Holy Smoke / Bloom, Cardamom, Dammar, Free Spirit, Nag Champa

Holy Smoke is the name of a domestic incense creator that can be found on both Etsy and its own website. The company states, “All our ingredients are natural and directly from nature. We try to source the best ingredients to produce the finest products. Our incense sticks are hand-rolled using honey, gum resin, botanicals and pure essential oils. Each stick will burn for an hour or more.” This in particular got my attention because even some of the best Indian incenses (and Holy Smoke sticks are Indian-style for sure) out there can be completely charcoal based which has never really been one of my favorite bases for a scent. And one must admit Holy Smoke present their incenses in a very attractive way at their sales sites. So I was very interested in checking out some of their scents.

First of all I was a bit disappointed in that the incenses I received did not have the bright colors that the presentations on line hinted at. This is of course not a deal breaker for a scent, but it IS part of what had me scrambling for a purchase. The incenses do vary a bit in color but one must come to the impression that the lighting may be bringing out what you see a bit more than the reality and in fact if you look at my own pictures in this review, the flash is definitely helping some on that account. In my experience a lot of Indian sticks that use colors may not impart any scent variations through the colors themselves but there is often something psychological about using them and I once raided the Vedic Vaani catalog trying to find the brightly colored ones and this often led to some of their better incenses. So be sure to temper one’s expectations from the pictures.

So that lovely purple color on the Bloom picture at the Holy Smoke website I don’t really see at all in the actual incense, it turned out to be much redder. This is described as a mix of rose, musk and patchouli, but what you immediately notice is just the overall blast of scent coming from the stick, it’s literally drenched in perfume oils. In fact I did not mind at all letting these sit for a while hoping to temper the power of them a little and even in doing so they still strike me as strong and powerful, perhaps even too much. So it’s probably worth setting one’s expectations that a stick like this at an hour burn and this powerful is likely something you don’t want as close to your space. The other issue, which not all of the sticks have, is that the combination of the oils being used often reminds me of air freshener type scents rather than any of the specific ingredients. As we know getting a legitimate rose oil from an essential is virtually impossible at this price range, but the overall floral scent does seem to be largely drowning out whatever is being used as the musk and patchouli. You can certainly sense both in the mix at some level but the combination still adds up in a way that reminds me if your levels on your CD are too high.

The Cardamom is very different to the Bloom. It was actually nice to see this rarely represented spice in an incense and the overall levels turned down a bit. Cardamom is a fairly unique spice but tends to appear as drier in incense which matches a bit better with the honey and resin base. But it does appear that there is more in play than the just the spice (as well as the question of how much of the spice is the actual spice and how much is in the oil). I wondered a bit about some of the natural resin in the midst of it coming through as it seemed somewhat basic quality, perhaps a touch gravelly, but it wasn’t ultimately problematic with the top note. There is some level of a floral feel to this as well as if the base or additional ingredients contribute quite a bit to the overall aroma. It’s an interesting and fairly unique aroma overall, very different to the others I sampled from the catalog. But once again, the sheer strength of the overall stick feels like it gets a bit overwhelming during the burn, something that might be mitigated by burning half sticks.

Part of the issue with incenses whose essential oil mixes are this loud is they tend to resemble household products and that’s the main issue with Dammar, an incense with a resin whose lemon-like tendencies push the overall aroma into furniture polish territory. The thing is, where in the Cardamom I could detect some level of actual resin burning here, the lemon characteristics supposedly coming from this resin all seem to be on the oil level. The issue is that it feels a bit chemical on some level in the sense where fruitiness in an air freshener or cleaning product ends up being too cloying. This also runs into having a bit of a bitter edge to it. Unfortunately, it has probably been a while since I tried the actual resin to see how close it is but it seems like here there’s much more going on than just the resin. I don’t mean to doubt the creators claim that these are all natural but sometimes the mixes can still perhaps not work quite as well.

Free Spirit is a blend of Nag Champa, Lotus, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. One thing that originally struck me about this mix and the plain Nag Champa (below) is that it seems like the company may use a Satya-sourced Nag Champa oil or something very similar as it has an extremely familiar scent to it. The difference in base, then, is made more obvious by contrasting it with this oil which does make you notice the honey and resins a bit more. This is a bit of a drier mix but it still feels a bit crowded with florals and one starts to come to the conclusion that not unlike Madhavadas sourced incenses, the base of these tends to be aromatic enough to be part of every aroma in a way that makes them all somewhat similar. There’s a fruity sort of scent that seems common to all of these incenses that tends to mute all of the specific named notes. And so the mix ends up being quite a bit different from any one scent and in a largely generic sort of way.

Nag Champa on its own is a lot more familiar, and maybe here you can mostly sense what this base is all about as it’s easier to mentally isolate that one note. What it probably does the most is show what this sort of oil smells like outside of the usual halmaddi and sandalwood mix, that is, it’s quite a bit different without those notes and with what is the unique Holy Smoke honey and resin mix. But like the Cardamom, not having the extra oils is a bit more pleasant to my nose. But overall this doesn’t really smell all that much like a traditional Nag Champa so much as the use of that scent in this format.

Overall, with all of these incenses getting some idea of whether you like their base is going to be key where you fall with any of their aromas. But even if you like the base, the predominance of certain oil mixes is very likely to overwhelm if you are not careful. So I might recommend checking one of their samplers first, if available.

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Administrative Status Update

It’s been a bit quiet around here late, but that’s for a few reasons. First of all I’m in what is my peak work period. I write, in part, for a living and Feb to May or June is when I do most of this and unfortunately my team is about half new this year and so I’m having to train a lot, pick up a lot for management and there is really no energy left for ORS (it was kind of the same last year where I posted nearly every day for half the year starting in June). ORS is also working on a lot of stuff behind the scenes as well in terms of research and so forth, which we’re hoping will eventually beat fruit and it does mean there’s a pretty big pile forming up, but this will have to give birth once it can.

I did want to mention really quick that I am really pleased with Mermade’s Dragon Tears. This incense is described by Katlyn as “In my mind, what Dragon’s Blood should smell like…” and in many ways there is no more perfect description that this, because while actual Dragon’s Blood often seems to be prized more for its name, I’ve always been fairly disappointed in it as an aroma on its own. Mixed in with good frankincense and perhaps treated in a way that levels it up with more cinnamon spice pizazz? Sign me up! So don’t miss this little treat. Kat has been incredibly prolific this winter maybe more than I can keep up with at times and I’d describe her as “an artist in the zone” for sure (theres even a couple more things up since the last time I looked). Don’t forget to check out the resins and materials sections either as like I said as she curates some fine materials for sure.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Kyphis, Incense Cakes; Espirit de la Nature / Giroflee Ordorante

It seems like with the new kyphi mechanism in play that there’s been a substantial creative outburst at Mermade in the winter months. Combine that with ORS being in something of a downtime, it can be really hard to keep up and deeply go into some of these new and wonderful scents that Katlyn has been whipping up in winter months, so I thought I’d do my best to try and do some sort of overview to catch up on some things. As I’ve mentioned before, the catalog window for a lot of Mermade goodies is short and often ORS reviews can shorten them a bit more, and even when I start a review page in draft, I have to keep tabs on what is still live or not by the time I’m ready to publish something. And this too, of course, goes for the Espirit de la Nature incenses that show up. It’s often like watching a car zip by.

So let’s start with the Mermade kyphis. I covered Kyphi #2, Goddess Temple, here. I believe the #3 was the green Emerald Temple variant and the #4 was the Amber Kyphi (pictured left), all of which are now gone, at least for the present. If you read the #2 review then you will realize these are largely intriguing variants of the same sort of kyphi base with a new front. All of them are wonderfully etched in detail and I’m just generally of the opinion that if you see a Mermade kyphi go up for a sale then it’s a good idea to start planning an order. The amber variant did not last long at all and it is a really wonderful incense, with the back half connected through this kyphi lineage and the front a wonderfully perfect amber scent, distinct and almost definitive. And I think the #5 variant here (coming soon, will link when live) will be Goddess Temple with Oud (pictured right). I just have a few early samples of this one from Katlyn’s last package but I might have to separate this one from the “usually special and magnificent” to the “particularly special and magnificent” category. I love the way the oud in this one sort of tinges and modifies the kyphi lineage of all these previous incenses. It does so in a way that might create the most significant change of this line of incense. It feels less like it has a new top note and more like the oud has just deeply infused itself into all aspects of the scent. When you think of kyphi as this sort of aged melange of ingredients that all add up to something like an aromatic vintage, the #5 seems to be a really cool leap sideways that might make you feel like you’re trying kyphi all over again.

Another project Katlyn is working on is “incense cakes.” There are three different ones that are all very recent, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, Rose of Isis and Dionysos. These are all essentially a mix of resins, woods, herbs and spices that are all formulated into small little discs with a stamp applied and mostly mixed in with another natural ingredient. The first blend is subtitled a Mesopotamian incense and includes cedar wood and essential oil; Suhul and Yemeni myrrh; Iranian galbanum; styrax – liquidambar; labdanum resin and absolute; black frankincense; and juniper herb and berries. Not sure if my botany is up to this guess and it’s not in the ingredients, but the cakes look mixed in with eucalyptus leaves or something visually similar. You can actually really suss out the specific ingredients in this mix and one thing I like about it is that a lot of these are not as common in available incenses so you really feel like the styrax and labdanum are quite forward here and the evergreens give it all a more herbal quality than a green one. It all adds up to a nicely mysterious mix that reveals a cool creative take on a regional scent.

Rose of Isis is a bit more straight forward a blend, with the rose and sandalwood mix out in front. The rose comes from three different absolutes, and the sandalwood is the quality Mysore, but in addition there’s Sahul myrrh, Saigon cinnamon, Hougary frankincense, and benzoin; the mix dusted with agarwood powder. I’ve long understood Katlyn to have a really deep connection with Isis energy and have experienced a number of her crafts in this vein both on and off the market to know she is a vessel for it. The rose here is lovely and powerful, redolent even in the fresh tin, in the way that a friendly rose absolute can lead to it being a bit like valentine’s day candy. But there’s not just that element, but a really genuine scent of the actual rose flower that is paired with that. As the heat continues the rose note will tend to fade into the background more, with the myrrh and cinnamon comng in louder towards the late heat. The sandalwood seems a bit milder than you might expect, mostly due to the powerful rose front, but it tends to tie everything together in the background.

Dionysos is something of an incense cake version of one of Katlyn’s older incenses with the same name. In fact this review is still probably fairly spot on in many ways and here you can get this almost vintage spirits sort of vibe just over the fresh cakes in the tin. Part of this I believe is the black currant bud absolute. As a kid who grew up in England in the 70s, black currant was almost ubiquitous in sweets and I loved it. Here it’s modified by some of the other ingredients into kyphi-like age, like a fine intoxicating spirit. There’s classic incense resins (undoubtedly part of what carries the currant), agarwood, juniper berries, sweet tobacco absolute, cassis (also black currant), galbanum and a pinch or two of sativa. I sort of roughly classify this kind of incense into Katlyn’s later summer blends, there’s this sort of feeling of heat and harvest at work, ripe berries, hay and herb. One you definitely would want to pull out at a party, an event much richer with the god of wine in attendance.

There were also a couple new Encense du Monde incenses in the Mermade catalog of late but one blew out incredibly fast and the other might be gone by the time I get this incense live (3 left! Going, going..). This last one left (well they both were!), Giroflee Ordorante, is naturally up to Bonnie’s incredible talent, an incense that boasts a very involved ingredients list: “Matthiola longipeta ssp bicornis enfleuraged [night-scented stock] while still on the stem into benzoin, palo santo and tolu balsam resins, propolis, rose extract, palo santo wood, sandalwood, rosewood, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, patchouli. Bound with reduced organic honey. Powdered with monarde fistulosa- rose variety.” What I immediately notice with this Nerikoh style blend is the mintiness and balsamic qualities combined, but it’s sort of the layer a lot of complexity sits on, a complexity I am not sure I’d even have the time to get into before this very original blend disappears. I’m not even familiar with what appears to be the main note, the night-scented stock, so I can’t place it in the aroma exactly. So in many ways Giroflee Ordorante is certainly unlike any nerikoh style incense I’ve tried in a Japanese catalog, but it stretches the form in quite the innovative way. These little pellets pack both a massive and quiet aromatic punch with that almost trademark creative touch Bonnie has that feels like fractals disappearing into infinity.

And I’d be amiss to not mention that the latest batch of WildWood is in stock, and while I haven’t tried this latest one yet, it’s certainly in a lineage where I have loved every single one and it is something you’d have to consider a Mermade evergreen classic.

Dimension 5 / Terra Collection / Terra Teleportica, Terra Profunda, Terra Esoterica

We now turn to the back “half” of Dimension 5’s Terra Collection. The previous two incenses were originally planned for review when I was expecting the Terra Collection to include four incenses, but Josh Matthews managed to get a new entry in under the wire, one which actually fits in pricewise between the two previously reviewed.

Terra Teleportica is simply unearthly. I am sort of reminded by how one would place microphones or speakers in a room for recording or listening to music and how the placement can so quickly alter perception or the sound of music. It is the “placement” of the ingredients in the Dimension 5 incenses which is often one of the most impressive things about them because while the mix of elements does describe a combination, I like how often and how easy it is to really get the separate elements of the ingredients in Josh’s incense. This has a really marvelous oud oil in the mix with agarwood, sandalwood, resins and other ingredients. Although spice is not listed I do get some feeling of that, probably through the oud, and you can definitely feel the resins at the bottom of the mix. I didn’t get it until the second or third stick, but the resins here also seem to help create something of an apricot or fruit note, although here they blend nicely into the spice. The sandalwood feels a bit more lightly placed than in some of the other Dimension 5 incenses but not to where it disappears and more towards where it connects everything together. But beyond all this is just a feeling that what is speaking the loudest is the complexity of the fantastic ingredients, the depth of the woods and the oils from the woods. When I first got into agarwood incenses and experienced some early ones I felt like I had a sort of vision of this ancient grandfather tree where the whorls and knots of the wood were so infinitely complex that you could follow them like a labyrinth. That’s the sort of experience you will find in an incense like Terra Teleportica, it is literally an aromatic feast that that will tickle one’s subconscious and memory functions. Incredibly well done, and a tribute to Josh’s own skills improving more and more as his creativity produces new treats.

If there is sandalwood in the Terra Profunda it would have to fall under “other” category and therefore shifts this a bit over from many of the Dimension 5 incenses where it is named. In fact when I lit this the first thing I thought was mm spices, and then went to look at the ingredients and found these as well as agarwood, oud and resins. Overall there seems to be a bit of a marriage between the resin content and the fruitiness of the oud oil and given that I could compare the actual oil, I noticed that it has been dialed back to be an equal player in this clever little blend. I might say there is actually a bit more woodiness from the actual agarwood, but it doesn’t overwhelm. I had some apple vibes from this, some level of cinnamon, star anise and pepper pizazz in there somewhere and an overall feeling of freshness that I appreciated a lot. It reminded me a little of when you open one of those dry packages of Quaker apple cinnamon oatmeal on a cold day. It allows the resin to perhaps sing a bit more than the other blends it is included in. I would guess there is some level of good frankincense or one of the more piquant gums to allow this. I think the skill here is allowing a higher quality of wood to sing in perhaps slightly less powerful quantities letting it sit nicely next to the other elements rather than dominate. But part of it is that this is a very fine oud in the base, one that has a great deal of complexity on its own and like many of the Dimension 5 incenses, it is maybe that fifth dimension that really gives you so much to appreciate.

The resins are also listed in Terra Esoterica but I don’t smell them quite so much, or rather they seem less of the more citrusy type resins. I’m sort of reminded at the way some Japanese frankincense sticks kind of go in an apricot direction and with the woods, the mix has some level of turpentine. This incense has an actually remarkably different profile to my nose from the rest of the collection, and everything else listed includes agarwood, oud and sandalwood. Some of the woodiness of this one actually brings some different subnotes that I’m not as used to, an almost earthier sort of scent, dry soil, clay, subnotes of peat and so forth. The incense even has something like an oakmoss note, so overall all of these elements kind of come together in an ancient, untouched deep jungle sort of way. The oud that goes into this one is a bit more dangerous than in the previous incenses in that it has some of the sort of animalistic or slightly fecal-like notes a lot of ouds can have, so it’s a bit of a tribute to Josh’s skill that that element does not show up in the incense, just the really fine aspects of the wood, of which there are a multitude. As all of the Latin names go in this collection, this one certainly deserves the appellation of esoteric as it really dives deep into some fairly cool and new territories. Of all the incenses this is one that really feels like it needs time to unfold to speak its treasures.

Overall the Terra Collection may be the finest of Josh’s work although I would guess only until the next collection. These are honestly some of the most complex, deluxe sticks of incenses you can buy and I really feel like I could burn another dozen sticks before really feeling like I’ve listened closely enough because not only are the incenses complex in their compounds but each ingredient is as well, and at times it can be bewildering just to catch everything spiraling out from the smoke. If you are interested in any of these fascinating incenses or any of the previously reviewed sticks (see the Reviews Index for previous entries or click on the Dimension 5 category), please contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com.

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.

Dimension 5 / Terra Enchantica, Terra Conundra

Dimension 5’s Terra Collection (pictured above) is what one would have to consider the Dimension 5 high end in the sense that even the individual 3″ sticks here come in in the teens in pricing from top to bottom. As Josh Matthews puts it, “The Terra Collection features unique and extraordinary agarwoods and ouds. Each one presents a striking and exotic scent profile, highlighting the specific agarwood or agarwood/oud combo.” Josh uses the real thing in these sticks. When you read about something like an oud in an Indian stick, you can be assured that the creators are either making a little go a long way or they’re using their creative skills to approximate one, but the Terra sticks are created with real oud and therefore bear the appreciating costs of highlighting oils of this expense. Even small quantities of real oud can go for $100s. So these are absolutely in the realm of delicacies. Josh was also kind enough to provide a trace amount of the actual oudhs in these sticks so it would be easier to review them, but this also means I can confirm their presence. All of these incenses include agarwood, oud, sandalwood and spices and most also have some resins in them as well.

When I first got some samples from Josh both of the two incenses I am reviewing in this first installment were included, so I’m able to sense their development as well. Both of these sticks strike me as having quite a bit of fine sandalwood in the mix which I think probably helps to highlight the oudh oils or woods in different ways. Sandalwood is also notoriously a strong part of any good base. Unlike some of the other incenses I’ve reviewed in the line, however, I think the presence of actual oud oil is definitely more prevalent in the sticks that have it than in most of the other Dimension 5 lines. I once bought an oud sampler many years ago and really enjoyed trying them and so dipping into the ouds themselves to compare brought back some good memories.

The mix of woods and sandalwood oil featured in Terra Enchantica is one that really has some great woody and fruity notes. The wood notes sit very nicely next to the sandalwood oil (and there should be some sandalwood wood too), but I also very much like the mix of spices that is being use at the bottom as they feel really intelligently placed alongside these other notes. Enchantica is actually the bottom of the Terra line in price (although it looks like it’s tied with Terra Teleportica, which was a more recent addition to the collection and will be reviewed next installment) but it’s already quite spectacular. In speaking to Josh, it was also mentioned that the agarwood itself also tends to a bit of a sandalwood scent as well, so I think it’s a very good example of how agarwood can drift into other profiles as well. While you get a huge sandalwood presence through the middle, there are a lot of more playful notes that are really quite different from the usual Japanese stick and I think you have to credit the fine sandalwood oil for this sort of feel. The note that actually strikes me the most is this sense of apricot in the foreground. Overall this is a very nice example of how you can say this is sort of on the lighter side, but without really losing any complexity whatsoever and that is a refreshing change indeed.

The oud being used in Terra Conundra is a fine, balanced example of such an oil, rich, complex, and multi-faceted, bearing everything from the sort of wilder notes all the way to fruity top notes. However taking a quick sniff of the oud and going back to the stick not only confirms the identification but also shows there’s quite a bit of actual fine agarwood boosting this as well. It is a very different stick from the Terra Enchantica, journeying into some more traditional woody territories, while having a unique touch of spice. In fact I’d say historically, Terra Conundra has really improved from early batches into a very fine incense indeed. Instead of just the many notes from the oudh on its own, you now have a great deal of interplay with the woods and whatever other mix of ingredients that are helping to balance this out. There is so much going on in this stick it’s almost overwhelming, it’s even starting to approach some of the complexities of fine Japanese agarwood and kyara sticks. It’s also a very fragile stick so keep that it mind when handling. And absolutely do not leave your area when this is going, this is not the sort of incense you use to generally add scent to your environment, it is designed specifically to pay attention to. One can really only imagine a world when you could get 50 sticks in a tube of something this intense, one might not buy anything else.

If you are interested in any of these incenses or previously reviewed sticks, please contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com. Next installment, likely to be posted some time in January, will include the other three Terra sticks. To all of our readers thank you for paying attention and enjoy your holidays!

Mermade Magickal Arts + Esprit de la Nature / The Mothers – Ancient Winter Remembrance, Emerald Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi “Green”

So right about when we turned to ORS holiday time, Mermade Magickal Arts went all festive on us and released a bunch of really yummy new treats. I love all of Katlyn’s work but I might have particular favorites in the whole axis of evergreen/green/winter seasonal incenses that she does and so it was impossible for me not to make an order, and then when I got everything wonderful in, I’m like oh my god how do I share what I am experiencing and write about these on holiday time when a lot of Mermade blends rocket out the door in a few weeks time (or sometimes before I can even write anything). Well I’ll give at least these first two a shot, and although this might not be up to usual review standards, for sure these incenses are up to the usual high Mermade (and Esprit de la Nature) standards. These are two really wonderful incenses.

But let’s first start with one that a periodical and greatly admired contributor to the Mermade catalog has created. As many may be aware of, Be en Foret of Esprit de La Nature is also one of the great artists of heatable incense out there and her new blend The Mothers – Ancient Winter Remembrance is an absolute triumph of the style, one of the finest conifer incense blends ever made. I am still marveling over the complexity, beauty and triumph of this stunning incense, it is literally not to be missed. Look at these ingredients: balsam fir (Abies balsamea) bark, needles, resin, extract; Amanita muscaria mushroom; juniper (Juniperus virginiana) berries; spruce (Picea rubra) needles; hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) needles and extract; cedar (Thuja occidentalis) tips; mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) flowering tops; rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) leaf extract; tree mosses (Psuedoevernia spp and Usnea spp); pinion pine (Pinus edulis) resin; and poplar (Populus tremoides) buds. All of these ingredients are bound with black elderberries (Sambucus nigra) and homemade hydromel (mead) and mixed with the Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

So the first thing one must look at is that in the overall sense of things we’re usually used to pine scents, perhaps balsamic scents and so forth when we talk about evergreens and conifers. It’s that experience of walking through a forest in cool mountainous air and experiencing the whole unified scent that so many plants combine to create. But there are so many different sorts of plants being used in this one that the aroma becomes so complex it actually starts to become somewhat kyphi-esque in its profile. I mean just sitting here after a second heat and trying to describe everything that goes through my head as I experience this is virtually impossible. First without any listing of something like frankincense, this still has a very resinous scent that one must chalk up to the various tree extracts and materials. The Mothers has a very pleasant, somewhat spicy fruitiness in the mix that is amazingly enjoyable, but this mix isn’t facile, it is deeply complex, aged and beautiful. I smell orange peel and marmalade, caramel, honey and wine, and where Katlyn’s green incenses tend to speak the voice of the Sierra Nevadas with a much greener finish, Be’s has its own unique character that is separate enough that you are likely to find both different species of the same genus. I’m not sure I can speak quite to how something like the amanita speaks through the scent, but the incense does feel like a conglomerate of smaller voices and there is a slightly psychedelic edge on all of this that adds to the choir’s unity. It is that sense of mycorrhizal fungi as a symbiosis of plant and fungi and, as the aroma spreads, human life as well.

Sort of in the reverse (or maybe inverse?) direction of this is Katlyn’s Emerald Temple, a “green” kyphi. One of the reasons I found this fascinating in the description is I sort of imagine kyphis more as brown, purple, or maroon, so I really liked the idea, given Kat’s skill with greeny goodness. The ingredients on this one, always a big list with kyphis, include fir balsam raw resin, green frankincense (Sacra of Oman), copal blanco, fir balsam Absolute, Cedar (Thuja) essential oil, Benzoin Essential oil (molecular distillation), and Chios Mastic. All dusted in green fragrant Arbor vitae (green cedar) powder. I would guess this kyphi is made with the production techniques of the previous kyphi we reviewed. Like some green mixes this also crosses over into lime-like territory, particularly due to the green frankincense and some element of the copal. My grandmother and a few other members of my family used to live in Key Largo for many years and could whip up a great key lime pie, which is what this scent reminds me a lot of with that mix of lime and sweetness. Even something like a lime Jolly Rancher kind of captures that front note. Of course this notable green frankincense note is really just the lead for that typical melange of caramel, wine-like, raisin tinged kyphi base, something that tends to remind me of autumn, except the lime pushes it all into different territory. It’s a nice little divergence from the kyphi norm and a cool little experiment that’s well worth looking into if you like the kyphis that come out of this venerable outfit.

But even as I come to a close here, I really want to remind folks to act fast. I just realized that Katlyn’s stupendously great Lord of the Rings inspired incense Elvish has already gone out of stock, and I can only imagine these two and the wonderful Southern/Central/native American inspired Lucida and the Tibetan inspired Golden Tara are soon to follow. These incenses, as always, show Mermade on the very cutting edge of cross-cultural experimentation with incense scent and culture and I often can not write fast enough to keep up with their demand and in many ways that’s a good thing as it shows their great appeal.

Dimension 5 / Voyager, Ottoman Empire, Ethyl Phenethyl

The three incenses here, along with the previously reviewed Urrere Unlimited and Tibet With Love, are all part of Dimension 5’s “Eclectic Collection” (all five pictured above). This seems quite fairly described as there’s a lot of diversity in style across this group, a range that really touches on a lot of scent areas. When Josh sent me the first samples I received of his work, two of them were early versions of both Ottoman Empire and Voyager, so I also got a chance to see how his recipes evolved over time, although it wasn’t until later that I got to see the approximate recipes.

With Voyager, you get a list of sandalwood, agarwood, frankincense, spices, resins and others, but as Josh describes, the incense is essentially “frankincense forward.” Voyager reminds me of a lot of the Japanese frankincense sticks, not only the Minorien and Tennendo sticks but the Shoyeido Incense Road as well, like the profile shares aspects of all of them. In this sense it would be sort of the frankincense on wood of the Minorien, a bit of the sort of banana tang you find in the Tennendo (although I notice this a little bit more in the original recipe, the piquancy is a bit mellower here) and a bit of the confectionary like sweetness you would fine in the Incense Road. As in many of the Dimension 5 incenses, Voyager has a very noticeable high quality sandalwood in the mix, one that peaks its way out in what I assume is Mysore glory. Obviously at a more luxury price it is the additional elements that complement the Frankincense that are the draw here over the other more affordable frankincenses made for the US market, although compared to a lot of other Dimension 5 incenses the agarwood is dialed back a bit. But overall I can’t really think of a sort of deluxe Japanese-style frankincense incense that has this more luxury take and so Voyager is actually quite unique. And the more you use it, the more you will see some other interesting things pop out from its profile.

With Ottoman Empire, you are more or less instantly reminded of fine Turkish rose oils. I’m not sure what the specific scent is but it strikes me as a fine absolute (it is actually a specific essential oil so I am adding this note on 12/3). Although it is listed second it may be the scent’s real primary note. With agarwood, sandalwood and other spices in the mix it’s probably not shocking that this is going to be reminiscent of ouds in a surface sense, however this feels a bit less wet or oil/perfume based and more of a dry wood kind of thing. The difference between the earlier version I received and the one being reviewed here is the balance has been adjusted for the better and it feels like the new one has a bit stronger of an agarwood presence, which means it is balancing quite nicely with the rose being used. I’ve said this before but often Dimension 5 incenses will elicit a wow out of me. Like if I have this routine where I light a stick, and then say check an email or something, the aroma will hit me and for a second I’ll forget what I lit and be wow that’s really good. Ottoman Empire is one of these. There’s some very fine aloeswood in this one, the kind of higher end wood that tends to have more of a personality, but that mix of it, the sandalwood and the rose essential oil melts really nicely with whatever spice part of the blend that gives it a nice tertiary deepness to it. A really gorgeous stick and one that after burning a few sticks of the original blend and a few of the new blend, I’ve gotten to know really well.

Ethyl Phenthyl could possibly be the most chemical name I’ve seen for what seems like such an organic sort of stick. The alcohol appears to be used in perfume, and I looked up some rose and honey descriptions of it, and for sure there is a really honey-ish note in this intriguing stick. But given the list of ambergris, agarwood, sandalwood, orris and others, it’s really that list of notes nearly in that order that is what is really featured here. The ambergris is exquisitely lovely on this, salty and rich, but I found that in some of the sticks, when it hits the sandalwood pockets, the incense is really arresting in how it profiles how great that note is and I would assume it’s because the orris (extract?) is melded so closely with it. Orris is something I’ve never quite checked out on its own yet, but when it pops up in incense it seems floral and yet deep at the same time, imparting a note that’s all too unique (it strikes me as a bit violet-like). So there is really a ton going on in this one, because I got through all of that without talking much about the agarwood, which also does really weave it’s way in here nicely. All of this is just further testament of Josh’s improving skill with melding a wide array of aromatics with deep complexity, and this is another that is a real joy to listen to. I’m starting to do that thing where I’m like no maybe THIS one is my favorite Dimension 5.

If you are interested in any of these incenses or previously reviewed sticks, please contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com. In many ways the Eclectic Collection is really a wonderful place to start in his catalog as it shows such great diversity, as well as some really unique incenses that aren’t particularly common in the field. Stay tuned as I will hopefully be getting to his Terra Collection in a couple of installments later this month.

Dimension 5 / Urrere Unlimited

One of the sad parts about resuscitating ORS earlier this year was that the man who was practically my original partner in running the site passed away not long after I announced the site’s return. ORS might not exist if it wasn’t for Ross Urrere. Historically, this site started when I started posting about incense on my own blog. Ross joined in quite a bit and then there was some discussion about actually breaking off the incense part of the blog and creating something independent. Ross agreed to start writing, christened the site fairly quickly and off we went for many years. Ross also was interested in making his own incense and over the years went from afficionado to a revered creator in his own right. Ross was very generous and kept me fairly well supplied with samples of his incenses like Ocean of Night, Comfort, Souked Aloeswood or Sandalwood with Ambergris, all of which were brilliant. I am sad that I have completely run out of Ocean of Night even though, I was probably the benefactor of 4 or 5 vintages of it, but I do remember it fairly well (there is some truth that the inspiration to start up the site again came from revisiting a lot of vintage incenses that I actually ran out by the time I pressed go). Ocean of Night was a remarkable incense, almost sui generis from an incense standpoint, with an oakmoss presence that really set it apart from many of the heatables on the market. And I know I wasn’t the only fan of it, in fact I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like his incense work, a work I might add that was informed by studying perfume as well. In fact it is his friends in Mandy Aftel’s circle who inherited Ross’ recipes and I can certainly say for myself I look forward to the day that these return to availability.

Another appreciator of Ocean of Night is Josh Matthews at Dimension 5 who actually created this really wonderful tribute to Ross, an incense that includes Ocean of Night as an ingredient in the blend (as well as a tiny touch of the original in order to suss it out in his blend). We did make sure to OK it with Ross’ inheritors and very much appreciate their graciousness in allowing Josh to offer this wonderful stick of incense. So first of all, Ocean of Night included sandalwood, oakmoss, frankincense and the usual unlisted herbs, resins, spices and woods. To create Urrere Unlimited Josh uses Vietnamese and New Guinea agarwood, as well as other spices, including cardamom. Just reading this again, I like the idea a lot to use this unique spice in the mix. If Ocean of Night included any agarwood it was largely marginal so this uniquely crafted stick that actually marries that scent to fine aloeswood is a perfect tribute. I like the unique take of matching up the cardamom spice with the oakmoss front of Ocean of Night. I also like the way Urrere Unlimited reminds me of Baieido’s Kai un Koh in its relative unsweetness as Ross was a huge fan of that stick. The aloeswood here has a nice sense of dry elegance and bitterness that I think matches the incense quite well. The blend also reminds me a lot of another favorite of Ross’s, Shunkohdo’s Ranjatai. All of these things make me feel like Ross would have appreciated this stick very much. And overall there is a lot to listen to, after a few sticks I think you’re very likely to sense a lot more of what is going on than just the surface.

Like Tibet With Love, Urrere Unlimited is also part of Dimension 5’s Eclectic Collection sampler. Reviews of the final three scents in this sampler as well as a new batch of incenses called The Terra Collection are all forthcoming here, but are all now available. If you are interested in any of these incenses or previously reviewed sticks, please contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com. I will say again that these are wonderful treats for the incense connoisseur, made from a collection of very fine materials, many of which rarely show themselves in stick form. In that sense many of these are completely unique in the market.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Goddess Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi #2, Moon

There’s a virtual history of Mermade kyphis being reviewed at ORS going back to 2011 (and a much longer tradition of Mermade making them) if you take a look at our Reviews Index. The Egyptian Temple incenses known as Kyphi are not only some of the world’s most famous historical blends but they are some of the most involved, complex and fascinating as well. One of the things I find most fascinating about them is that in the right hands a kyphi incense can be both simple and complex, creating a composite aroma out of a large ingredients list. The amount of preparation that goes into one of these incenses can be daunting and based on Katlyn’s words at the incense link, she has devised a new way of blending Kyphis to save both time and energy, which will allow the incense to be made more available. Anyone who has tried a Mermade kyphi knows this is a very good thing indeed.

Reviewing a kyphi may not be as difficult as making one, but it’s a scent that is kind of hard to pin down. I’ve always used something like a fine wine or whiskey because the overall bouquet of a kyphi can be so rich and multi-faceted, usually with a distinct sense of age. It rarely feels like something you can just pick the elements out of, it’s more like the elements come together into something new. There are definitely similarities from one kyphi to another (usually for me it’s whatever the raisins and honey do, if they’re in there). However, I think this vintage, Goddess Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi #2, is a bit different than previous years. It feels like this is more resin heavy overall. The ingredients listed are frankincense (Hougary, Black Sacra, and Honey), Yemeni myrrh, Pinon pine, labdanum, Chios mastic, Saigon cinnamon, Turkish galbanum, and styrax liquidambar, all dusted with agarwood powder. It’s interesting because this feels more like a modern reformulation of a kyphi, one I wouldn’t be quite as sure of if we weren’t in safe hands with a creator who has spun out years of brilliant kyphi vintages, not a one I didn’t love. While it does feel somewhat different from previous Mermade kyphis, and I’m assuming the #2 is marking the occasion, the feeling that this is still in the style with a lot of depth and creativity is still in place. The notes tend to loom larger than the listed mix with quite a bit of interesting floral activity and heavy spice content that becomes even more noticeable as the incense melts on a heater. I’m not sure if there are raisins or anything like that in the incense, but that sort of defining kyphi note is still in the mix somehow, it’s a scent that reminds me of anything from plums to prunes to raisins. I very much like the idea that this is now an “all year around” kyphi as if you’re a fan of loose incenses kyphi is really one of the first incense types I would recommend. So it is a very cool thing indeed that the availability of this has widened. It is still complex, releases all sorts of subnotes along the timeline of the heat, sings with really quality ingredients, and still has that lovely feeling of fine spirits about it.

Katlyn has done a lot of what I would call lunar blends as well (Temple of the Moon, Mermade Moon, Moon Goddess, and Luna all come to mind). These have what I would call western magical correspondences about them, which means they tend to have some up front jasmine notes. Mermade has done a lot of fine work with jasmine and you may not be surprised that Moon is another solid entry of the type. For this blend she has used Tamil heartwood sandalwood and Jasmine Grandiflorum in a base of Yemeni myrrh, kua, black frankincense, and rare okoume resin, with some Chios mastic drops mixed in. The sandal and jasmine mix is really what is out in front on this one, although it’s perhaps not quite as overtly floral as previous lunar Mermades, and I would guess the okoume resin is giving the entire scent an intriguing subnote, a little bit of a slight gravel that I might liken to some copals and that helps the scent not to get too safe. So overall it’s a bit of a different direction for a lunar, a bit more fruity floral overall with some intriguing wood and resin subnotes to top it off. But I think in the end you will want to visit it for the sandalwood and jasmine mix.

Oh and before I close, there’s great news on the “restock” front in that Sweet Medicine is back in stock. I know I’m incredibly happy to see this beautiful honey and sweetgrass scent become a mainstay, it is one of my favorites in a great line up of goodies, so be absolutely sure to pop off and grab some.

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