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.

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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.

Drezang Kuenchap, Nado Poizokhang Zimpoe Grade A (Obsolete/Discontinued Review), 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.

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 (Obsolete/Discontinued Review)

[NOTE 10/7: Nado Poizokhang is possibly Bhutan’s most famous incense company and still exists today. However it looks like there has been a reconfiguration of their line since the days where they had grades like this. I have seen it mentioned that the Grade A has been renamed as their Happiness incense, but given how long it has been, a new look needs to be one (I do have samples of the Happiness, can not really compare to old stock, but given the narrow range of Bhutanese incenses it’s still likely this review is close.) Anyway we do have plans in place to review the newer line available at incense-traditions.ca. So stay tuned for that.]  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.”