Mike’s Top Ten Incenses and Lines of 2021

So this is my first top 10 since ORS restarted and rather than doing a straight ten incenses, which would have been difficult in such a busy review year, I wanted this to be a mix of lines, companies and incenses that truly enchanted me in the last year and gave me the aromatic experiences I was hoping for. As such it isn’t really possible to throw in a photo with everything on this list (some of these companies and lines would fill a screen on their own), so all of the links will go to either reviews that will have specific photos or to the company categories which will be sorted for multiple reviews (with photos). If you’re interested in purchasing any of these either follow the links to the reviews/category searches or use the Reviews Index to find more specific lists from each particular outfit where you will also be able to find links to the sources. Oh and I should mention that Stephen will also be posting a top 10 soon as well! Please feel free to use the comments section here to post your own favorites for the year. Thank you to everyone I have talked to and collaborated with in 2021 and recently, new friends, people who pitched in samples from their own generosity, all who contributed incenses for reviews, everyone who took the time to provide their own reviews and comments of incenses this year, etc etc. Special thanks to new ORS staff writer and good friend Stephen as well! All of this goes to helping ORS become a better resource for the incense fan and you are all very much appreciated.

  1. Wara Monastery Incense. My number one incense of 2021 was literally a runaway. Honestly if I was to do an all-time incense list it would still be hard pressed to beat. I discovered this incense at incensetraditions.ca in 2021 and I am something like 4 sticks away from my fifth roll of this utterly mystifying and unique blend. I burn it nearly every night and it’s almost like an addiction now, I go up to the bedroom to read a bit before I settle down and nearly always light a stick. I am one of those people who are somewhat skeptical about the effects of incenses beyond smelling good, but this one is so vastly under my skin that I do indeed wonder if there’s some sort of secret Tibetan drug in the mix that screams “buuuurn me!!! BUUUUURN MEEEE” every time I sit down. I have been able to listen to it roll after roll and see each one changes slightly, I remember on my third roll wondering if it might have taken a bit of a dive only for the next one to come roaring back. What can I say about it? It’s just Wara really, I don’t even know if it has a subclass except that it has a resinous quality that is somewhat analogous to aloeswoods along with a mix of a million other things that created a wonderful tanginess and spiciness that I find endless fascinating and yes soothing as well. It is a bit of dangerous blend and it may not be to everyone’s tastes but there may be something in the impossibility of classifying it that makes me come back to it constantly.
  2. The Kourindo line. Japan Incense is still the marvelous and extraordinary #1 importer of Japanese incense into the US and one of their latest “gets” is this 11-flavor line of Kourindo’s incenses. In my opinion this line is gorgeous from top to bottom and as of a couple of days ago I finally gave myself the holiday treat of the KourindaiKyara, which may be the finest of kyara incenses along with Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh and not including the Nippon Kodos that noone can afford. I have been having this ongoing conversation with Josh Matthews on this particular line because where in other companies and lines one might immediately find out which ones you like the best, this is a very difficult line to choose from simply because they’re all fantastic. I might start with either of the two middle-high incenses, the Kodaikourin and Jinkourin, because they are startlingly complex in a way that stays at about the same level until you hit the kyara. But then there’s the Jyakourin Musk which is really like no other incense in any other line and one might also want to travel into the rather impressive low end before bouncing back to the near top and going for the spicy, square cut of the Saikourin. They’re all a bit thicker than the normal Japanese style, which seems to give them a little more power, which is always a good thing in my book. In the end, like me, you may want them all.
  3. Absolute Bliss/White Lotus Oudh Saffron. Corey of Absolute Bliss whipped out this variant of their Oudh Saffron incense when I least expected it and I was utterly bewitched by whatever is making up the floral component of it. It started this train in my mind of what happens when you “floralize” a woody stick. There’s something about the mix of this that adds a lot of complementary subnotes, no less this sort of minty vibe that threads its way through the middle like its sewing everything together. It is probably one of the most deluxe Indian sticks currently available at the time and it might be one of the best charcoal-based incenses I’ve ever sampled. As I implied with Wara, my main reasoning for inclusion on this chart is simply just how much I reach for a stick because I need this scent right now.
  4. Absolute Bliss/Natural Beauty. My brother Stephen spoke very highly of this one for quite a while before I got to try it, but in Corey’s first batch back the supplies of this were highly limited, so it wasn’t until his second that I got to stock up fully on this utterly wonderful scent. For one thing, I think this second batch might have used a bit more halmaddi than the first because it struck me as a bit softer. But even with that sweet middle what you come to this one for is the mix of woods that front an almost perfect cedarwood note. It is literally one of the best incenses on the market now, and if you like cedarwood in any way I strongly urge you to check it out. Like everything I discuss here it’s a “reach for it” classic. At any time it could move up a spot or two on this list.
  5. Temple of Incense/Absolute Sandalwood and so many others. While the British importer Temple of Incense opened their doors during ORS’s hibernation, we were not aware of their presence until reader Peter Bartlett alerted us. This sent ORS staff into a buying frenzy over culminating months to try everything in this gigantic stable of incenses (well over 50 I believe), which, in some ways feels like an expansion of the Happy Hari and Absolute Bliss imports. First of all, the Absolute Sandalwood absolutely took my breath away, being markedly the most accurate-to-scent sandalwood incense on the market at the moment, bringing back memories of the old days when it was not an endangered wood, meaning it was either duplicated rather well or someone came across old stores. But it wasn’t just this, but the three super thick stick glories of Shiv, Ganesha, and Shakti; the weird glories of the blue Electric Musk, and the gorgeous beauty of Tulsi among so many others that have made this company one of the best Indian incense importers in the world. And it doesn’t hurt that the service and great energy of the Aydee family make one feel very comfortable supporting such a fine outfit.
  6. Mermade Magickal Arts/Sweet Medicine and so many others. When ORS was in hibernation I often wonder what treasures I must have missed from Katlyn Breene and Mermade when my attention wasn’t turned their way. In a field where so many incense companies and creators come and go, vanishing into the mists of time, I can honestly say that I have been experiencing Mermade creations since some time in the late 90s and have experienced an overwhelming and bewildering array of incredible incenses with something like a 95%+ hit rate. Katlyn has never showed any signs of slowing down, not to mention continuously and steadily improving her sense of craft and prowess. She is now a mentor to so many other nascent incense creators and I am often just amazed at what her creative genius will dream up next. This year she not only found a cool shortcut to being able to increase and vary her kyphi incenses but she has also dipped into South American, Tibetan and other styles of incense, all bearing her creative stamp in all the best ways. Perhaps my favorite of the year and worth listing here because it has become one of her revolving staples, is the propolis and sweetgrass based Sweet Medicine, which is so lovely you might be able to replace candy with it.
  7. Espirit de la Nature/Mother’s – Ancient Winters Remembrance. Another wonderfully skilled magician of scent hails from Canada and often collaborates with Katlyn, selling some of her incenses through Mermade and many others through her own imprint Espirit de la Nature. It is one thing to find incense creators out there who create their own blends, another to find someone with as distinctive a creative stamp as the work of Bonnie (Be) Kerr. Incense from EdlN is not merely an experience of combinations but a presentation of the voices of botanics and fungi, with a quiet resolution encouraged by careful crafting and a number of ingredients that are not often common in incenses. I was first introduced a year or two back to Bonnie’s skill with larch resin, in an incense that had all the depth impact of a great agarwood stick, but this was only the first in a long series of amazing and bewitching scents that I eagerly grab when I have the opportunity (I will only add that at Mermade these fly off the shelves, so you need to get in early). I have two new ones sitting here that I haven’t even had the time to heat up yet but in the previous batch was the astonishing Mother’s incense which was an evergreen incense with a different slant to those you often find from Katlyn’s, all of which show Bonnie’s art as ever improving, becoming more impressive with further new creations. Oh and there was the incense cones, showing another wonderful innovation. I would guess like with Katlyn, Espirit de la Nature would be likely to be on every ORS top 10 from me going forward, she’s that good! Be sure to visit her own site and check in as she has all sorts of incenses I haven’t even been able to try yet, undoubtedly a veritable cornucopia of brilliance.
  8. Drigung Monastery / Drigung Fragrant Incense. – So if I was to have a potential follow up to my obsession with Wara Monastery incense it would probably be Drigung Fragrant Incense. This isn’t to say I haven’t tried and reviewed a cavalcade of great Tibetan incenses this year thanks to the wonderful incensetraditions.ca, but this is another in the “reach for it” category that I have tried restocking and storing as well. However, I am not sure of the viability of this stick moving forward, simply in that the sticks have apparently gotten a bit more fragile over the year and are not reaching North America in mostly one piece. So in terms of the availability of this I would definitely get in touch with Hart over at the store. But scent wise I think this a good example of the sort of vegetable imitating animal scent that seems to be the puzzle we often have over some Tibetans these days in that they have musk or civet sorts of tones while purportely not harming and of the animals in the production. I like this one’s overall sort of musk hit, it’s kind of like a tweak on Mindroling grade A incense in a direction I like more.
  9. Dimension 5 Line. I was pleased to watch Josh Matthews high end craft sticks start to reach a market this year. Josh has a creative urgency that combined with a deep aesthetic and understanding of fine woods and oils have begun several lines of incenses that actually DO use fine woods, ouds and other ingredients (rather than including these ingredients in descriptions and leaving us to guess over the provenance). While this undoubtedly puts a higher cost on the sticks, it is commensurate with the prices also put on the ingredients and so in some ways if it’s not something of a first, at least it is a first in terms of having them generally available (rather than being part of an operation that tends to be something of a rush to place an order in a small time frame like a few other really good small companies use as a model). I also have to say that I have learned an incredible amount about fine materials from Josh, which I’m sure will be trickling into my own reviewing as time goes on, and I have enjoyed our ongoing conversations. But I do think Josh and Dimension 5 are well worth keeping an eye on as time moves forward because as with Katlyn and Bonnie, he already has a fine sense of aesthetics that is only likely to keep improving with experience. If you want to try something that is remiscent of Japanese incenses but often just as high end or more, be sure to check his work out. Right now it’s hard to even pitch one as they’re all at the same consistent level and each new one I try is a marvel.
  10. Kida Jinseido/Ikuhokoh. The problem with doing a top 10 of a year is sometimes the front end gets away from you and I was actually confusing Kida Jinseido when trying to find a Kikijudo incense to put on here when I realized I had missed a biggie on my list that I haven’t burned in a little while simply since it’s out of rotation but nearly went through a large roll of it early in the year. This is something of an analog to Shunkohdo’s great Ranjatai a sort of mid to high end aloeswood blend with a lot of fine materials. If I had done this list halfway through the year it could have been a lot higher up the list.

Here are a number of runners up, all of these were mostly new incenses I discovered and really enjoyed or old favorites that are still part of a heavier rotation. Please use the above-linked Reviews Index if you need to find any of these if and until when I find the time to link em up: Kikijudo/Kouboku Ginmi/Sandalwood India; Absolute Bliss – Floating Lotus Flower, Forbidden Fruit, Bholenath, Bengali Jungle Flora; Happy Hari – Oud Masala, Niyama Sutra; Pure Incense – Connoisseur Opium, Connoisseur Blue Lotus & Musk; Baieido – Kyara Kokoh; Kunmeido – Asuka; Kyukyodo – Fuyu No Yoru; Nippon Kodo – Kyara Heian; Seikado – Kyara Koh Hien; Shunkohdo – Kyara Houzan; Tennendo – Propolis; Yamadamatsu – Shuju series, Hojo “Kyara Firebird” line, Kumoyi, Ouju; Aba Prefecture – Agarwood Heart of Shambhala, Gang-Zi Nunnery Incense.

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Wara Monastery Incense

So I have a new favorite. I stumbled across Wara Monastery Incense in Incense-Traditions.ca’s Tibet Monastery Incense Collection #2. First of all, this is not what I would call a user-friendly or accessible incense, not in the least. When I first lit a stick it reminded me somewhat of Dzongsar Monastery Incense. Dzongsar has something (Incense-Tradition.ca has tagged this pungent) of a note in it I find hard to describe that isn’t super friendly to my nose and I actually grabbed another sample of it to check it out again. I never grew used to the Dzongsar. I would have described it as somewhat funky, even if in many ways it’s one of the deeper Tibetan monastery incenses. However, a similar, more subsumed note in Wara actually works really well and is not overpowering (I’ll also say I noticed this more in the sample in the collection than in the roll itself).

But I mention this first because Wara is really a very different incense. For one thing it seems to have probably the largest amount of noticeable agarwood content than in any Tibetan incense I’ve tried (or at least something approximates it very well). No, don’t think that these long thick sticks are similar to Japanese incenses, but if you can think of a somewhat less expensive but noticeable aloeswood resin scent, this has it as a rather strong front note. It is a very dark, woody incense. I’m not sure any other Tibetans quite compare with it, even if the blend certainly seems to have notes of juniper, cedar and rhododendron in the mix. It also apparently has sandalwood, but to my nose this tends to sit under a lot of the other scents. I liken the overall blend to something like black licorice in a certain sense, but that is just one of a number of notes that spiral from repeated usage. The unburnt stick has a whole layer of spice content that is also a bit difficult to describe because it burns a little differently, but you can definitely sense the saffron and some spices roughly in the nutmeg/mace area. There’s even a bit of this that has more cooking-like scents to it, like a slight masala touch. Honestly, the whole scent profile of this is just amazingly complicated and is likely to keep any deep diver busy for months. I made sure to stock up hugely on it because lately I burn a stick or two every day. I’m just so fascinated by it. Highly recommended.

incense-traditions.ca

I just wanted to give a shout out to Hart and everyone else at this fantastic source for Tibetan incense which has now been added to our sellers below on the left And by Tibetan incense I don’t mean the kind of wood filler/campfire sorts of scents you get with a lot of cheaper fare, I mean the real deal, the monasteries and therapeutic incenses from the heart of Tibet. My rule for being on this list is personal experience from myself or any of our staff and I’ve just ordered my third box and the service is terrific. If you’re in the US, you will find this seller is likely to get your incense to you as fast as any other domestic incense seller.

First of all if you’re like me and Tibetan Medical College Holy Land sits permanently among your favorite top 10 or 20 incenses then Incense Traditions is an excellent source for this and the price is much cheaper than what Essence of the Ages charged for it years ago. I notice that over time the A grade of this incense evolves a little but at heart it still remains the same classic. In fact it’s almost like the subtle notes are what change, making it tremendously fascinating. I was also reminded that their long stick Grade 2 is really just as good, maybe not quite a complex but on the other hand it delivers exactly what I love about it. Honestly when I get in boxes and rolls of these two scents I often find it hard to burn anything else. It was nice to try another of the company’s incenses, Long Du Relaxing Incense, although it is a very different sort of blend, almost like the home scent embedded in a more woody, foresty sort of mix, definitely quite cooling. But seriously, if you read this site and have not tried Holy Land yet then, please, check it out as soon as you can. It is a wonder of the incense world. I can think of very very few incenses for $10 a box/$12 a roll that are this good.

I believe when I reviewed Nectar here so many years ago I thought it fell under Tibetan Medical College. It is actually an incense of the Traditional Tibetan Medicine Pharmaceutical Company. With language differences it’s probably not shocking those two would get mixed up, not to mention Holy Land and Nectar share certain similarities, but it was also good to revisit this as well, I was reminded what a fantastic incense it is in its own right. The notes here on saffron and borneol are well on point too.

Samye Monastery Incense is a funny one as well as it seems like every time I get a box of this from whoever it’s like a completely different incense. They’re always good, rich and dense, complex and deluxe, but my review elsewhere on this site is ultimately obsolete. I do like the new blend though, it’s got a very high altitude resins and wood combination I am looking forward to exploring more. Like I mentioned when I started this article, there’s a feeling of the legit to it, it’s not one of those “let’s bury a mild scent in a bunch of cheap wood” sorts of things that tends to be common among other Tibetan dealers. It has a crystalline brilliance to it that I am getting to know better.

Gang-Zi Mani Nunnery incense is a neat little gem in a striking black tube. One sort of branch of Tibetan incenses often tend to have a sort of red/berry sort of scent to them and this falls roughly in that rubric while being quite a bit more complex that what you usually find. I also like that Incense-Traditions.ca has user reviews and would draw your attention to how insightful and dead on a lot of the regular reviewers are there, as I too sense a sort of resinous almost frankincense like resin in the mix along with the berry like redness but then there’s a whole other herbal and spice level to it that really adds to its complexity.

Anyway I highly recommend checking out some of the company’s sampler boxes. I’ve been working my way through their Tibet Monastery Incense Collection #2 (I just ordered a box of the Baigu, but it’s a bit early for me to share notes, but I liked it right away). I will also add that a lot of incenses are sorted by various notes/tags. When I clicked on the one for “pungent” for Wara Incense I laughed, and you would have to go dig up my long-ago review of Dzongsar incense, to figure out why, but yes I noticed the similarity right away. I am not yet done with you Wara!

Anyway there’s a lot to discover here and I’m definitely busy checking more out. I tend to find myself needing to switch from Japanese to Indian to Tibetan incenses when I want something different and exploring this site has really given me more appreciation for some of Tibet’s deep cuts. And oh they seem to be nicely stocked on the Bhutanese end, and it has been a while since I dipped my toes in there. Highly recommended source for great incense.