Admin Notes (Mindroling Monastery Incense)

So as something of a bonus review for today I wanted to direct you to this page for a relook at the top three grades of Mindroling Monastery incense. As I’ve started reconfiguring ORS and getting it current I’ve thought of different ways to update reviews and have more or less figured rather than applying an overall approach, to just take each one and see what’s needed (as a contrast today’s Happy Harri review is a different approach). In this case what was needed was to change all the links to incense-traditions.ca sources (long time readers of the site will realize these incenses are largely much more inexpensive than they used to be) and basically go through grades 1-3 again with new samples. In this case I really don’t think there was a huge difference between what I originally reviewed and what I have just received so this is really a polishing job. I have however, left the two powder reviews for historical reference as I don’t believe they are imported here as of this time. Anyway the Mindroling line is well worthy of attention for Tibetan incense afficianados, they are striking examples of monastery incenses. There are also a few other Mindroling incenses including a couple lower grades, I have not decided if I am going to just add these to this review or do them separately. I’m leaning to the former as I don’t currently have full boxes (Something I’m going to need to remedy on the top grades I’m sure…)

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March 2010’s Top Ten

Mindroling / Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 (Newly Revisited Reviews); Grade 4, Grade 5, Soothing Incense (New); Medicinal Powder, Naga Medicine Powder (Discontinued)

Mindroling Monastery is located in the Lhasa region of Tibet and like many monasteries still within the borders of China creates what we might call “high-end” Tibetan incense. [EDIT: These incenses are traditional recipes that contain higher quality ingredients than most Tibetan incenses. As of 7/6/21 I have edited this page in order to place links to the current carrier of Mindroling incenses, incense-traditions.ca. Like many of these incenses previously carried by Essence of the Ages in the ’10s, there has been a substantial price decrease on these. Also since Essence of the Ages carried these, the packages have changed. However, while I do not believe the powders at the end of this review are still available, it appears that reviews of the first three grades of Mindroling are still quite applicable (with some clean up edits) and that the incense has remained largely stable. I will note that there are two further grades as well as a “Soothing” Incense also available.]

Mindroling’s stick incense now has at least five grades, three of which are reviewed in this article. I would highly recommend any newcomer to the monastery’s incenses start with this sampler. Grade 1 sports a light tan color, grade 2 is a a darker red stick, and Grade 3 a lighter red more typical of Tibetan incenses (in my previous review it seemed the colors on Grade 2 and 3 were switched). While there is certainly a theme, so to speak, throughout the three incenses, what this theme is mixed with changes the scent of the incenses dramatically. The drop in price from one grade to the next, also implies that 1 is the most deluxe and the quality lessens a bit with each subsquent grade (although this isn’t perhaps very noticeable in this group). One would have to define this common scent from the ingredients in all three: white and purple sandalwood, musk, saffron, flos caryophylatta, borneol and others. [Note that these ingredients came from a different source than incense-traditions.ca, but I would suspect many of these ingredients remain the same.]

My previous review (now edited) of Grade 1 was largely based on a $40 price point. At the time I believed this to be a bit high for the incense, but now that it is at $25 it is more than fairly priced, in fact it might even set a good baseline for the type of quality you should expect at that price point. Grade 1 is a world class Tibetan incense. The first thing that really strikes me about it all these years later is that the overall scent profiled really highlights the delicate presence of the mix of ingredients. As I mentioned previously, the level of sandalwood in it is quite obvious, although it may not be the first thing that you notice which is the incense’s very powerful and intense musk. It is both a bit damp and sweet and weaves itself around the wood center in a way that highlights the obvious old and traditional recipe at work. The overall bouquet is very high resolution and complex, redolent of a large number of ingredients that are used in the composition of the incense. It also does what all the best Tibetans do as well, which I highly recommend as an exercise. Set a stick burning and walk out of the area until you have lost the scent. Let it build up a bit and then walk back in. I’ve noticed all of the best Tibetans reveal something else that isn’t as present if you stay in the room with it, an often floral or high level subtle note which is often surprising and impressive. Anyway it is more than time that this be added to the Hall of Fame here.

Grade 2 isn’t really just a watered down Grade 1, not in the slightest. The ingredients have obviously changed enough for such a drastic shift in overall stick color and it does seem like the elements of Grade 1 exist almost like a subnote here. But there are other elements in play in the Grade 2, aromatic qualities that aren’t in the 1 at all. The most obvious note is something I tend to attribute to juniper or juniper berry. It commonly shows up in red stick incenses and is completely absent in the grade 1. But whatever is causing this it gives a berry or even cherry subscent to Tibetans that makes them friendly, in fact it’s an element very common in Bhutanese incenses. So in a way Grade 2 seems like it’s a sort of berry-infused variant of the Grade 1. The musk is a bit more toned down, the sandalwood isn’t cutting through as much, but I really don’t think you’re losing much in the way of quality here. If you’re like me and find the berry note pleasant than I’m sure 2 would be the natural step after 1.

Grade 3 is where most traces of the finer sandalwood in Grade 1 have vanished; however, the stick has lost nothing in the way of a big musk hit, in fact it might be a muskier incense than the grade 2, or at least the ingredient shift allows it to come through more. I was thinking that if you were to experience this incense outside the context of it being one of several grades you would likely consider this a very aromatic and middle of the line Tibetan incense with all the characteristics you’d expect from it. It’s still a very good incense and while it isn’t quite as deep or complex as the two prior grades, it still feels like remaining elements are still high quality. It shares with 2 that same berry/cherry presence, and in fact really if you take that together with the musk you’ve almost described the incense. It might even be recommended, if you weren’t to go the sampler route, to start with this one and make your way up.

[8/11/21] I didn’t know until I came across them on incense-traditions.ca that Mindroling had two more grades. Grade 4 starts to feel like its dipping into more inexpensive materials. The musk is nearly nonexistent at this point and the stick seems to exhibit more herbal qualities than the previous three grades. The woods that add to the base seem like they might be a little thinner in aroma. For me the biggest difference between this and the top three is simply that it doesn’t seem to have as dense as palate. What is going for it is a bit of evergreen in the mix which is something you don’t quite get as much in the previous three grades. Overall if you’re new to Mindroling I’d probably try the sampler first, but if you’re going by boxes I’d start with one of the top three grades, as the price differences are fairly gradual, before dropping to this one.

[8/12/21] So what do we find at the lowest grade of Mindroling? I know for me there’s almost like some psychological elements that comes the more grades you can find in a line and five is where I start worrying a little bit about quality. But honestly Mindroling Grade 5 is actually friendly enough. If you compare it to the 1 you can see how things have changed rather remarkably in that this is unlikely to be an incense with much in the way of sandalwood or even saffron. But strangely some of the maybe very slightly harsh qualities of the 4 aren’t actually apparent in this one, which moves back in a more berry-like direction. I imagine without having much in the way of proof that one of the most common ingredients in Tibetan incense is juniper, so it’s a bit easy to guess that the juniper amount is at its highest here. Strangely it feels like the musk jumps up a bit on this one from the 4, although it’s in such competition with the wood notes it feels like it maybe only comes out sometimes. I really like the gentle qualities of this incense and it shows that Mindroling actually pay attention all the way down the line.

[8/12/21] Mindroling Monastery Soothing Incense is something of a sidestep into a style fairly common in Tibet incense lines. The ingredients listed include sandalwood, agarwood, Carom carve L, and more than 30 others; but, from the scent of it I would say this is fairly similar enough to blends often called Agar 31 or at least are labelled as relaxation or calming innceses. Like the name of this incense implies, this sort of blend tends to be mild and mildly spicy and my experience with these is that they are indeed often pretty relaxing. We’ve covered some of this style fairly recently such as the Tibetan Medical College Long Du Relaxing Incense or TPN’s An Shen Tranquility Incense, but it would seem a fairly common blend in any larger company or monastery. This is certainly a pitch right down the middle, it’s as well done as any of this style, just be sure not expect pyrotechnics or deep complexity as it’s not what this is for. The agarwood essentially gives it a little bit of tangy woodiness. If you haven’t tried one this as good a place as any to start (although I still do miss the one I was first introduced to which was Dhoop Factory’s).

[The following two powder reviews are provided for historical context and have been discontinued. – Mike 7/6/2021] Mindroling also features a couple different powdered blends. The superior of the two in price is the Naga Nectar, but I prefer the Medicinal Incense Powder. This blend is like a mixture of cinnamon, cardamom, strawberry, tobacco, sugar powder, tea, nutmeg or mace and other herbs. The central base like many incenses without a lot of filler wood is a sort of tangy cornchip like scent that’s like a cross between Mexican and masala spices, a scent akin to some of the Medicine King products and one slightly stronger when used on charcoal or a makko or dar base. What works for me with this powder is a slight rose and carnation-like floral element which fades fairly softly on a heater. Like many an intricate powder it’s most interesting in this format as the various oils volatize earlier or later, giving the scent a motile quality that’s quite fascinating.

It’s hard to imagine why the Naga Nectar Incense Powder is pricier given that the list of ingredients in the Medicinal powder such as the musk and two aloeswoods seem to imply a greater cost, but scentwise there does seem to be a damper, muskier presence in the Naga. While most of the Mindrolings aren’t particularly dangerous, the Naga Nectar has a funk to it that could be a bit off putting to the westerner, it even had something of a fungal nature to it. It’s not terribly far in scent from the Grade A except for this unsettling quality and an overtone that’s kind of grassy, weedy or drily herbal. Overall it’s not particularly friendly overall, more interesting than pleasant.