Medicine King / Saffron Medicinal, Mandala Special Medicinal, Five Zambala Powder, Special Medicinal Powder

A while back, I made some notes on two Medicine King sticks, but as can be the case I’m not sure I did them much justice initially, as this is a truly impressive line across the Tibetan spectrum, up there with the best Tibetan incense has to offer. While Medicine King doesn’t seem to be allied with any specific monastery, they create incense from ancient recipes, information for which can be found at the product link at Essence of the Ages, at the bottom of the page.

Medicine King export four incenses here, two sticks in very attractive boxes, and two powders available in 100g and 200g packages. All of these incenses are extraordinarily complex and sophisticated blends that represent the higher end of Tibetan incense and earn the asking price. The ingredients appear to be very low (if not completely absent) on inexpensive woods and fillers and feature so many facets as to be difficult to cover entirely on initial burns or even two or three experiences. I initially found the sticks to be a bit on the dry side, but my opinion on this has changed, perhaps because the bundles tend to dissipate much slower than samples. Over time, my opinion on all of these has improved substantially and I consider them nearly on par with the best Tibetan incense has to offer (Tibetan Medical College, Highland, Samye Monastery etc.)

The Saffron Medicinal incense certainly has the saffron present in both the fresh stick and the burning aroma. The sticks smell amazing even unlit, almost like spicy gingerbread cookies, but this aroma takes a bit of a back seat when the incense is burning. The saffron aroma is woven quite tightly to the other elements in the incense. Like many better quality Tibetan incenses there is a an almost corn chip like woodiness that’s central to the scent and which dominates early burns in scent, until one begins to pick up the panoply of herbs and spices mixed in. At this point the sweet spices come out a bit more, giving the whole experience a dry and rich feel. It’s an incense with a long learning curve for sure, one I don’t feel I’ve reached the end of.

Overall the Saffron Medicinal is something of a drier alternative to the Mandala Special Medicinal incense. Without the obvious addition of saffron, a lot of the spicy middle comes out in this incense and it’s one that has periodically made my Top 10 lists, it’s terribly addictive. I’m very fond of incenses which exhibit different characteristics from burn to burn and even within one stick, and this is a good example of one of these. Like the Saffron stick it still has that corn chip-like woodiness in the middle, but if that was the regular brand, this version has something of a barbeque or even mesquite like tang to the middle, a characteristic I occasionally notice in the high ends (not to mention a good indication we’re not in a cheap or filler wood territory). Perhaps without the strong presence of saffron in the incense, the other elements come out. It took me perhaps 10 sticks to realize this has quite the (animal?) musk presence to it, which really took it to another level for me once I noticed it. And just faintly there’s a defined agarwood presence – many Tibetan sticks count it as an ingredient but rarely is it an actual presence like it is in Japanese sticks. Like the Saffron, I still feel there’s a great deal to be learned about on this one, and it should be telling that in writing this I’m getting the urge to go burn a stick, one I can recommend without reservation.

The Five Zambala powder utterly electrified me on my first burn, like electricity shooting up my spine. It’s one of those Tibetans I’d describe as having a certain medicinal juju to it, an aspect common to most of the truly excellent and rare high end Tibetans (almost all of which seem to come from the Lhasa area). It’s astonishingly high grade and brilliant with a bright crystalline energy and the powder I’d say competes with the Highland as the best of the Tibetan powdered incenses. It’s salty, musky, sweet and rich, similar in some ways to Holy Land, but a bit sweeter and more overtly floral. What separates it from incenses in other line is a verdant greenness to it, in fact it almost has a snappy, green pepper like aroma on top of it that adds to its freshness. Most of this aroma comes out a bit stronger on the heater, on dar I found it a bit hotter and spicier and I assume that’s due to the floral volatility that knocks out some of the more subtle notes early on due to the heat. Again, this is one you don’t want to miss whatever your method of using incense powder is.

Comparatively, the Special Medicinal Powder isn’t quite as intense and seems to hit a more traditional note. It’s not so much a powder version of the stick as a totally different incense. It shares some of the same salty and green notes as Five Zambala, but in this case I notice a lot more benzoin/loban content in the middle, mellowing the sharper edges. On dar I found it to be sweeter and richer than on the heater, with the woods coming out quite a bit more (some sawdust here) and the tangy corn chip smell common to the sticks more prevalent, but this is quite a bit more sugary and sweet than the stick is upon burn. Given that the Special Medicinal stick smells quite sweet before the light, I’d suspect part of this is the method of burning being used. On dar it’s also less salty than on the heater. Of the four incenses here this is the one I know the least, so it’s perhaps a bit more insular to my nose than it might be down the line.

This is really an amazing company, one of the leading lights of modern Tibetan incense using the old recipes. Although you’ll be paying into the teens on these incenses, the quality you’ll be getting and payback are certainly higher than it would be for an incense a quarter of its price and you’ll likely marvel at just how impressive the Tibetan art is at its apex. Go with the Special Medicinal stick and Five Zambala powder for starters and if they impress, the other two should impress with their variation.

*For a couple weeks from the posting of this article, one can get a free box of the Medicinal stick with a purchase of Tibetan Medical College Holy Land Grade 2 and Mindroling Grade 3 at Essence of the Ages. I notice very little drop offs on these two from higher grades by the same company so figure this is something of a steal while it last.