Best Incense – September 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The price on Shoyeido premiums necessitates some discipline in terms of frequency of burning, but despite all attempts at restraint, I’m closing in on the halfway point of my “silk box” and eyeing the bigger roll and wondering how I can afford one in this sinking economy. I just can’t get enough of what may be my very favorite incense. This one’s dry, unlike any other incense, heavy with high quality aloeswood, and the oil/perfume is stupendous. Just can’t get enough of this one. Extremely exotic and not nearly as immediate as the rest of the line.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – And almost for a different reason, Nan-Kun is nearly as addictive. I think my appreciation for musk is higher of late due to all the Tibetans and while Nan-Kun gets its muskiness likely from the very high quality and heavy use of spikenard, it still itches that same spot while hitting the aloeswood and spice buttons at the same time. This one is very animal and rich, with an almost poignant sweetness to it. Possibly the best buy for money in the Shoyeido Premium line. To my nose, I enjoy Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun as much as the expensive kyaras in the line.
  3. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Seikan sticks are thin enough to look like they’d break in a strong wind, but their aromatic power for such a size is always startling, even if one does have to quiet down to “hear” it. In many ways this is the kyara incense that really focuses on the wood and while there are obvious ingredients that bolster the aroma, the sweet, sultry smell of the wood is central. A superlatively brilliant incense that I can barely get enough of.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – Down to about 15 sticks left in my box and I practically need disciplined meditation to stay away from it given the wait for a restock (when I go nuts). The very apex of Tibetan incense, a stick that rivals any country’s best work.
  5. Highland Incense – Highland’s the trusty #2 Tibetan brand for me as I wait for more Holy Land, a combination of animal (musk, civet?) and herbal spice that is incredibly comforting and relaxing right before sleep (I often burn about 2 inches of a stick as I drift off). Becoming a standard around here, don’t let this one go out of stock before you try it!
  6. Baieido / Kunsho – My recent musing is wondering whether Kunsho, the third most premium of five in Baieido’s Pawlonia box line, might be equal or better than the fourth, Koh En. As I get to know Baieido incense, more and more do I think you’re getting your best value for money from their products. I could see Kunsho at almost twice the price and still be worth it. Slightly cherry-esque with a very balanced and noble wood to it, this is truly impressive incense.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles.
  8. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – I am returning to this Tibetan stick fairly often even though in doing so I keep sampling the rest of the line and wonder why I like this one so much more. I think it must be the curry-ish spice to it which seems missing in the others, a green-ish , exotic tinge that brings out the ingredient complexity.
  9. Minorien / Aloeswood – As I cycle through various incenses I often come across this one and am impressed all over again, particularly surprising as the two above it in the Minorien line are more refined and impressive. But there’s something so ancient and hoary about this aloeswood that it tends to scratch that itch I have with aloeswoods that aren’t too sweet. Like Baieido, Minorien’s products have a way of continuing to impress long after one’s initial purchase.
  10. The Direct Help Foundation / The Druid – I’m not sure this incense is still available, it was originally part of the Magic Tantra set and maybe one other, but perhaps it will show up again in the future. It’s actually somewhat similar in its salty herbalness to the Tibetan Medical College incenses, although not at all musky or dense like those. I’m not sure what the active ingredients is here, the mosses or something else, but the results are a very pleasant blend I hope comes back in the future. Because when TDHF get it right like they do here, they’re among the best.
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Best Incense – July 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Baieido / 350th Anniversary Sandalwood – This is arguably not even the best of the three incenses in this magnificent (and now deleted) anniversary set, but it was the most revelationary one to my nose, in that this is possibly the best sandalwood I’ve ever tried, with a quality of wood so high it’s like it becomes something else. It’s as if the aromatics and/or wood resins are so fine that they’re like an aged liquor. Given the incenses similarities to Baieido’s Kokoh series (at least the Jinko anyway), I wanted the Byukaden Koko right away. Without this entry I might have given the slot (if a bit lower on the list) to Kyukyodo Yumemachi, not quite as deluxe but still an amazing sandalwood.
  2. Baieido / Koh En – An incense I’ve returned to over and over in the last couple months, there’s something just at the edge of comprehension on this one. For one thing I believe this uses the Hakusui Vietnamese incense, a really gentle yet startling aloeswood, but the spices that accentuate the wood really bring it out. It’s like orbiting a new planet, no matter what spot you’re over there’s something new to look at. This line of aloeswoods might be the most sublime out there.
  3. Highland Incense – I’m over the moon with some of the higher end Tibetan sticks these days, and you really have to credit Essence of the Ages whose archaeological skills are unparalleled at bringing us these really legitimate and otherwordly monastery incenses. Highland’s one of the muskiest, most ever-present incenses you can imagine and will set off subconscious impressions for ages even based on the burn of an inch of stick. It’s about as deep and intense as a Japanese incense even if the aloeswood content is mostly a side note. But the musk here will redefine your experience. I hope they were gentle.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar (TPN) – If Highland really hit me the most the second or third time around, this Nectar hit between the eyes right in the middle of the third one. It’s an electric, intuition-triggering polyherbal blend like you wouldn’t believe. It reminds me a little of the Tashi Lhunpo Shing Kham Kun Khyab with a massive helping of lama juju. It’s clear, red and has a weird kind of kundalini playfulness to it. It made me want to order the entire college’s catalog.
  5. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – A three-way hit of animal depth, spikenard sweetness and aloeswood infinity, it’s the most inexpensive of the Premiums to have this much higher mind impact. Everything above this level refines this sort of sweet musk, but here it’s wild and uninhibited. Starting to become an all-time favorite.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra – Soon to be corrected, this is the only high end Tibetan incense I have in stock right now, so the samples of the other high enders have had me returning to this all month. It was my first incense of this level, and found the depth of scent and purity of ingredients to be startling and over time almost addictive. I’m not even sure I could describe this one, except that it’s highly likely the pangolin scales have a real distinct and dimension-adding effect to the overall aroma. Definitely 5x the aroma of most lowest end Tibetans, humming with the essence of the inner planes.
  7. Dzongsar Incense – You get the impression with most Tibetan incense sticks are mostly wood, at least in base and while that’s still true for Dzongsar it’s such a thick and heavy stick one wonders if it’s not made from clay. Aromatically it has similarities to a lot of Tibetan incenses that have difficult (for the Westerner anyway) ingredients (think White Pigeon, the side notes to Mandala Trading Tibetan Monastery, Essence’s Ayurvedic ropes), but in this case they’re refined to the point that it’s a lot easier to see their brilliance. Tangy, rich and definitely multi-dimensional, I think I’ve only barely begun seeing how good this one is.
  8. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – I would feel weird leaving Shunkohdo off of a top 10 list given how much I use their products, many of them are virtual regulars around my place (Yae No Hana in particular nearly makes every monthly list). This kyara blend is always amazing to me due to how penetrating, sharp and sweet the aroma is. Like Baieido, no matter what Shunkohdo do, they never drown out the central wood notes. And I’m finding this one is complex enough to notice different things about it than I did when I first got a box.
  9. Tennendo / Enkuu – If newness wasn’t such a variable factor for these top 10 lists, Enkuu would likely make it every month, it’s quite simply one of my favorite incenses. I’m finding with some of the intense high enders like this that a little goes a very long way and have been finding myself taking out a stick and putting it in a burner and then burning it by thirds. Usually a third of the way down it’s scented the room like most incenses after a full stick. Shoyeido Sho-kaku is also perfect for this and could have interchanged with this selection easily. No doubt that one will be on next month’s again just based on one stick over the last few days.
  10. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – Ever proving the same rule that any incense this complex isn’t revealed in full until at least the fourth stick, I wanted to slip this fantastic, affordable Tibetan (or maybe Brazilian-Tibetan) in here due to its ever-revealing complexity. And it’s the most simple in the line!

Lung Ta / Drib Poi, Ribo Sang Chhoe, White Sur, Red Sur

Lung Ta, based on the Portuguese language on the rolls and the use of Brazilian Juniper, appears to be something of a Tibetan-Brazilian cooperative, but it’s not particularly clear if they’re mostly distributor or creative partner. Because even for Tibetan (and Bhutanese and Nepali…) incense these four incenses are quite unusual, with a base of ingredients that imparts certain qualities to all their incenses. These main ingredients include the aforementioned Brazilian juniper, sassafras, aromatic calamus, Indian cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. This base, while having some aspects in common with the general (Tibetan) style, actually moves in an almost food-like direction. The underlying aroma imparts hints of spice cookies and oatmeal cereal with the juniper basically buried and all the spices up front and read to interact with the finishing touches.

Strangely enough some of the specific incense ingredients seem to build upon this base and add other ingredients unusual for incense. For example, Riwo Sang Chhoe uses fruits, cereals, medicinal substances and mineral dust such as gold, silver and coppper. Some of these ingredients are more likely to be linked to the incenses’ mystical properties than to what they do aromatically, but what’s strange is that some of what I listed can really be detected. The base as above almost has lactic hints to it and the results almost seem like combinations of incense and cereals. It really sets this line apart from other Tibetan-style incenses and the blends tend to actually smoothe out some of the harsh notes you tend to find in some multi-herbal recipes.

From the look of it, Drib Poi has seven natural ingredients, so must be considered the simplest incense of the four here, but it’s also the one I like the most. I’m curious about the seventh ingredient as it imparts a green color the other three incenses don’t have, and not only that but a spicy, exotic tinge that reminds me of a spicy Thai green curry. The milkiness of the whole line definitely compliments the herbal nature and there’s a slighty sour, tangy quality that’s quite alluring. This is definitely a unique incense for the style, it made me wonder what it’d be like with a little agarwood.

Ribo Sang Chhoe is rather different although the spice cookie base stil remains and the above mentioned ingredients either overlap or were added. I laughed when I read in the description that this is “as if we were offering a complete meal that offers joy and delight.” Be sure not to take a bite of the stick after this description and the incense’s aroma as this is less an entree and more a confectionary. I got hints of cocoa butter, graham crackers and orange spice here with a stronger background wood presence that gives it a slight dryness and ties it roughly together with White Sur. While this still has a bit of tangyness to it, the aftereffects kind of fade into the citrus and spice.

 White Sur opens up the ingredient list to over 200 entries. This sort of thing makes me think of centuries of experimentation in order to realize White Sur is what the creators wanted. The incense itself doesn’t necessarily set itself apart from the rest of the line by way of the implied complexity, in fact White Sur isn’t terribly far off from Ribo Sang Chhoe, but the many ingredients do start to impress themselves upon you with use. The incense starts out with an almost sweetgrass like aroma but once that top note starts to fade, you’re left not only with the base as already described but a lot of extras playing with it. It might be close to what Drib Poi would be like without the green herbal hints, just concentrating on the cereal aspects. The cardamom in particular seems to be the most out front.

Red Sur might be the incense of the four most reminiscent of what you may already have experienced with Tibetan incense, its red color moves it closer to a number of monastery incenses that end up with a slight berry aroma. With the food-like qualities of this line, Red Sur kind of reminds me of a tart raspberry or strawberry yogurt, or better yet like a bowl of strawberry Cheerios. The scent seems to be a bit tarter than the other three because of it and as such sets it apart a bit more, but at the same time it seems to have a drier finish, one that tends to move one’s attention from the base a little more. There still is a hint of cereal and spice in the background but here its the most muted in the line.

I didn’t imagine when sampling these things to be as impressed with the brand’s uniqueness as I was, and I could tell that my understanding of the complexity of these incenses increased with use, meaning there’s something of a learning curve with these. While they seem to use a lot of more common ingredients, it seems the creators have found a way to blend food and minerals to actually bring out qualities like that in an aroma, which couldn’t have been easy (but please don’t go trying to light your curry or yogurt on fire). And not only that but at $5 a roll they’re very affordable and there’s also a density and earthiness to the sticks that seem to make them burn maybe a little longer than other, drier Tibetan sticks. Definitely a stop for the olfactory explorer.