Shri Loman Ngagyur Nyingma Buddhist Charitable Society of Bhutan/World Peace Grade B

I’m not sure how long this one’s going to last, since it’s buried at the bottom of this page but I wanted to bring this traditional Bhutani stick to attention. I’d be curious to try the Grade A on this as World Peace Grade B is a remarkably good Nado Poizokhang clone and roughly the same quality as Nado’s own grade B. This version is created from sandalwood, astasugandha, ambergris, and saffron and is in the classic Bhutani style, with a pink color and an almost plastic-like consistency. The aroma is typical, a nice berry, spicy, woody and peppery blend and won’t surprise anyone familiar with Bhutanese incense. Perhaps the best part is comparatively it’s a lot more affordable than Nado. So it’s well worth picking up if you need to check out a traditional Bhutani stick.

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.

Tsenden Poe Zhokang / Assortment (x5), Pink Roll, Yellow Roll, Zupoe

Tsenden Poe Zokhang are a Bhutani incense entity who Sensia have just introduced to the country along with a few other incenses I’ll discuss in a second installment. Tsenden’s incenses end up giving us further clues on just how different Bhutani incenses are compared to other Tibetan incense producing countries in the region. Like other Bhutanis there’s an almost plastic-like consistency to most of these incenses, like they have just a bit more tensile strength. We’re given a few ingredients in their incenses – agarwood, gentiana crassoloides, bibhitaka, haritaki, juniper and cypress – although I’d guess the agarwood content is higher in the pink and yellow rolls than in the obviously budget conscious assortment pack.

This Assortment Pack comes in two sizes, the large and the small, and unlike many Tibetan incenses, the five scents in each assortment use artificial coloring, separating the scents into blue, orange, tan, green and maroon scents. However the colors end up being kind of a nice touch as there’s no sense of the artificial in the actual scents themselves and they do tend to symbolize the type of incense scent. For instance, the blue colored stick is definitively watery, with a slightly fruity and sweet top note on top of what seems to be your average juniper wood and binding base. In fact it’s almost like a Japanese floral in some ways and seems distinctly different than the other four colors. The rest all seem to have a sort of “generic” Bhutani spice mix along with the woods, so if you’re familiar with incenses from Nado Poizokhang you’ll have a general idea of what to expect here, although these do tend to be at the low end of the quality axis, relatively speaking (meaning a generic Bhutani is almost always likely to compare favorably to a generic Nepali). The orange blend is very hot and definitely firey with some citrus hints (perhaps resins here) that end up evoking sandalwood, all top notes that sit on the usual spice and juniper wood base. The tan blend is the lightest and perhaps the “vanilla” of the group in that there doesn’t seem to be much added to the spice and wood mix, giving it a very airy feel. The green blend is very similar except with some added notes I found difficult to parse with the sample, it’s tempting to think there were the usual green suspects here (such as patchouli or evergreens) evoking earthiness but that’s not exactly what I was picking up, it came off more as another slight variation, if a very pleasant one. Perhaps the maroon colored stick was my pick of the five as it had the strongest top notes with obvious cherry/berry notes and what was almost like an herbal tea note in the mix. It’s the one of the five that hints at the more  premium offerings from Tsenden.

Both the Pink Roll and the Yellow Roll incenses definitively move the style to a different ratio of quality spice to wood base and in fact seem to evoke the same sort of grading curve you see with Nado (or even Mindroling), with what I’d guess is the Grade B with the Pink Roll and the Grade A with the Yellow if it weren’t for the fact both are priced identically. That is both are quite similar incenses, but the pink roll seems to have the telltale juniper/berry content at a higher level. The type of spice mix, at which we can only guess at with the ingredients list, found in the assorted incenses is at a much more intense ratio in both incenses and puts both in a similar category to the better Nado Poizokhang incenses. Where the red berry scent creates a very nice incense with the Pink Roll, the high level of fresh woodiness in the Yellow Roll is really a fine thing, as if one combined the original Red Crystal with a high grade Nado incense. Where the scents might be described as vague in the previous incenses, here the scent is fresh cut with a mix of wood and spices that evokes sandalwood after being cut, sweet and crystalline. The combination of these woody characteristics and the intense spice base makes this an extremely pleasant incense and it’s particularly impressive that you can get this sort of quality at such a low price, given how high the Nado range goes. Given that the Pink Roll is a pretty great buy at $3.50, it definitely makes the Yellow Roll a superb deal.

Finally, even though I’m mostly eyeing the pictures here, the Tsenden Zupoe appears to be the most premium incense in this bunch and where you can find common notes in all the preceding incenses this one’s quite a bit different. For one thing, the base is different providing a skinnier stick with less tensile strength. This is a much swankier, herbal mix that hints at some possible asafoetida content, but fortunately it’s not too much and if I’d guess at where the agarwood fit in in this group, it’s likely the strongest in this scent. Unlike the other incenses I could easily see this in a group of Nepalis as the familiar spice content is mostly covered up by the tangier herbal notes. With this scent I had run out of samples before I could really do the scent justice, which should tell you that this is probably the most complex of the incenses here. And there is a strength of scent here that hints at a high quality ingredient to base ratio.

If you’re a bit stretched in paying in the high teens for the top Nado Poizokhang grades, I’d definitely recommend giving the Pink and Yellow rolls a try and it should be said that the Assortment is a LOT of incense for very little money without one ending up feeling like you just ended up with a bunch of cheap juniperwood sticks. And better yet the next post in the Bhutani realm will feature three very solid Tibetan aromas, one in particular I found extremely impressive, so look for that group in the next week or two.

SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo, Men-Tsee-Khang, Lhundup

Nippon Kodo were apparently started in New York, or at least I read that on Wikipedia once, so I suppose a grain of salt is in order, but I take such a statement as part of a rationalization that helps me separate the company from the big group of other Japanese incense companies. But to be fair the major separation here is that Nippon Kodo are more of an incense company for the masses, creating many of their lines so that they’re modern in tone and cheap in price, meaning that there are obviously a lot of synthetic perfumes at work in these, a fact we can infer from a couple of their lines being marketed as pure or all-natural. So it has been difficult from my end to really sing the praises of Nippon Kodo’s incenses, although to be sure in some cases they really do succeed.

For one thing, Nippon Kodo, like most Japanese companies have a line of aloeswood incenses that could have the widest range in the world, starting down in the cheaper categories covered here a while back with Kangetsu. Shuin and others and apparently moving all the way to kyara sticks in the 5 digit range, well beyond the standards of all but the truly wealthy. In the US, we’ve seen as high as the $420 box Tokusen Kyara Kayou. More common (and covered by Ross a while back) are the next two in the series, the Tokusen Kyara Taikan and the Gokuhin Kyara Taikan at $146 and $250, both of which are excellent incenses if, perhaps, overpriced compared to what you might find from a different company in the same range. After these scents, the Nippon Kodo aloeswoods drop to the Kyara Taikan and Kyara Kongo, two incenses that seem to mimic a certain type of stylized kyara scent that may be considered too perfumed from a traditional perspective.

And for a long time here is where I stopped, not realizing that when the range drops to Jinkoh Juzan, it has actually come up with a startingly decent and fairly affordable aloeswood incense. Like with the higher ends, it does retain a certain perfumed characteristic that’s common to all Nippon Kodos, however, the Juzan is not nearly as rich as the two Kyaras above it and somehow a distinct woodiness that is common to most aloeswoods is not lost at all, giving the perfume and oil quite the decent balance. That Nippon Kodo could get away with an aloeswood having this resiny a subscent at this range is quite a surprise in my book. However, the crux of the issue is whether I’m enjoying the sample or would go on to like a full box of Juzan without getting tired of it. Honestly I’m more inclined to thinking it would be quite good, as it has a similar balance to the Tokusen Kyara Taikan, which I do like quite a bit.

On the other hand Nippon Kodo’s Jinko Seiun is perhaps more what you’d expect from a low end Nippon Kodo incense. Despite the $36 asking price, you’re still getting 170 sticks which sort of belies the idea this is a deluxe aloeswood and implies this probably fits better with the low ends. I’ve not, nor plan to try any of the other Seiuns, so I’m not totally sure what the characteristic is of the line across Amore, Violet and Chrysanthemum incenses, but the Jinkoh is certainly floral enough to where its nature as an aloeswood is somewhat trivial. Certainly this seems to have more of an aloeswood approximation than definition and as such it seems like it’s crossing a modern/traditional divide that’s likely going to appeal more to the modern-inclined.

So now over to the continent to the Men-Tsee-Khang medical center that appears to operate in two different countries (Tibet and India), however from the constituency of the incenses (that is, lacking the sorts of animalistic scents found in incenses from the Tibetan Autonomous Region) I think we can assume these scents follow alongside traditional Nepalese and Indian styles. Men-Tsee-Khang produce two stick incenses and two powders. I’ve not tried the powders, but the sticks certainly seem akin to incenses found at the Dhoop Factory and other Nepalese outfits, with heavy Himalayan woods and herbs at the center. The regular Sorig Incense, like many Nepalese or Indian monastery incenses, has a number of ingredients (listed by Latin name at the above link) that impart herbal and berry-ish tones to the scent, but overall is distinguished by a large amount of woods and binder that give the typical campfire smell associated with these types of incenses. While I only had enough of a sample to touch the surface, it did seem that this seemed to be one of the better in the style, with a bit of complexity and an unsual wild note in the mix. While I probably have enough incenses in this style not to immediately pursue a box, I can imagine I might eventually replace something else similar to this in the future.

The Sorig Healing stick is much thicker and resembles Dhoop Factory’s Agar 31/Medicine Buddha line in a couple of ways. It definitely seems to be akin to the common scents in this style, with a mix of woods, herbs and a very slight agarwood tang to it, but most importantly it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of filler to it and few if any off scents. It’s perhaps a bit hard to get lit, but for such a thick stick it doesn’t put out a lot of smoke and seems to have a gentle calming effect.

There are a couple grades to Bhutanese creator Lhundup, however I only received a sampler of the top A grade. Naturally this is sort of the typical Bhutanese style stick, roughly similar to Nado Poizokhang’s incenses or World Peace Grade B or Kuenzang Chodtin, with a pinkish hue and a similar berry-like tang to it. The consistency isn’t quite as snappy or plastic-like as some of these other incenses and there’s a bit deeper of a tone to it. Overall there’s a lot of sandalwood, both white and red, spice, cherry, musk and at times a slight unique gentle floral that sets this apart from other Bhutanese sticks. Quite interesting overall, although it’s difficult to tell whether it earns its $18.50 asking price or not.

Next up in the Sampler Notes series, the bad news, a very rough sample of a few Maroma Indian charcoals and perhaps another incense or two as a late addition…

Mentsi Khang Bhutanese Incense (Mih)

You’ll need to scroll past the Red Crystals to see this rather obscure incense. It’s fairly unclear from the box exactly what the name is, as “Mih” only shows up on the ends of the box. The box itself carries around 40 sticks, all of which, at least in my box, are kind of bent banana style. With the sort of airy feel to the stick (similar if not airier than the Nado Poizokhang lines, also Bhutanese), it makes the incense seem a little unusual or exotic even.

The ingredients listed are nagi, sandalwood, cardamom, clove, saffron, musk, leaves of spruce and hemlock, butterworth, benth, and other Himalayan aromatic herbs. However while that listing might give one the impression of a complex, multi-spice sort of blend, the results are a lot more consonant than you might expect. It’s actually not particularly unwelcome sorting under the Red Crystal incenses as it has that very woody sort of base, although in this case the woodiness gives way to quite a bit of aromatic depth, implying many of the other ingredients while not highlighting any one in particular. The scent has a peppery sort of vibe with the typical campfire aroma you get from heavy high-altitude, evergreen woods and a fleeting hint of resin or amber.

Overall it’s a rather unusual incense, with an aspect of it managing to trigger subconscious impressions at times, possibly due to what seems like a “fire” element to it with the pepper, heavy woods and strongly consonant finish. At times it seems like a simple incense, until one backs up a little and sees it for the mosaic it is, a picture created from little pictures. And it’s those little pictures that gnaw at you, well beyond the scent’s overall impact as if there’s much more to be found here.

Best Incense – March 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above.]

  1. Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Enkuu is the incense that is making me wonder if aloeswood has actual addictive properties. For the time being it’s the one I’d pick as my favorite incense, I just can’t get enough of its complexity or sophistication.
  2. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – There’s a mellowness and smoothness to this kyara-infused Horin classic that initially belies the fact that it is indeed a very involved incense. I notice more and more that the kyara is just one note in a symphony of other spices that all sit comfortably next to each other. This makes me wonder why Shoyeido haven’t offered other incenses in this style that have such a fine class of ingredients other than in the Horin line.
  3. Mandala Trading / Himalayan Herbal Incense (second down) – I was thinking about this incense and its partner recently and realized that to some extent both of the aromas were almost exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to find when I first started becoming interested in incense. I’ve tried lots of minty incenses but I don’t think any of them hold a candle to this one which has a number of other spices and woods that gives the basic evergreen/spearmint the type of breadth that makes it near perfect.
  4. Shoyeido / Premium / Misho – This is one of the best intros to the Shoyeido premium lines. It’s not as expensive as five other premium incenses, yet it has a quality aloeswood presence that makes it very woody, combined with a green sort of spice scent. And like many Shoyeido blends there’s a sophistication or quality to it that I just started noticing, months after I burned my first stick. Next time I order this, I’m going for a luxury bundle as I’d burn it more frequently. Although the regular bundle comes in a very attractive box.
  5. Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-Machi – I’m noticing a quality in common that this incense, Enkuu and an unknown Kyukyodo incense a friend of this blog just sent me have, a very high quality aloeswood presence with a number of complementary spices that give it somewhat of a caramel-like sweetness. At first, particularly with Muro-Machi, I found this element to be a bit cloying, but over time I’ve come to crave it. Here it’s the dominant scent, in Enkuu and the other stick, part of the overall scent.
  6. Kunmeido / Asuka – It seems that every Top Ten list is likely to have Asuka, Heian Koh or Shunkodo’s Yoshino No Haru on it, it’s become a standard around here. Asuka gets the spotlight this time as I’m notice the subtle complexities here that are absent in the other stick, a certain slight mint note that really puts this one over the top.
  7. Baieido / Tokusen Syukohkoku – This is one of my favorite incenses for a clean palate. What I mean by that is after a long day of being nowhere near incense, I tend to be at my highest sensitivity level. This makes it perfect for incenses as subtle as some of Baieido’s higher end sticks. I think this is a triumph for Baieido, it’s about as perfectly balanced an incenses as exists. I love the aloeswood used in this stick.
  8. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – For some reason I’m not burning this as much lately, but its position down here doesn’t indicate that I feel less about it by any means. I still think this is one of the most clever incenses available.
  9. Shoyeido / Xiang Do / Forest – I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this one much. I started with the one stick Xiang Do sampler and while there were a few I liked quite a bit, Forest is the triumph of this line. I think it’s partially because I think the piney, evergreen qualities here are tailor made for this intense, pressed style of incense. As I burn it it’s like an entire forest of various resins letting loose as if crystals of scent were evaporating. It’s another that friends really go for as well.
  10. Nado Poizokhang / Grade A – I reviewed this one yesterday, so not much more to say other than it’s really grabbed my attention of late.

Nado Poizokhang / Grades A-C

Nado Poizokhang claims to be the the oldest and largest hand-made incense stick manufacturer in Bhutan. The company’s main incense, if you will, actually exists in seven different grades, from A to G. The ingredients in all of these incenses includes sandalwood, clove, red sandalwood, major cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, and a dozen or so other herbs and spices. The difference among the grades appears to be the amount of juniper used, the amount increasing as the grade of incense gets lower.

The general Nado Poizokhang scent is like many Tibetan and Bhutanese incense sticks, it’s composed of so many different herbs and spices that it takes quite a while to get used to the scent and realize how complex the incense is. I have the same experience with almost all Tibetan blends that have a large list of ingredients, an initial feeling of disappointment and bewilderment, only to find as I get used to the scent that I was actually quite off in my initial assessment. In fact, all three of the grades in question have been getting quite a bit of “air time” lately, and the more I burn them, the more I enjoy them.

However, the quality level, at least between Nado Poizokhang Grade A and C is quite significant in that the amount of juniper used changes the color of the stick from a deep, almost cherry red color to a sort of pink-tinged beige. It begs the question of just how much difference there could be in scent among the lower grades from D to F, if the change is this significant in the higher grades. The consistency of the stick is sort of unusual as well in that they’re very strong and almost have a sort of plastic feel to them, which is a bit of a change considering how many broken pieces of various Tibetan sticks show up.

Grade A appears to be the only one to come in a sort of weird paper-ended bamboo tube, the others seem to come in boxes that differ mostly in the color or “wrappers” for the two lowest grades. Honestly I’d rather have them all in boxes, the tube can not be opened without it being opened permanently, with a hole in one of the ends. Like many multi-ingredient incenses, there’s a hell of a lot going on here, but initially one’s likely to get some berry hints and stronger tobacco/sage like characteristics. In fact it’s tribute to the blenders that it’s only with experience that one starts to notice the individual players in the orchestra, all sort of popping up in random variations as your stick burns. Of course, with Grade A these characteristics are the strongest. Grade B is still very close, but the presence of juniper mellows out the intensity some, and in Grade C it almost seems like the juniper presence is on an even par with the other ingredients. After burning A and B, I still get strong hints of it with C, but I do wonder how much presence the lower grades could possibly have.

Overall, like a lot of these central Asian incenses that use lots of ingredients, it takes a while to suss out the central scent and this sort of longevity is definitely a plus, one generally finds that you kind of grow with it and that the familiarity starts to make it a bit addictive. The prices are close to Tibetan premium prices (around the $20 mark and descending per grade), but honestly one should definitely start with A or B first in order to a get a grip on this company’s central scent (B being $5 less than A is probably the best bet). I might eventually find Grade C a decent substitute, it’s certainly pleasant, but the juniper kind of obscures some of the stronger more energetic herbs, making it a bit slower to “get.”