Chimi Poe Jorkhang / Kaar Sur-Poe, Maar Sur-Poe

So after so many Bhutanese incense reviews of red/purple incenses it feels like a bit of a relief to get incenses that are tan colored. Honestly I wondered right away if Kaar Sur-Poe and Maar Sur-Poe were the same incense because only the K/M and the white/pink wrappers were really different. They appear to be the same shade of tan as well, but I had to move them around a bunch in the light to confirm that. In a previous review I was also comparing an incense to a deleted one from long ago and it feels like I need to do that again. Kaar Sur-Poe is described as containing “a special blend of fruits, cereals and medicinal plants with an aroma both woody and spicy and not at all overpowering.” Maar Sur-Poe is described a bit more in detail as containing “an important blend of fruits, cereals, edible medicinal plants, milk, butter, honey,  juice, alcohol and animal fats.” Both blends remind me a lot of the long deleted or unavailable Lung Ta line. The use of food ingredients in these blends give these incenses a rather unique sort of sour and thick scent that I can sense in these incenses as well. So with that said, these are actually quite a bit different than most Bhutanese traditional incenses.

However I started writing this with the possibility they may just be the same incense. And they are indeed so close you really only need one and perhaps so close that the variation I am sensing is tough to assign to either a different incense or just a variation. But I think we have to assume the different list of ingredients sets them apart. But they’re so close I’m going to review them as one and just try and explain how they’re different, As the tan color might imply, both incenses are heavy on the woods, more so than the pink and purple styles. However where the contrasting spice mix in the reds/and purples actually often draw out a distinct sandalwood note, you really don’t get that much in either one of these. The Kaar Sur-Poe seems to be the woodier of the two with some elements that reminds me a bit of cooking spice. The Maar-Sur seems to be a bit more spicy in the whole cinnamon/clove sense you tend to get in so many incenses. And so the latter seems to be a bit tangier, maybe a bit more full bodied of a mix where the former is woodier with perhaps a bit of campfire or reediness in the actual burn. Otherwise they seem to share a great deal more in common, with a base woodiness that leans to the kind of freshly cut smell you get in a woodshop, maybe a bit of a nutty flavor to them, as well as feeling a lot of the woody elements come from trees other than the sandalwood. Neither are perhaps the kind of incense I’d reach for, as they seem perhaps a bit closer to low end Nepalese styles, but they aren’t ultimately unpleasant, just perhaps somewhat unremarkable overall.

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Lopen Tandin Dorji Poizo Khang / Flower Incense, (A) Quality, Gift Incense

So after a while you really do start to run out of ways to describe Bhutanese incense as so much of it is traditional and created in a similar fashion that mixes up a number of ingredients that end up drying to a somewhat different tensile strength that other Tibetan incenses. All three of these are that red to purple color that 80% of Bhutanese incenses I have tried have, I’m not sure if this is the saffron doing it or a mix with other ingredients or dyes. None of these really list the ingredients, but most incenses like this have red and white sandalwood and spices like clove and cinnamon and we assume a whole host of unnamed herbs, woods and spices. The blending doesn’t really lend itself much to specific notes anyway, what you tend to get is a conglomerate sort of scent.

I would guess different wrappers show up for the “(B) Quality” or “Flower Incense” as my roll showed up as the latter name. White wrapper, deep maroon red stick and a bit more woodiness and smokiness (like in the actual aroma not how much smoke is produced) than I usually see. I don’t know if the intent was to use a lot of actual flowers in the blend but this isn’t really what I’d think of as a floral incense. It’s more of an earthier variant of the usually Bhutanese red scent, maybe not quite as sweet, but still maintaining the general essence of the main tradition. Which really means that sort of red berry top note, the mixed in spice, and a touch of an almost tobacco-like herb. It’s quite a visceral take on the formula.

While it’s indicated at the above link that the use of letters isn’t related to actual grades of quality, I would think the difference between the Flower Incense and the (A) Quality is something of a step up, or at least it is if you prefer a more polished traditional red scent, with the earthiness of the (B) stepped back quite a bit. For the same price you feel like you’re getting more incense per weight with the B. To my nose they are similar scents, but taking a step back to Bhutanese incense in general, you would largely be thinking the same thing. I feel like I’ve tried so many of these incenses that there isn’t a specific type that is the runaway favorite or at least I’d probably have to go through them all again. But for sure it feels like (A) Quality has a higher grade of ingredients and certainly has a mix that leans towards the better versions of this incense. The sandalwood seems to be a bit more present and I love the way it merges with the berry front end.

While the (Gift Incense) (I have no idea what the parens mean in any of these incenses, but all of these incenses have them in some way) has a similar dark maroon color, I think this one largely leaves behind the traditional mix that we usually see in Bhutanese incense. I would guess that this is more akin to the A Quality price range as it’s about half the price range and around half the sticks. That front berry smell has disappeared for something that is a bit tangier or at least not as sharp. That brings the woodiness of the incense forward but in a way that feels like the sandalwood has been infused with oils that mute the impact some. Like the A quality this has a feeling of being close to top grade for Bhutanese incense, but the herbal and saffron mix with the woods, makes it a bit less close to my personal taste.

Nado Poizokhang / Zhingkham Kunchhab Chhoetrin (#2)

Zhingkham Kunchhab Choetrin #2 (ZKC) is a “purple” stick incense from Bhutan’s largest incense manufacturer. We have documented at least some of this company’s incenses through the years, a chore made a bit harder by some accusations of bootleg Nado incenses roughly a decade ago but all of this has largely settled down under incense-traditions.ca, and Stephen’s most recent review is a good starter guide to the line’s classic Bhutanese scents. Honestly Bhutanese incense, at least to my nose, doesn’t vary in scent all that much, even across companies, they are usually red, purple or tan color incenses that mostly vary depending on how much sandalwood is included. Any general scan of our reviews here are likely to be referential of previous reviews as my initial take is usually something like “that’s kind of like the last one.” ZKC would be little different, it has a very traditional blend, featuring hints of sandalwood, berries, gentle spices and a bit of sweetness, a whole conglomerate of aromas that largely form a traditional Bhutanese scent (it’s listed ingredients are clove, nutmeg, saffron, red and white sandalwood and other medicinal ingredients). These are a bit fuller than most Nepalese brands, not quite as wild or variant as the monastery incenses from Tibet and are generally pretty friendly. ZKC is perhaps a little bit more astringent, there’s a bit of chalkiness in the scent but overall it still largely has that tart red berry topped smell most of the incenses in the style that are not tan colored have. If you’ve never tried a Bhutanese this is good a place to start as any, in may ways it could be the mean scent in that there are probably better and worse incenses of the style. So it’s perhaps a little generic. I also believe I got a sample of the #1 which looks like the same wrapper but white instead of pink, but I am not sure if they are different.

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.

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.

Kuengacholing Peozokhang / Yellow Tara

We have already made a stop at Kuengacholing Peozokhang with their classic Bhutanese pink stick that bears the mark of Gelephu town. This somewhat longer Yellow Tara is an intriguing and very different, mildly spicy, heavy on the sandalwood stick that really does has some yellow associations. For instance I really couldn’t get the thoughts of a banana note out of my head. The pink “Gelephu” is a pretty well blended scent and so is this one, very homogenous throughout the burn. It actually reminds me a lot more of generic Nepali incenses except the ingredients here are a lot more resolute and there’s no feeling of filler wood in the mix. It’s got maybe a bit of a harsh campfire note on the outside but there’s so much sandalwood in it it never gets too heavy. And like most good Tibetan incenses there’s a fresh feeling to it, although I would guess this could be as much as some level of say saffron or rhodendron in the mix. It’s nicely done, more of a step away from traditional monastery incenses but also a little different for a Bhutanese stick.

Chimi Poe Jorkhang / Soothing Incense

I’ve recently covered a couple, more conventional length Bhutanese incenses by Chimi Poe Jorkhang here, but they also do this incredibly wee bundle of incense called Soothing Incense. I am at first struck by the confidence in the length of the sticks, in the sense that these short sticks should absolutely do the trick with little to no fuss. Unsurprisingly this is an incense that is roughly in what I called the Agar 31 range (although this claims to have 21 ingredients), a type of incense that seems fairly common in Tibet. Other incenses in this range include a stick like say Long Du Relaxing Incense (also very short), TPN’s An Shen Tranquility Incense (less confident I guess), and Mindroling Soothing Incense. There’s a whole host of these types that have been reviewed here in the past and are now no longer available as well. They all have something of a low grade tangy aloeswood in front (although it’s probably just a touch on this one), are somewhat airy and mild, and as far as I can tell seem to have some mellowing effect that might be similar to, say, homeopathic medicine or perhaps suggestion. I do genuinely like this style although I find the Chimi to be a bit more evergreen than I’m used to in this sort of blend. Other ingredients listed also include red and white sandalwood, nutmeg and myrrh. This is quite spicy which at least to me tends to dilute the mellowness a bit but it does give it some nice aromatic qualities. But it is also a very adorable little bundle, just a few inches in length, and overall I think this one falls on the friendlier side of the fence.

Lopen Tandin Dorji Poizo Khang / Tara Puja Incense

I might have this a bit off but in Bhutan a Poizo Khang/Poi Zokhang translates to something like a house of incense. Nado Poizokhang appears to be the largest of these incense houses, but there’s quite a few small ones as well and most seem to include the creators in their name (Mr. Nado is considered the father of Bhutan’s commercial incense industry), in this case one Lopen Tandin Dorji. While you will see what looks like two incenses in the pictures, about the only thing that seems different to me from the two packages is the color. The ingredients listed on both wrappers include red and white sandalwoods, juniper, species of fragrant plant, camphor, the resin of the Sal Tree, saffron, three sweets of sugar, honey and molasses, and three with milk, curd and butter. You may be happy to know there is no meat, alcohol or onion in this incense. Tara incenses relate to the meditation deity Tara in Vajrayana Buddhism and the colors relate to different forms of Tara, so it is assumed the incenses are intended for the specific forms. However, for Western noses, both of these incenses (green and yellow wrapper) seem aromatically identical and if there are any differences in recipe they are beyond my threshold to be able to tell. I lit both sequentially and at the same time to compare.

Tara Puja is actually a very friendly incense overall and the ingredients all seem high quality. I find that it reminds me a little of the long disappeared Lung Ta line which also claimed to list foods like honey or milk in the ingredients and however they formulate these (because imagine burning either on their own), they impart a bit of their own richness to the mix. But outside of these you’re essentially getting something of a woody and spicy blend. They actually seem a bit more akin to Nepalese incenses more than say the red/purple or Jaju styles normally found in Bhutanese incense houses, but there are still some similarities. The sandalwoods, juniper and the saffron seem well up in the mix, and the spice accentuates the sort of high altitude, evergreen feel without leaning into campfire directions. Whichever wrapper you choose, this isn’t a bad choice for an entry point into Bhutanese incense, and if you are stocked up on the traditionals you may still find this to be a different take, not to mention nice and friendly.

Chimi Poe Jorkhang / Guru Chan Dreen Poejor, Na Gi Ma Bjor

Here’s a couple of Bhutanese incenses from the same creator that are both red/purple style with perhaps a slight shading difference. These are both solid representations of this classic style, somewhat picture perfect in fact. There are few (or no) ingredients listed on the package or at the incense-traditions.ca site, but I think the question here depends on whether you are familiar with this style of incense as the range of them isn’t terribly vast. So I’m going to link a couple that do have ingredients list as a pointer, not because I really have any idea what’s in these two but because the style is so similar, it’s likely there is crossover. Take a look at Lost Fragrance of the Mountain Gods or Gelephu as pointers.

Guru Chan Dreen Poejer seems quite friendly and sweet. I’d liken that sweetness to the mix of sandalwoods, juniper and maybe a bit of resin, but to me the quality overall is kind of red berry like and it’s the sort of Bhutanese incense that I think is likely to be friendly to most Westerners. Unlike Nepali incenses you never get too harsh of a wood quality, that is it’s not campfire-like at all, and there’s a sort of soft puffiness to it almost like what a confectionary would smell like if it was made out of woods and spices. And while some Bhutanese red sticks might have some more dangerous ingredients as subnotes, this one seems to be missing them. Like most red stick Bhutanese incenses the spices do not dominate but play around the edges a little, complimenting the sweetness with a bit of cinnamon and clove. To recapitulate this entire style is to really say that nearly any red stick is a good entry into this Bhutanese style, and Guru Chan Dreen Poejar might be one of the most friendly to familiarize yourself with. But if you’ve tried a few, you might reconsider needing more unless you’re a real fan of the style.

Na Gi Ma Bjor isn’t a radical departure from Guru Chan Dreen Poejor but it’s not quite as sweet and it’s a bit more tangy. We’re given a couple more clues as to what’s going on with this, with Na Gi (a medicinal seed) and white sandalwood (unlikely to be shocking) and these new elements give this one some personality that makes it a bit different from other red sticks. However, unless you’re really paying attention to it, this one isn’t terrible distinguishable from the Guru Chan Dreen Poejor and is mostly just a slightly more original variation on the red stick formula. Even though it’s a bit less sweet, it’s really no less accessible. I might just add that if you’re familiar with the style, have surveyed the more tan-stick Jaju incenses and want something a bit different, this might very well fit the deal. But overall once you’ve dug into several Bhutanese incenses the one thing you notice is that they tend to fit into some tight ranges and are very similar.

Tsheringma / Men-Sang Ja-Tsa Gyed

So here’s a bit of a change up on the Bhutanese scale. Men-Sang Ja-Tsa Gyed isn’t a purple or Jaju incense but something a lot heartier and more wood-based in fact it’s something of a spitting image of a campfire sort of scent. I think this one’s likely, as a result, to be a bit harsh for some users. I had a friend once smell something similar to it and called it “burnt tire,” an allusion that has always struck me as being true enough, but mostly in low quality Nepalese Tibetan incenses which are primarily cheap woods. I don’t really get that’s as much of the case here, it feels more like its just heavily woody, after all the description says that this has over 108 different ingredients. But this is not quite what I’d call a western friendly incense overall.

However let’s also look at the caveats on the package. This is one of the first incenses I’ve ever seen with what passes for a sell by date. It not only says to store this in an airtight container but that it’s best before 10 months from manufacture. The date on mine says Februry 26, 2020, which means we’re well over that at this point and I don’t know where it travelled. On the other hand 10 months is perhaps a reasonable sell by date for a lot if incenses that may lose some addition heft in the early months. So I’m not sure really how much I’m losing burning it now and I’m particularly not sure if there are some fainter or missing top notes now, but I’d guess they’re still relatively minor.

Anyway the incense is a bit sweet, quite herbal in the profile, along with the woodiness. It has something of a cooling middle and a very streamlined whole for an incense with as many ingredients as it claims. It’s fairly unlike any other Bhutanese incense I’ve sampled and there’s some more grassy herbal notes that take over the profile at times as well. Overall, it’s a bit of a hard sell and certainly not my first choice from Bhutan so buyer beware.

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