Incense-Traditions back in 2015, I have tracked the quality of this and Tibetan Medical College seems to be fairly stable. I have heard from other reviews of these that people complain about changes to the recipe, but I haven’t actually sensed this. I still had a couple sticks from a 2015 Holy Land purchase that I could compare these to, and other than the older stick being a little softer and muted due to age (and little specks of white that I imagine are mold), it is the same incense.

Starting with Holy Land, this comes in a small little yellow and green box covered in Tibetan script with only the contact information in Roman characters. This is where it started for me, these bamboo-free reddish-brown sticks are thinner than average for Tibetans, and when lit, produce a wonderful medicinal funk. I have heard “barnyard” used to describe the salty, musky scent coming off it but this is not an average barnyard because, to me, the smell of animal waste isn’t a part of this scent. As someone who has spent plenty of time in a “barnyard” setting, I do not detect any of those scents. I think the “barnyard” term comes from people who have never been to a farm because what I get here is more of an animal musk muted and diluted down to “a comfortable animal smell” sort of like how your cat’s bed smells after a few weeks of the cat laying in it, or a dog house after a dog has been in it for a day. With all the talk of animal lets not forget there are some great herbs and woods in here that balance out the musk and turn it into this bewitching scent, of which it is hard to pick out the individual smells because my guess is one of the steps in making this is to macerate the ingredients for a year or two so they all blend.

Additionally, I think that Holy Land has always been very “present” for me, in that whenever I put this scent on in my office, it’s easier for me to stay present and in the moment as if the very scent grounds me into the present. For the 6-7 years I have been burning this, this has been one of my favorites, as long as I keep it in stock it is in high rotation and tends to get busted out in the mornings and evenings as it has that type of ‘framing the day’ vibe to it.

Holy Land Grade 2 is a big surprise. First, I generally tend to think that if something is listed as ‘2’ it is not as good as ‘1’, but in this case, we are given a much longer, thicker stick. These longer sticks are actually muskier and stronger and basically smell like the same recipe just with more intensity because the stick is thicker and longer.

Doing a close side by side, I feel like my initial take on Holy Land 2 was simplistic, there are some differences and if I had to guess, this is made for temple burning for a specific ritual that takes the time it takes for this to burn because it does seem like this tries to fill a lot more space with smell than the grade 1 and the length seems quite specific. I feel like this has a bit more of a salty presence that might mean that there is more sandalwood or similar ingredients, but otherwise, this is really like an extended remix of Holy Land grade 1.

Pure Incense / Connoisseur Govardhana Heena, Conoisseur Sandalwood Extreme De Luxe, Connoisseur Shiromani Chandan

In this third, most recent installment of Pure Incense reviews, I tried to lean a bit more in the sandalwood direction, although this group includes composite scents. There are, however, only three in this particular batch as it turned out one of the incenses I originally intended to review turned out not to be dried properly (it happens), but I will also mention Pure Incense took care of this issue nice and speedily. So for the remaining three…

The Govardhana Heena is described as “a blend of Hina oil with Agarwood from Assam.” If you look up Hina (or Heena, the transliteration seems to be commonly interchangeable) oil you will find that it can be referred to as the essential oil of the Hina flower (part of the Henna tree) or a mix of a number of different ingredients. Here I believe it’s probably the gentle floral that is sitting quite prettily on a mild, spicy oud oil. The sandalwood/vanilla mix in the base is particularly complementary for this arrangement and it doesn’t even manage to drown out the oud, although it may be a close to an equal note. Mostly the attraction of this incense is the resolute hina oil, which is just one of those pleasant and mild floral scents that stays soft and powdery rather than spiking you with off notes. My only potential criticism, perhaps only because I got a few sticks, is I do wonder if this aroma will have staying power over time or if it might fade into something more generic. But it is deeply wonderful at the moment. It reminds me a little of the Minorien Kagiku/Chrysanthemum in some ways because of the floral/agarwood combo (or maybe more conceptually, and not aromatically, to the Absolute Bliss White Lotus Oudh Saffron) which is something I find myself really enjoying when you want the beauty of a floral with some depth to it.

I’m always somewhat amused to see the word extreme applied to a sandalwood as it’s always struck me as one of the more gentle and mild woody aromas, but then again when you crank it up this much the word does start to apply. This Connoisseur Sandalwood Extreme De Luxe is another deep sandalwood on charcoal stick that is quite comparable to similar sticks at Temple of Incense and Absolute Bliss. I am actually starting to think about these in terms of the “vintage” of the sandalwood oil because if you compared all three you would certainly find some level of scent variation, but all are also quite enjoyable and this really has the oil turned up in a way that mutes the charcoal, perhaps more than the other two. While I certainly still prize the Temple of Incense stick for the way it digs up nostalgia and scent memory, I find this one to also be a really attractive heavily powerful sandalwood oil with something of a slightly tangy presence, but even if there’s no specific identification page on where this oil comes from it still strikes me as close to the upper echelon with the wood. There are even some intriguing fruity subnotes I don’t quite remember from other sandalwoods which is a tendency I tend to find more common with some ouds. This one does indeed go up to eleven.

Connoisseur Shromani Chandan is a stick that hearkens back not so much to the sorts of powerful Mysore oil incenses that often tend to be the high end for Indian sandalwood incenses, but to something a bit more standard or common. Chandan is a sanskrit name for sandalwood, but it is a word you used to see a lot more frequently on incenses, and this is somewhat reminiscent of an incense from a previous installment, the Catuhuama Oud Musk, albeit without the oud note. Sticks like this in the old masala days would highlight the more buttery and sugary aspects of the wood and as such is probably more recognizable as a sandalwood scent to most people than a lot of the more higher grade Mysore-sourced woods and oils we discuss here. The vanilla in the base is also pretty loud here and would have to be considered part of the overall aroma. While it’s not a stick I find complex I do feel that the oils here are pretty strong at the top end, although it feels more like a vanilla and sandalwood end note than just the wood itself (even the vanilla seems like its a bit more at oil strength than just the powder, but I’m not sure if its materials or the combo). I can’t personally go back to the 70s to really compare it, but even in the 80s and 90s you could find sticks that pointed to this area of the aromatic spectrum. Of course the thing is, you only need to pay a couple of pounds more to get a box of the Extreme so I’d certainly try that one first if you had to pick one sandalwood, but this is a friendly well done incense stick nonetheless.

Kikujudo / Kouboku Ginmi / Sandalwood India, Aloeswood Vietnam + Notes on Sandalwood Indonesia, Aloeswood Kalimantan, Aloeswood Indonesia

The Kikujudo Kouboku Ginmi series appears to be relatively recently imported into the Japan Incense catalog, coming in at about the same time as the Kourindo line. Kikujudo is a company we haven’t seen a lot of incenses for, and certainly not any at all for traditional wood scents, so this is an interesting line up indeed and shows the company has great skill even with a much smaller line up. Kouboku Ginmi is essentially a series of sticks made from regionally sourced woods and they don’t appear to be embellished with much in the way of anything else, allowing you to experience each particular wood in as close to a pure state as you can get in a stick. The incenses are presented in utterly gorgeous, but perhaps oversized boxes, although they are also offered without boxes, which strikes me as a cool idea because if you essentially like anything enough to buy again you can keep the old box and just get a new roll. On the other hand, this has two of those hard to fit plastic slips, one that goes over the box and another that goes over the roll. The latter seems to go right on since it has no edges but the one for the box can be a bit frustrating. Anyway Kikijudo also offer a sampler of all five sticks in this series, which is a good place to start. It is where I started and eventually made the decision to purchase the two boxes that I did, and not, if only for now, the other three. So I will start with the ones I really like and know well and then move to the sampler to discuss the others.

I’m asked every once in a while about sandalwood incenses, in fact often enough that we hope to eventually put something together that compares a lot of the existing sandalwoods to better highlight what’s out there, it will just take a bit of work. Where aloeswood can vary pretty widely in scent, sandalwoods are a lot closer together and even small variations can set one I like apart from one I’m not as fond of. But I really wanted to truly praise and highlight the Kouboku Ginmi Sandalwood India stick. This to my nose is next to dead perfect in what I’m looking for in a Japanese sandalwood stick. It smells like straight up high quality Mysore old mountain sandalwood in all its fresh and deep glory. It has strong resin, the slight buttery side, it’s freshly sawn and has a cooling middle like few others. These days you hear about how this wood is disappearing and it is, but if you don’t mind skipping the pawlonia box then you can get a nice roll of this for $36 and whatever you might think of the price this truly earns it. It’s one of the few Japanese sandalwoods in a while, like I do with a good aloeswood, that I often want to pull it out and burn a stick because the memory of it is so beguiling. Wonderful stuff and I do hope both the Kikujudo and Japan Incense stock of this one runs deep.

The line’s most expensive incense, the Aloeswood Vietnam, is also similarly excellent. While perhaps this level of aloeswood does not have the more aromatically distinct and special notes that say the Vietnamese aloeswood Baieido calls Ogurayama or Hakusui has, it is still a very fine level of wood. It strikes me as somewhat similar to some of the higher grade Shoyeido aloeswood chips, but also like the Baieido aloeswood used in more of their mid to low end lines. I would suspect there must be some slight modifications to make the burn present in this sort of way, but unlike the other two lower grades of aloeswood, any of the more bitter and lower grade notes are gone with this stick. In fact I might even recommend this as a sort of baseline aloeswood scent to compare others to because it almost typifies the sort of descriptions I’d give to good aloeswood. It’s polished, refined, elegant and stately. Keep in mind however, if you buy it with the box you are actually coming fairly close in price to some of the lower end kyara blends which might in themselves be a bit more impressive as incenses, so if you are still sort of out there sampling a number of different Japanese incenses I might wait to grab this one until you’re sure you truly love aloeswood on its own. But you can also save a little money by getting it without the box.

Moving back to the sandalwoods, as well as the sampler pack (pictured) we have the lower grade Sandalwood Indonesia. I will go on record as saying that outside of sandalwood use in blends with many other ingredients in it, if you are going for a mostly pure sandalwood it is difficult to avoid tedium unless there is some level of old mountain Mysore sourced sandalwood in it. It is this deep level of wood where I think most of the really fine points of the wood come out and a stick like the Sandalwood Indonesia is missing a lot of these subtleties. Without the finer resinous notes, it’s hard not to feel it’s a bit generic and certainly hard to justify at a $26 price, when you can find lower price point blends that even if they are not pure sandalwood still pitch at remotely the same space. Don’t get me wrong, this is a sandalwood and it does not deviate from the overall scent, but the edges of the wood are a bit harsher, the overall profile not as buttery or crystalline and while it still feels freshly cut, it mostly doesn’t work as well when you line it up with the India version. There’s some level of an almost alkaline note to it and overall it feels like it reaches for the depth without quite getting there. Now if the same roll of this was something like $10 then I might be more inclined to sing its praises as I have no doubt it’s probably close to top of the line Indonesian sandalwood. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, but given there isn’t a huge difference in prices in the sandalwood range, it just seems redundant to have both when it’s worth just saving a bit of extra money and going for the India alone.

[NOTE: 2/7/22: I just wanted to state I feel like I completely underrated both the Kalimantan and Indonesia aloeswoods in this review. By the end of the sampler I was just starting to be like hmm these are quite good, so I took the chance and ordered full boxes of both. They’re actually quite incredible incenses. So keep that mind as you read the below, it might be instructive in how there can be something of a listening curve for certain incenses. Needless to say I highly recommend both, although they are similar enough that I might start with one or the other. It is one good reason I try to avoid reviews just based on a few sticks if I can!] Both the Aloeswood Kalimantan and the Aloeswood Indonesia are Indonesia based; however, the former aloeswood is specific to the island. These incenses bring up what I think is a pretty important issue and that’s not only just the decrease in aloeswood stocks but what happens when that leads to inflation in remaining prices. Indonesian aloeswood has often been considered one of the lower grades of wood and my general impression of it is that it can be quite nice in blends, but tends to be a bit dissipated and not as memorable on its own. When priced the way it used to be it was commensurate, but when you start putting a roll of it at $84 and you’re still conceptually stuck on aloeswood prices from 10 years ago, it can be harder to justify. However, now it may just be where the prices fall. But the Kalimantan is a really toasty sort of wood scent with an almost completely different profile to the Vietnam. In burning this prior to writing it up, I found I started to like it quite a bit more than I did going into this review. Even if it doesn’t have that sort of deep Vietnam resin to it, the overall profile of the wood feels like a bit of spice, coffee, toffee, a touch of bitterness, maybe some hint of sandalwood back there too. It is often one of the main issues where I have to separate notes I take from a sampler compared to a full review because often something takes a few sticks for me to really start to appreciate it and it’s now under my skin a bit.

So I wondered if the same would happen with the Aloeswood Indonesia, the box-less roll of which is now at $96? This one’s kind of interesting because while it’s a similar sort of aloeswood scent, it feels like there’s some level of a floral feel to it that the Kalimantan is missing. When burning the Kalimantan I was starting to almost get a hazelnut note from it but here I actually feel I get something like that, along with similar coffee and caramel sorts of notes. This also seems to have a bit higher of a level of resin to it that starts to justify better the sorts of prices you’re seeing on it, a resin that perhaps is also responsible for some of that floral top level. It’s interesting to me as well that when I burned these sticks at a different area in my home they felt more bitter than they do where I’m at now, which makes me feel like you get that more when the smoke spreads out a bit. So here I am kind of that end of the review. I bought two boxes, by the end of writing this I feel like I need two more and by the end of the sampler, who knows I may want all five. These are all real treats if you’re into woods and I would suspect most of my long time readers are very likely to be, so yeah while these may be showing some new market level of appreciation I have no doubt you’ll find them not only enjoyable but deep enough to spend some time with them.

Bhutan Jewel Incense of Bhutan A Traders/Tara Vegetarian Incense

One may remember some months ago our review of the Drichog Chotrin Incense. I will say it is not always easy to figure out what the company or organization behind a Bhutanese incense is actually called, even looking at box, if there’s no Poizokhang involved. The boxes of both this Tara Vegetarian Incense and the Drichog Chotrin say the incense is distributed by Bhutan Jewel Incense of Bhutan A Traders and so this will suffice for now. It should also be noted that like the Drichog Chotrin, the box is designed completely in English as for import purposes. Tara Vegetarian Incense is also indicated as vegan friendly and there seems to be some marketing application involved here, as it often seems like the very existence of a vegetarian incense seems to imply that some range of unnamed incenses actually isn’t. I am not sure if there is the same cultural level magnifying glass on this issue in Bhutan as there is in the US and the west, but there you have it. The ingredients listed on this one are cinnamon, juniper powder, and white and red sandalwood powder and what is perhaps very clear about it is these ingredients are all indeed the main ones you can glean from a burn of this incense. It’s actually quite simple overall with the spice on woods mix and although it’s woody enough to approach the usual high altitude sort of campfire vibe of the juniper, the sandalwood mellows it out a great deal. So in a lot of ways it’s an almost definitive baseline sort of Tibetan stick without a lot of regional herbs and ingredients to complicate it. However, the resolution of the ingredients that are involved make this just a little better than calling it an average Tibetan incense.

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