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.


November Top Ten

Welcome to the November Top Ten. As is usually the case for me these are not necessarily laid out in any kind of  “order of wonderfulness”! I like to use many different styles and types of incense so getting it down to ten is an interesting endeavor and something of a difficult task. I would also like to mention we try and hold these to ten selections so if you current favorite is not listed, remain calm and perhaps light another stick 🙂

Next months Top Ten will turn into our “end of the year, completely over the top, blow out list” which we hope to get up by mid December. We are holed up in the secret ORS testing lab wildly waving sticks at each other to back up our various favorites. It’s getting a little smoky in here and I hope the extra fire extinguishers show up soon.

You can find all the incenses listed below in past reviews at ORS unless I have added a link as they are too new to have a review. Enjoy  -Ross

Baieido’s: Rikkoku Aloeswood Set: Quite simply put this is a work of natural art. It comes in a wonderful presentation box that is stunning all by itself. All the woods are great and at the same time very different. The Kyara is mind bending, but then again, in their own way, so are the others. There is a lot of study potential here. Used in the recommended manner this set will last one for quite awhile. You can also sometimes find this in the “mini” size.

Baieido’s Kokonoe: This is one of my “go to” wood scents. I find it very enjoyable and the cost makes it pretty easy to use. It has a clean aloeswood scent and does a great job of showcasing the Indonesian wood. Its also a good place to start looking at specific examples of regional scents within aloeswood as any extra spices or resins in these sticks is there to highlight the wood.

Nippon Kodo’s: Gokuhin Kyara Taikan: This is the second rung up in NK’s high end Kyara ladder. It features a more distinct wood note as well as more refinement in the top notes then Tokusen Kyara Taikan. It is a very elegant incense and quite potent at the same time. There is a sort of resin/floral/powder feel in the overall scent that is a wonderful counterpart to the wood notes. It’s only draw back is that it makes you start wondering how you can afford to get the next one up, which is much more money.

Kyukyodo’s: Sho ran Koh: This one is on our Top Tens a lot and with good reason. It is a very beautiful scent, an elegant floral that is not overdone and has some quality Aloeswoods backing it all up. Not to mention the roll is very large, just opening the box is a huge treat. Koh Shi in San Francisco tries to have this in stock.

Seijudo’s: Kyara Horen: Seijudo decided to create the best Kyara blends that they could for as long as they can get the materials to do so. The top three in the line up actually use Kyara in their blends while the other 4 have very similar notes but use aloeswood. Sometimes the differences seem very subtle. This one is the third from the top. I find it the easiest to get along with, it has tons of Kyara notes mixed in with spices and maybe a hint of musk. It is refined and elegant, but still friendly. It’s also something to be burned first and savored. There is quite a lot going on here and you will get the most out of it this way.  Not inexpensive but a real treasure as well as a treat for the soul.

Mermade’s Scared Grove: Lighting this will almost instantly surround you in the scent of a very large forest. It is very clean and for this time of the year I find it a great way to sort of “open up” the room it’s burning in. High quality and natural ingredients play a big part in Mermade’s success. I notice that there is a bunch of new offerings listed on their site right now.

Daihatsu’s Kaizan: Not only does this has a very nice amber note but the story I was told is that it was formulated by Daihatsu’s Ko Shi ( Fragrance Master) to mimic the scent that geishas used in their hair. Nice scent and a great price. A strong and long lasting aroma that can easily fill a room. Just the thing for all us amber fans.

Shunkohdo’s Houshou: A quality aloeswood at a very reasonable price. It has subtle top notes of chocolate that play with the aloeswood. Quite a beautiful combination and at the price($20) is a great deal not to be missed. Great gift for the incense people in you life.

Incensio’s Palo Santo Wand: If you like Palo Santo then you will be in heaven. The incense look’s sort of like thin cigars on a stick. They are packed with a wonderful and very woody scent that is particular to Palo Santo. These are available at Mermade and a full review of the line is in the works. By the way, using just a portion of a stick will do the trick; these people did not mess around when they put the woods in! Very interesting and at a good price.

Blue Star’s: Lavender: This is from a small producer in Canada (I can hear Anne getting excited). He uses all natural ingredients and the sticks are done in a sort of Tibetan Japanese fusion style, so they are thick and go for around 30-40 minutes. This one stands out for me as it has a nice light wood base note overlaid with a very clean and clear Lavender scent. Just a tiny bit sweet and really beautiful. Lavender Essential Oil is used and then the stick is rolled in Lavender flowers. This one is a winner and a review of the lineup is coming soon. Not to be missed and you get 10 sticks for around $4.00

October Top 10

  1. Mother’s India Fragrances – Om Nag Champa  I don’t mean to take much attention away from all of the other excellent incenses in the Mother’s series, but there’s something about this one that’s hit a bullseye with me, to the point where I ran out my first 20 stick package of this about a month or so after I received it. However in stocking it deeper in the smaller packages, I noticed the batches were a little different and it’s something I’ve been wondering about in terms of aromatic differences as the Om I started with really is something of a triangular balancing act and the small package scent falls perhaps a little short. But generally speaking this works for me because I love an incense with a perfect cinnamon/cassia note and this one, at least in the big package has that to an almost addictive state.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho  I find this to be one of the greatest incenses period, definitely my favorite of the top 3 premiums and I love the effect it has on company when they first get the aroma. The liquerish sweetness and dark kyara and aloeswood notes mesh just about perfectly in this one.
  3. Baieido / Ogurayama Aloeswood  I still find this a natural miracle, it just never ceases to astound me that you can get this much aroma from a small piece of this wood. I mean you can literally get 3-4 hours of it when you get the right temperature and I spend most of it double taking, going yeah it really is that little chip doing that. I might actually slightly prefer the Hakusui in terms of its spiciness but I think the resin might actually be a bit more intense in the Ogurayama. Anyway this is about as close to incense nirvana as it gets for me.
  4. Fred Soll / Red Sandalwood  Like many Solls this does have the penchant to not stay lit, but that’s really its only weakness. Like Shroff’s Red Sandal, this is a spicier take on a sandalwood incense, showing a totally different facet of the wood due to the cinnamon-ish notes. With Soll’s version you get that combination mixed in with that southwestern woodsy/resiny vibe to great effect. It’s also one of the mellower Solls and seems to have less powerful oils than they usually do.
  5. Tennendo / Enkuu  This is always a perennial favorite in my book, in fact long time readers might know that this is one of the most common incenses in the top ten lists here. I think that’s largely because so many of the top end incenses have kyara and are thus very sweet, Enkuu is more at the apex of the drier spicy end, for its kind there are really few better incenses. And even after a year or two since I first tried it, I still find it strikingly original and only find it mildly comparative to other high end aloeswood/spikenard mixes.
  6. Fred Soll / Nag Champa with Amber and Vanilla  I don’t bring out the Soll champas very often as for a couple of years now they’ve shown nothing but delays in terms of restocking these scents, no doubt due to the usual shortages. But when I do I’m always completely bowled over by how great these are, particularly in the realms of the sugary sweet. This one’s about as rich and amazing as you can imagine, perhaps even too much so for a small room, but perfect for these late warm California summers outside where it can penetrate with even a small wind.
  7. Yamadamatsu / Kumoi Koh  Another absolute classic in my book, an oil and woods mix that is rich, spicy and animalistic, so strong that you can get an idea of its scent just from the fresh stick. It’s similar to one or two of the coils that haven’t been imported here yet that clearly use some ingredients you don’t usually find in incenses at this level of strength. Very exotic and heady.
  8. Kyukyodo / (several)  Clearly the top catalog whose entry to US shores seems to be problematic at the very least. Sure you can find Sho-Ran-Koh and Azusa these days, but there are just a good dozen incenses or so that just badly need to be imported that haven’t ever been over here, such as the incredible aloeswood Akikaze or even the stunning and much lower end Benizakura or one of the really great high quality sandalwood based incenses Gyokurankoh. Oh and RIP Shiun and Yumemachi, what a pair to be deleted!
  9. Nippon Kodo / Tokusen Kyara Taikan  Readers may not fully be aware that if you don’t count the regular Kyara Taikan or Kongo, which I don’t, this is actually the lowest incense on a scale that goes up to what seems like the world’s most expensive stick incense, the $2500 Gokujyo Kyara Fugaku. I think you’d only have to pay $120 something for the Tokusen Kyara Taikan, which is actually an excellent stick in that it drops some of the more perfumy sweet aspects of the straight Kyara Taikan for a more elegant result. It’s a shame these are so breakable and thin, but they do pack quite a wallop.
  10. Shroff / Akash Ganga  I’ve always found this an odd scent because it’s one if not the only incenses in the Dry Masala range that shares the yellow boxes with the Semi-Drys, and I can see why as it seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I find this a very unusual variant on the “desert flower” sort of scents in that it doesn’t have the heavy camphorous notes they usually have or the sort of sickly sweet perfumes. And as a result it strikes me as a very mysterious scent with a depth that continues to make me go through my supplies very fast.

As always feel free to share with us what amazed you this month!

September Top 10

September is here, bringing with it both the Fall Equinox (Sept. 23) and the Funk Equinox (Do you remember…the 21st night of September ?)

Ahem…without further ado, here’s the September Top 10:

Superior Hougary/Hojary Frankincense resin – slightly astringent and citrusy, these frank resins have been merrily melting on my electric burner for weeks (I start at 20 on my Supreme Incense burner).  This ebay merchant was mentioned to me by Ross, and the transaction was super smooth.  Make sure you look for “superior grade”.  Consider buying a couple of pounds or more if you need to justify the shipping cost from Oman.  The DHL shipping envelope they arrived in smelled so good I nearly wore it as a hat.

Baieido’s Kaden Kobunboku – the entire Kobunboku lineup is superb and affordable making it tough (and probably unnecessary) to single any one out.  But this spicy entry has been grabbing my attention lately.  Kaden doesn’t retain the plum tones of the regular Kobunboku and could be described as a thin-stick version of Baieido’s also excellent Kai Un Koh.  (Kaden presents just a bit darker and richer than Byakudan Kobunboku, which was almost tied for the Top 10 this month.)

 Shoyeido’s Enmei (aka Circle) is a sandalwood, clove & cinnamon blend from their “Selects” line.  It’s also considered one of Shoyeido’s two (with Seifu – Fresh Breeze) premium daily incenses.  And like it’s sibling, Enmei manages to evoke hints of more deluxe aloeswoods despite a lack of them in the mix.  A big leap aromatically from Shoyeido’s regular Daily line and worth the upgrade.

 Muro-machi (aka City of Culture) is another offering from Shoyeido, part of its Horin line.  Rich caramel laced with wafts of aloeswood, this is an indulgent aroma.  The short (about 3″) stick burns for 20 minutes or so and is perfect to drift off to sleep by.  I hear the coil version of this (and any of the Horin line) is even more deluxe, though I haven’t tried it yet myself.

Ikaruga, from Kyukyodo, is a sharp and sweet blend of sandalwood, frankincense and oils.  The frank component is quite like Tennendo’s frankincense – bright and fruity.  The remaining ingredients add a strong ‘green’ note that makes for a rich and satisfying whole.  A Hall-of-Famer that takes a bit of effort to lay your hands on these days, but well worth the difficulty.

Holy Land – this Tibetan offering from Tibetan Medical College is finally back in stock at Essence of the Ages.  It is the finest Tibetan incense I’ve encountered, with a rich, musky hit that is beyond intoxicating.  It never fails to send electrifying waves of deja vu through me.

Guiding Light – speaking of deja vu (deja vu about deja vu?), this incense from Les Encens du Monde also triggers all sorts of time travel and nostalgic ripples for me.  It makes one of those rare first impressions that surpasses “very nice” and immediately has you thinking about buying a larger supply.  There are numerous oils, woods and spices at work here and somewhere within this rich, dense floral/wood/perfumed collage I have commented on a distinct musk note that absolutely evokes TMC’s Holy Land (does anyone else notice this?)

Jungle Prince – It’s hard to go wrong with anything from Shroff.  I’ve burned this one a few times lately – with the shadows getting longer and a coolness returning to the evening breeze, it’s only natural to reach for incense with a bit more weight and punch.  A nag champa wearing cologne…

Heian Koh – is one of a couple of green aloeswood offerings from Kunmeido.   It was one of my earliest purchases and has remained stocked ever since.  A Hall-Of-Famer and a must-have for green fanatics.  (BTW – Asuka, Kunmeido’s other green stick, is oh-so similar but packaged in larger lots so its entry fee is considerably more.  If you break them down to $/inch, Heian Koh and Asuka are actually both around $.20).

After a 2006 trip to Peru, I was briefly interested in all-things-Peruvian and discovered Palo Santo Wood Chips (see bottom of page).  These homogeneous, rice-sized chips may be burned on a makko trail or charcoal, but the electric burner is the tool of choice for eliminating smoke, eliminating any harshness from burning, and fully releasing their bouquet (I start at about 30 on my Supreme Incense burner).  Palo Santo is a truly unique scent that is both warm and energizing.  It has a wonderful and pervasive sweetness with the slightest hint of cedar in the top and an effervescent spearmint-like middle.  If you are looking for something new and different to try on your burner, Palo Santo is a refreshing change of pace.  It’s very inexpensive and a perfect companion for the arrival of autumn!

Top 10 August 2010

This is, more or less, my top picks for the month. This does not mean that they are really in any kind of order (well OK, the Kyara Kokoh really is the top dog). There are also a lot more then ten incenses that I burn but we try and hold the line for the write up’s. I did find that as it got hotter in the Bay Area  my use of the Electric Incense Heater went up, as did my own blending for things to put on it. Great fun by the way!  -Ross

Kyara Kokoh by Baieido: I burn, maybe,  one plus sticks of this a month, in small “installments”. It is somewhat of an almost religious experience. Baieido says that this one is hand made by the owners using green oil Kyara that had been specially selected and I can believe it. It is pretty much beyond words and just gets better with each “installment”. Not inexpensive, but quite wonderful. Note to Baieido, if any of that green oil kyara is laying around ’cause it did not make the cut, I could find a use for it 🙂

Ogurayama Aloeswood from Baieido: Baieido is all about the woods. This one is from Vietnam and is considered a “sweet” scented Aloeswood. I love to put a small amount on the electric heater and let it gently infuse the room with it’s beautiful and very smooth scent. Trying to describe this is not easy, but basically it is about as pure of an Aloeswoods experience as you can get. If you like Aloeswoods then this is a great way to really start to understand them. Baieido’s Hakusui is another to try, actually any of them would work! At some point (when we get really brave) I think we might be doing some full reviews on the Baieido woods and possibly the Rikkoku (Six Countries) Set.

Saimei Koh from Gyokushodo: This is a wonderful Aloeswood and Sandalwood mix with a nice helping of spices, resins , herbs and  camphor. I do wish it packed a bit more “punch” and often find myself burning two sticks at once. It has a very classic “Old Japan” type scent. There are some similarities to a number of other makers scents but(at the moment) I think this one stands out.

Ranjatai or Kyara Seikan from Shunkohdo: Rajantai is one of my favorite scents; it pretty much has it all. Really good Aloeswoods combined with musk and resins. It’s deep, dark and wonderful, plus you get enough in the bundle to go on a real incense burning binge! Kyara Seikan adds Kyara to the mix and is also much smoother, it also cost more and is worth it (but not so “bingeable”) I ended up using both of these a lot during the Mystery of Musk series just to get a straight up scent logon for musk.

Honey Amber by Fred Soll: This is one of the very few incenses in the world to actually use Ambergris(beach caste). It has a really deep, yet clean amber note to it that the honey aspect adds an even deeper sweet note to. It is pretty strong so one stick can go for quite a few burns and still do up a room quite nicely. I think that Soll’s incenses are one of the best deals in the world and this one is right up there for me.

Copal Negro by Fred Soll: I would have to term this one as “heavy hitter” copal. It is smooth with a touch of sweetness in the background that kind of tempers everything together, but all that is riding on lots of deep dark copal. Wonderful stuff, great for grounding the environment of a room(or a person).

Japanese Musk from Koh Shi (Daihatsu): I am pretty sure that this does not use real musk, that being said it does really convey the idea of musk. It is  strong and has a nice, not too sweet, quality to it. It produces a wonderful scent to a room that also feels quite clean.

Swallows in Flight by Les Encens du Monde(Kunjudo): I had not used this a while and then “rediscovered” it last month. It is very complex, uses very good quality woods, resins, spices and maybe oils. Sometimes it almost seems a bit over the top in how much is going on here (another long learning curve)but having never been adverse to excessive excess, I just light another stick and go with it.

Deep Earth Premium – 2010 from Mermade Magical: This is something for the heater, to be gently warmed over a period of time. It has many musk like elements to it as well as resins and spices, It is a very deep, complex and meditative scent that really shows off Katlyn’s skills as well as the use of very high quality materials. It also takes quite awhile to make with a lot of ageing involved, which is reflected in the complexity of the scent. Beautiful.

Healing  from Mermade Magical: One of Mermades incense triangles, which is along the lines of a cone. This has a very clean and clear scent to it, I find it refreshing and uplifting; it seems especially good during the summer months. There is a great play between the resins and woods Somewhat unique and very nice.

Top Ten Incenses for July 2010

I have the pleasure of writing up the Top Ten Incenses for the month. Below are my top ten for July 2010. In the review process, I’ve re-acquainted myself with forgotten favorites, and have had to revise an opinion of an incense which at first I didn’t particularly care for all that much. That’s one of the bonuses of writing top ten reviews – old favorites resurface and remind you why their favorites and other incenses get additional chances to impress.

Well, without further ado, here’s my July Top Ten for 2010:

Pure Incense Blue Lotus: Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and indeed, that’s what I’ve found with this incense. It’s been a while since I’ve burnt some Blue Lotus incense, and I only recently returned to it, but I’m glad that I did.  I’ve been critical in the past about Pure Incense, citing their base blend of charcoal, vanilla, and sandalwood creates a generic shared aroma to all their incenses.  I still think that is the case, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that they make very good incenses. This Blue Lotus is floral and perfumey, and sweet, and really all around lovely.

Shroff Patcholie (Patchouli): Earthy and perfumey, with just a touch of sweetness, this is a wonderful patchouli scent. It’s got a good scent throw, and one stick will scent a large room easily, leaving a lingering patchouli scent that is sure to please. One of the best patchouli incenses out there, with an authentic aroma, very affordable, and lasts a good long time. If you like patchouli, you owe it to yourself to try Shroff’s Patcholie.

Fred Soll’s Desert Patchouli: Different from Shroff’s patcholie in that there’s Soll’s signature blend of pinon resin present in this incense. This is a really nice patchouli pinon combination, with the pinon adding a nice resiny finish to the stick. Unlike Shroff’s version, the patchouli scent doesn’t have that sweet note in it, either.  This is a lighter and drier patchouli scent and worth trying as well.

Hougary Frankincense: This is the King, nay, the Emperor of all franks, and if you like frankincense, then you really must sample Hougary.  Resiny rich, with the balsamic base note and the wonderful citrusy lemon and/or orange top note, Hougary, which comes only from Oman, is in a class all by itself. Hougary is more expensive than other frankincenses, but you get what you pay for, and here you’ll get top notch quality. Even unlit, these resins perfume the air with their unique rich resin scent.

Al Haramain Bait Al Arab Cambodi Oudh Bakhoor: Baby, it’s bakhoor, and what a bakhoor! If you are unfamiliar with bakhoor, it is a type of incense from the Middle East.  Bakhoor can come in tablets, pellets, and/or chunks of woodchips. Bakhoors generally contain oudh (aloeswood) scent and are usually very aromatic and/or perfumey. Seriously, virtually every bakhoor that I’ve ever tried has packed a serious scent wallop. A little goes a very, very, very long way with these incenses. Al Haramain’s version of Bait Al Arab shouldn’t be confused with Swiss Arabian’s Bait al Arab (which was previously reviewed here on the ORS).  Firstly, Al Haramain’s Bait al Arab comes in perfume drenched wood chunks or chips, and not dry tablets like the Swiss Arabian version. Secondly, these woodchips are just permeated with one of the loveliest mélange of scents. A lot is going on here; the overall scent is a complex blend of oudh, amber, floral essences, and resins.  It’s very rich – and err, so is the price tag for this bakhoor.  Available at ParadisePerfumes.com, this retails for $39 CDN for 100 grams. However, since it is such a potent bakhoor, a little does go a long way and therefore this will last a long time. So in the end, you will get quality and your money’s worth. This is just my personal preference, but if I had to choose between Swiss Arabian’s version or Al Haramain’s version, I’d go with Al Haramain’s Bait Al Arab.  Incidentally, note that you will need charcoal tablets and/or an electric incense burner for this bakhoor. This type of incense cannot be burnt by itself, and needs a heating element like a hot coal or an electric incense burner.

Swiss Arabian’s Kashkha Oodh Muattar: Another bakhoor, this time from Swiss Arabian. This bakhoor smells like a sophisticated aloeswood floral perfume. I’m not kidding, if you like perfumey aloeswood, or just perfumes and colognes in general, you should consider trying this bakhoor.  Kashkha comes in small agarwood (aloeswood) pellets, and even unlit, smells of oudh, musk, and floral essences.  This is because the agarwood has been drenched in concentrated perfume, and thus emits its  oudhy floral goodness into the air. Though bakhoors aren’t generally aimed as for being for one particular gender, I would classify the Kashkha scent as being more feminine. It truly does remind me of a high end women’s perfume. This bakhoor also requires charcoal tablets and/or an electric incense burner to burn it. Note that this bakhoor is available for purchase at: http://www.mukhalat.com/Bakhoor_c2.htm.  I hasten to add that I did not purchase my Kashkha bakhoor from Mukhalat.com, so I have no idea what their customer service is like. However, note that Mukhalat offers free shipping on all products for delivery within the USA.

Gangchen Healing Buddha Incense:  Excellent and affordable incense from Gangchen. The box states that “These Aroma Therapeutic incense is made from very special thirty-one (agar 31) natural ingredients. This incense specially made for Lungny (wind diseases) which we got from nervous and fear, such as heart attack, insomnia, shivering, temporary loss of consciousness, back pain, dryness of the mouth.  This incense can help.  Also it’s very good for massage.”  This is gentle and soothing incense, with a soft woody aroma. The scent is comprised of aloeswood, juniper, and Himalayan herbs.  I personally find it very calming and relaxing, and one good for decompressing and unwinding.

Baieido’s Koh En:  A delicious spicy aloeswood treat that is to be whipped out for those special occasions, or when one is feeling particularly indulgent and/or flush. This is one of Baieido’s more upscale aloeswood incenses, and retails for $120 USD for sixty 6.5 inch sticks (though given how expensive some of the kyara incenses are, this is really more like the mid-tier or low end of the upscale level!).  My budget doesn’t allow for this to be an everyday treat. But when that aloeswood craving needs to be satisfied, this incense is one that will certainly fit the bill (alas, in more ways than one! 😮 ).

Minorien Fu-In Sandalwood: Classic sandalwood scent, using classic “old mountain” sandalwood from India.  If you’re looking for an authentic sandalwood scent that won’t break the bank, then try Minorien Fu. This is excellent sandalwood incense, and one that is not likely to disappoint.

Tibetan Medical College’s Holy Land Grade 2: This is a surprise entry even to me, given that when I first tried Holy Land Grade 2 a few months ago, I was underwhelmed. All the hype and praise heaped upon it had built it up to mythical levels, plus I was still in my perfumey incense phase, and was at the time, taken aback by this incense’s muscular rawness, its combination of musk and floral and spice and dark earthiness.  To give you a point of reference, if you’ve tried Dzogchen Monastery Lotus Incense, think of Holy Land Grade 2 as similar to that, but amplified and expanded upon.  Anyway, as time passed and I fell into a Tibetan incense phase, I started burning the HL Grade 2, and slowly, little by little, I went from being disinterested to liking it, and now to really loving it. In a previous email to an ORS reader, I had stated that once I had used up my HL Grade 2 that I wasn’t going to re-purchase it, opting instead to spend my money on other incenses. But now, as I look at the last few sticks of it in my collection, I’m forced to reconsider that notion…

Well there you have it, my top ten for the month – all incenses that I heartily recommend. What ten incenses are in your top ten for July? Chime in and let us know what you’ve been burning, and why. 🙂



June Top 10 (Mike)

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left down the page a bit. Please also check the Reviews Index for reviews of some of these incenses]

Yamadamatsu Kumoi Koh – There are still lots of fabulous Yamadamatsu incenses that are likely on their way over the Pacific at some point and I think we’re practically bursting to talk about some of these, but of the ones that have made it, Kumoi Koh is probably my favorite, in fact it would be in the running for the top spot of the year. While we’ve discussed some of the company’s incenses in the past, this is really one of the first that gives an idea of what these creators can accomplish. It’s really hard to explain because while this does have a wood presence, there’s a spicy/musky oil on this one that is addictive and stupendous, in fact the first time I had a box of this, I spent maybe a day or two just burning stick after stick of this. It has a deep redolence that partakes of a wide palette of incense materials. This company is truly a marvel.

Tibetan Medical College Holy Land – This one may take a back seat for a few weeks but as soon as I get back into the box I tend to burn several sticks. I still think this has a depth and complexity that few Tibetan incenses really exhibit and I constantly marvel at what I might call its salty qualities. I think perhaps I have some childhood memories that this scent triggers, because I just find it endlessly fascinating.

Myrrh – Thanks to my cohort Anne, I’m in possession of some really quality myrrh. This is a resin that can vary so wildly in quality that I’ve smelled some really nasty stuff in the past, but this gorgeous pinkish/orange premium stuff is so fantastic you can actually smell it off the resin. I think in one of the Baieido ingredient pages it mentions that the really good stuff breaks up really sticky rather than crystalline, and this is indeed really sticky. I spent a few days after getting it heating little pieces. Now I’ve got to grind some of this and Mermade’s hougary together and see how that works out.

Mother’s India Fragrances/Agni Nagchampa – I’m picking just one of the dozen or so newest Mothers that could easily make this list, because really in the end what makes them so good is their bases, the top fragrances really just end up reacting off these in many different ways. And I’ve gotten my notes written up for this one. Perhaps in the spirit of Ross’s recent posts, this is the musk version of the series and it’s got that sweet, rich and decadent French musk sitting right on top of the usual spicy base. Anyway I couldn’t be more glad Mother’s decided to expand their original five because essentially this is now by far the best champa line on the market.

Gyokushodo/Saishuko – Like many of the Gyokushodo scents that can blow you away just with a sniff of the fresh box, the most premium in the latest line is perhaps the only one of them that has much of a fresh smell, you get the distinct impression these are definitely more in the raw materials area. Still this does have a lot of similarity with Saimei Koh, with that sort of orange spicy mix, although it’s now at a level where it’s more of a hint and mixed in with a real fresh scented aloeswood goodness.

Gyokushodo/Shunsui is the next step down and could be the most fascinating of all of them as it mixes in whelk operculum with the wood base. Perhaps by association or perhaps not, I was definitely reminded of the seaside with this one, although it also seems to have some muskier hints as well. Overall while it’s still fairly new to me and I’ve had to pass up on it for a week or so due to reviews stuff, it hints at a really impressive complexity that I’m looking forward to getting back to.

Mentsi Khang/Mih Bhutanese – Superficially this incense seems to have a lot in common with most of the Bhutanese makers, but the creators have seemed to make this with a bit of fire in the mix and for some reason it always stands out when I reach for the box. Very woody and although I’m not sure I could really explain the constituents it stands out intuitively to me as if it has some sort of mild psychoactive element to it, or I guess that would be my way of saying that it’s quite evocative in its own way.

Baieido Hakusui (or Ogurayama) Aloeswood – Either of these could almost be considered a top 10 incense experience perenially. Not only are chips of this astounding on a heater, but there’s a definitely aesthetic pleasure in both the packaging and the slices of wood.

Highland Incense (Sticks) – The close number 2 to Holy Land, there’s just a really wild and feral musky scent to this Tibetan classic that’s hard not to love.

Pure Incense / Absolute Kevda – In working on the next batch of PI reviews, this one stuck out pretty strong. It’s sort of a mix of woodies qualities and patchouli greenness, all merging together with a touch of floral. In the end I was thinking I’d probably dig more than a sample of it.

As always, feel free to share your own favorites of the last month in the comments section…

May Top 10

May’s Top 10 includes 3 blends that work great on an electric burner.  If you don’t have one, this one works well and is popular with many of the folks on ORS.  It gets HOT, so start it low and slowly increase the temp over a period of time as needed.  The selections below do quite well at “10” on mine…

 Ocean of Night – if you didn’t already know, ORS’ own Ross is a gifted incense crafter and OoN is all the proof you’ll ever need.  It is an all natural blend of a dozen-plus elements including frankincense, sandalwood, oak moss and other secret woods, resins, herbs and spices, all pulverized together into a black sand consistency and aged for a minimum of two months.  No oils are added.  And as we would expect from Ross, he has obtained the finest source possible for each of his ingredients, regardless of cost!  The result is a deep, rich, velvety blend in both appearance and aroma.  I don’t have the “nose” or familiarity to dissect this complex concoction yet, though I do recognize the frankincense resin and a top note of what is likely the oak moss (thanks for that insight, Mike!)  I’ve found this luxurious black sand does best gently heated on my electric burner, letting the blend slowly warm to release its essence (hitting it too hard with the heat can induce the fine granules to scorch and turn harsh).  As further testament to the quality of ingredients (and Ross’ blend) OoN is also compelling just sitting unheated in its bottle – I could certainly see this as a unisex perfume.  If you appreciate fine hand-crafted blends like we have from Mermade Magickal, then OoN should be on your list.  Now Ross doesn’t have cases of OoN sitting about – I believe he thoughtfully prepares the occasional batch as he finds the time and ingredients – so it might not be an immediate acquisition for you.  But I bet if you ask him reeeeaaaaal nice… 😀

 It’s no secret here that I generally turn the ol’ evil eye to rose incense, but Bukhoor Marwah has changed that.  Anne, our resident rose incense and bukhoor master, sent me a sample of this unpromising-looking blend (think quarter-sized discs of black, tarry and tacky ground “coal”) and a moment of warming on the electric burner soon had my room filled with a lush, warm perfume of rose and other resins.  It’s a venerable and comforting scent, and while I don’t see it as a daily go-to incense, I can see having cravings for this – perhaps a good chilly day burn or summer-evening-screendoors-open kinda thing.

 Dream Snake is an energizing blend from Mermade Magickal that I’ve enjoyed for some time.  It has the unique property of not requiring a heater or charcoal – just light a mound of it and it will burn.  Now, I have tried this and frankly it just smelled like scorched ingredients to me, but, gently warmed on the electric burner, it reveals all of its wonderful aromas.  I see there may be a new formulation (my bottle is over a year old) so perhaps the new blend does better being “lit on fire” versus a gentle warming.  It hasn’t improved my trance dancing or oracle abilities as promised, though – perhaps you’ll have better luck!  😀

 In Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, the Wonka factory is a metaphor for Tennendo.  And the illusive Golden Ticket represents Kuukai.  Charlie spent his last dime to get it, and you should too!  It even made my Top 10 in January.

 My father was from Winston-Salem, NC, home of R.J. Reynolds (the cigarette manufacturer).  On childhood visits, I remember there was a sweetness in the air there from the tobacco leaves curing in the warehouses – a wonderful summertime aroma.  Snow Lion (bottom of page) conjures that memory with its mild, rich sweetness.  If you are unsure where to begin your Tibetan addiction, I recommend SL as a good beginner’s stick – no particular strong notes and nothing unfamiliar or off-putting to modern noses.  Light it in a forgotten corner and let the fragrance slowly drift to you.  And how cool is the wood box it comes in?!

♦ Baieido’s Kobunboku is a wonderful plum flower incense that has been a favorite here for a long time, appearing frequently in Top 10 lists and the Hall of Fame.  I, however, didn’t get to it until recently.  I’m already a big fan and have been burning a lot of it recently.  It’s inexpensive, too, so really hard to beat as a daily incense.

 Kunjudo’s Tokusen (Special) Karin was introduced only a few months ago and takes the “regular” Karin’s sandalwood, cinnamon and floral and further refines it.  If you liked the original, then the upgrade costs very little more and is a much smoother experience.  You may purchase it here.  We don’t have a formal review yet on ORS, though it did cause some buzz earlier this year in our Review Your Incenses area (scroll down to the comments from April 9-12, 2010 between Janet, Pinjie and myself.)  Warning:  it’s been known to cause random outbursts of dancing for joy 😀

Here you can read the review and my (and others’) comments on Minorien Aloeswood.  This recent addition to my collection has quickly risen to the upper ranks of personal favorites.  Perhaps more pricey than the typical daily incense, I seem to have to burn it constantly anyway.  And hey, it is cheaper than the Fuin Kyara Ryugen, so I tell myself I’m actually saving money 😀

I have been a long-time Tennendo Frankincense person, but recently decided to try Minorien Frankincense based on the many positive comments here. Its darker, pungent, resinous character is a great contrast to Tennendo’s light and melon-like one and I find that I enjoy it just as much as the latter. It’s nice to have options…

  Haru No Kaori from Shunkodo is the floral incense to try if you don’t typically like florals.  A fantastic blend of wood keeps the sweetness in check and is a regular recommendation by me for those new to Japanese incense.

– Steve

April Top Ten (Ross)

This is more or less what I have been using during April ( OK,thats a lie, there were a bunch more but I only get to talk about ten 🙂  The list is not really in any order ( except for the Kyara Kokoh! ) as I have found that it really does depend on the day and the mood. Enjoy  -Ross

Baieido Kyara Kokoh: OK, it’s not at all practical or even sensible, but damn, it’s good. The closest thing I can think of to compare it to is Baieido’s Koh Shi Boku but there are a whole lot more levels going on in the Kokoh.  You can read the review on it here. It would be really nice if Baieido came out with some kind of sampler, I am sure it would not be inexpensive, but it would put it into the realm of doable.

Baieido Byakudan Kobunboku: Easily one of the best deals in Sandalwood on the market. Nice spice and camphor top notes with a really high quality wood which holds down the finish. If you are looking for Sandalwood be sure to check this one out, it’s a big favorite around here. A slightly dryer alternative might be Shunkodo’s Sarasoju or for the wetter side the Fu-In Sandalwood.

Gyokushodo Saimei koh: I just wish this came in a long stick or coil, I find it to be a great backround scent that can be captivating, yet unobtrusive at the same time, not a bad trick. It also perfect for meditation. The spices and woods are somewhat subtle but very refined, not at all over powering. A very “classic” Japanese incense scent that I find myself using a lot.

Kunmeido Kyara Tenpyo: One of the very best of the “green” note incenses one can find. These guys know how to do it and the addition of Kyara is a beautiful thing. I tend to think of this one as the most refined and polished of the Kunmeido line up, at least that you can  get here. It also comes in a smaller size.

Fred Solls Magical Copal: This is Copal mixed with “additions” which make for a very deep, grounding and meditative scent. This a major dose of resins and is also about as far away from a floral as one could get. Not sweet, very heavy resins and quite wonderful, great stuff. There just happens to be a sale at EothA

Shunkodo Houshou: This is one of those somewhat “hidden” aloeswoods that is a really great deal. The woods play with a somewhat bitter sweet chocolate note that make for a superbly dry style. At around $20 it will not break the bank but does get you a great example of Aloeswood from one of the best incense makers in Japan. You might also consider the Tennendo Bronze.

Koh-shi Japanese Musk: This is actually made by Daihatsu. It has a very dense, deep musky scent overlaid on a wood base note. I find it to be very captivating and it would be pretty easy to go through a box in a hurry. There are also some great spice notes worked into the mix, overall it’s a big winner. Works really well to do up a room to set a mood.

Mermade Goddess Hymn: This is really made to be slowly heated and a electric heater works best. It is a truly beautiful mix of resins with a light rose note mixed in, all of which float over the woods base. This and Golden Bough are my two current favorites in this style. I find myself using them quite a lot and many people I know who can not deal with smoke are big fans of these two.

Seikado Solitude / Hitori-Shizuka: This is a (I am assuming)an  perfume/E.O. scent floated over a Sandalwood base that, to me, is just beautiful. There are no synthetic off notes as so often happens in this style. I use this a lot later in the evening or to go to sleep to. It reminds me of a really well made and elegant perfume, it is also not at all overpowering. Nice clean packaging to, makes for a great gift.

Shroff Channabasappa Amir: I find this incense and in fact the “Natural Incenses” from Shroff to be really unique among  Indian style  incenses. Given the price point of most of the incense from India it is pretty hard for me to believe that there is very much in the way of real Essential Oils in them, and to my nose they generally( not always) have a somewhat synthetic note mixed in. This is not the case here and the price most likely reflects this. It’s worth it. This is a really nice scent and opens this style up for many people. Stunning and gorgeous come to mind as descriptions. You might try the Shamana Gold in the same section also.

March 2010’s Top Ten

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