Incense Works / Rare Essence Incense Collection / Frankincense Deluxe, Lavender Fields, Moon Goddess, Patchouli Supreme, Rose Absolute, White Lotus

Incense Works is an incense company in Salt Lake City that has a banner “celebrating 50 years in the world of fragrance,” but strangely if you look at any of the individual incenses sold on the site there doesn’t appear to be a shopping cart system anymore, nor any indication of whether it still survives. Rare Essence is also sold via Sensia and Incense Warehouse (I’m including Sensia links, but if any are unavailable I’d check Incense Warehouse or even start there if you’re inclined, both have always been reliable), so perhaps Incense Works has gone purely distributor. Way back in 2008, I reviewed four of Incense Works’ own Rare Essence Incense Collection here. Before I reopened ORS earlier this year, I made a couple orders to grab some Indian sticks and managed to get most of these again, including some of the ones I previously reviewed and I honestly notice no substantial differences from what I remember last, except for one in this bunch. Even when I first started with the Incense Works incenses I felt that they had some reminiscence to incenses I liked in other lines, although even by 2008 any semblance to the old school composition was gone and what you end up here is something like a Bangalore masala lineage a la Satya but maybe slightly higher quality. This has always made me feel there is a Satya factory or something similar that contracts with US companies to create incenses that are a little higher quality than they offer in the usual boxes. When I wasn’t sure what was left on the market, these still felt like old standbys, maybe not the best Indian incense you can buy but certainly not unpleasant (I actually might start with the incenses in the first review over these). I only include a picture of the boxes because quite frankly if you’ve seen one Bangalore provenance masala you’ve practically seen them all except for some thickness or shading changes.

As an example of an incense that reminds me of the old days, Frankincense Deluxe is really the only remaining incense I know of on the market that resembles a stick that used to be called something like Frankincense Champa or Golden Frankincense back in the earlier Mystic Temple and Incense from India lines. Those had a sort of crystalline, resinous but somewhat peppery top aroma on the old halmaddi base and of course this is just a more modern shifted version of that stick, because it feels from touch that it’s still a heavily dusted charcoal or masala hybrid. As always the bases these days aren’t quite like they used to be, but this is aromatically way different from frankincense sticks in any other line. There’s about the same amount of real frankincense as any of these others, and while it may not be as true to the resin as Happy Hari’s King of Frankincense, I like it more because it’s also trying to be a bit of what passes for a champa these days and it doesn’t have the King’s more bitter tendencies. This aroma used to be a great incense and isn’t maybe quite that good anymore, but I still find the general aroma to be enough to my liking for this kind of style. And there’s enough for me to enjoy the nostalgia of it too.

Having the superb Temple of Incense Lavender Supreme on my mind lately, it’s going to be fairly unlikely to find one that beats it for a great lavender scent. I’m not sure if Rare Essence Lavender Fields is going for the same profile, because again it feels like its really going for a more lavender-fronted, champa-like scent. In comparison to the Lavender Supreme this doesn’t seem like it has as authentic a lavender scent, although saying that it’s possible this box is old enough to have lost some of the oil on top. Overall it feels less lavender themed and more of a muddier floral blend that is fairly typical of modern Bangalore-provenance champa-cum-charcoals, at least on top. In the middle there seems to still be a lot of spicier qualities you don’t often find matched with lavender that makes it slightly more intriguing. At least in terms of its lack of definition it’s not super unpleasant (it has a slight off note on it that’s mostly buried) and has a bit of tanginess I like, it’s just not really doing what it says on the box too much. It’s one of those sticks that makes me wonder if it would be more balanced in a halmaddi base.

Moon Goddess appears to be the only incense in the line that doesn’t really list a note of any kind. Given the sort of haziness of blends at this price point it’s actually fairly difficult to describe because like the Lavender Supreme this is sort of a mix of floral oils and spicy qualities. It feels a bit softer to the touch and more masala-like, and has some powdery and perhaps jasmine-like qualities to it. There’s the usual underlying woodiness to it as well, the usual bit of sandalwood sticks like this come with and overall it’s actually quite pleasant and you do feel on some level there’s an attempt to give this a bit of a nighttime feel to it. However, it has virtually no resolution when it comes to ingredients and I’d guess there is some use of synthetics in the perfumes. Overall this is one of those “decent enough” sticks in that the positives and negatives sort of balance themselves out.

I’m not sure if I’m misremembering this, but I seem to remember that the Patchouli Supreme used to be fairly old school and resembled sticks that were called Patchouli Champas except it wasn’t as sweet as this current stick. Once again I am wondering if there’s some old stock where the note has faded off the stick as this barely smells at all like patchouli to me, although it may be there in the background a bit (it’s more noticeable if you walk out and back in the room). It’s a reminder that expectations can often be the guiding hand at evaluation because if this was named something else I might think differently about it, but as a patchouli it’s just working in a completely opposite and muddier direction. There’s something a bit cloyingly sweet about the overall aroma that I’m not even sure would work on its own if it had a different name. Only a bit mind you as this isn’t entirely unpleasant, but again, it’s a good example of an incense that maybe doesn’t know what it wants to be.

It’s something of a truism that a $4 box of a rose incense is either going to attempt to imitate a rose and fail miserably or blend some minor rose note into a floral backdrop and if lucky come up with a pleasant incense. Rose Absolute probably leans a bit more to this latter option and relies on the base with its sweetness and bit of spice to come up with something approaching a fruitier rose. If you’re willing to spend a few dollars more and go for a Temple of Incense of Absolute Bliss/Happy Hari incense I’d just say stop reading and do that. But for a $4 box this isn’t a bad incense, but even for that there are still some edges that feel cloying or overly perfumed, just not overwhelmingly so.

Finally there’s the White Lotus which has a lot of the same issues the Rose Absolute does in terms of having very little in the way of an identifiable floral note. Like if you were to compare it to the AB White Lotus Oudh Saffron you just wouldn’t notice it had anything in common. Again, you do wonder if maybe the incense is just old and has lost its oils, but even so you’d still notice some stamp here. Instead what’s most notable is the masala base with the vanilla and sandalwood feautured most prominently. Now this doesn’t have any of the overly perfumed issues that the Rose Absolute does but where I can’t really notice a lot in the way that’s unattractive, I can’t think of much to say to promote it. In this sense it’s not unlike a lot of Satya incenses except without the fairly common off notes.

Anyway it’s hard to tell if this is just a line at the end of its stretch, given that you can still find these fairly easily still. But it feels like they largely rise or fall on the strengths of their top perfume and many of these feel a bit faint.

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Incense Works / Rare Essence Incense Collection / Precious Sandalwood, Sandalwood Supreme, Triple Amber, Vanilla Amber

It’ll probably seem a little strange to lead off a Rare Essence (scroll down about a third of the way) review by talking about Shroff Channabasappa, but as the Indian incense company on my mind of late, it’s been making me think quite a bit more about incense composition. One of the ongoing incense topics is the use of perfumes and oils in incense, a use very common in Indian incenses, who, despite starting with a lot of other natural woods and herbs, often dip these sticks in oils. The result with durbars is often extremely fragrant, the aromas often leaking through inner wraps and cardboard packages (I often use durbar as an analog of champa and vice versa, the style of incense with a highly aromatic base of gums, woods and resins whose final result is still a little wet and gummy).

The question I have in mind, however, isn’t so much whether oils or used or not, but whether these oils are natural and essential oil based, rather than synthetic. And this is an issue that seems very obscure in the Indian incense market that seems to have started when the venerable Shrinivas Sugandhalaya blue box Nag Champa replaced some of their natural ingredients with synthetic analogs. Apparently this happened over five years ago and while I can’t admit to noticing the change with my own nose explicitly, it was around this time that my love for Indian durbars, particularly of the Shrinivas Sugandhalaya make, started taking a nose dive. I remember going into stores to pick up packages only to wonder what happened to the aroma I used to love. The biggest hit for me was Super Hit, possibly the company’s most popular incense after the Nag Champa, which I initially loved until I suspected something was wrong and (probably) incorrectly blamed it on stick age.

Adding as extra contrast was the Ramakrishnanda line. I first encountered these walking into a local new age store and seeing a new display, that is, after I’d already started getting the aroma half way to the incense section. Ramakrishnanda seems to present a series of durbars, apparently naturally based from the oils to the materials, and the quality seemed quite apparent, with the sort of subtleties and complexities only found with natural ingredients. At the time, the only durbars I was regularly using were the Incense Works Rare Essence series which I had been using so often, I was starting to get tired of them and Ramakrishnanda compared favorably.

Fast forward to now and I’ve been sampling the Shroff Channabasappa line, which is not only reminding me of my previous Ramakrishnanda experience, but perhaps surpassing it. As I start to discuss the Rare Essence line, I’ll be drawing parallels to other companies with virtually the same incense in a different package, with Shroff, every incense is not only totally different in aroma, but it reminds me of the aromatics I remember from my youth, the ineffable hints that have survived via memory. Mystic Temple, Incense from India, Shrinivas and Rare Essence all have aromas that cross over with over 90% similarity. One often wonders if a particular Indian incense company markets their brand to different companies in the US.  Read the rest of this entry »