The Mother’s India Fragrances / Frankincense (Sweet), Guna Nagchampa, Meera Nagchampa, Neem Nagchampa (Part 1 of 2)

[Please note that in the writing of this it got really long, so I decided to split up the review into two segments and will be using the same top picture for both.]

I got wind of the first five Nag Champa incenses from Mother’s Fragrances probably late 2008 or early 2009. For my nose these were easily some of the best Indian sticks on the market and all five scents were amazing, particularly Ganesh Nagchampa which was something of a revelation. It wasn’t actually until a bit later that I was told they were using halmaddi in their incenses, but I felt Mother’s had really devised an incense recipe of their own with these five that set them apart from everything else in the market at the time. So I wouldn’t have called any one of them a traditional Nag Champa, but they were great nonetheless. Soon after I posted this original review, Mother’s in India got in touch with me when they released their expansion of 14 new Nag Champas, which I review in two parts. They were exceedingly generous, well beyond the usual samples I receive for review, and sent me something like 5 20 stick packages of not only the new 14 aromas but the original five as well. I was just blown away, but after this they also sent a package of aromatics, including a jar of halmaddi to show what they used in their incenses. I was just amazed at the transparency and kindness of the company, moved even. And while not all 14 incenses hit me in the same way as the original five, I still found much to like including my second favorite in the whole series, Om Nagchampa. But overall all 14 seemed well in line with the original 5 and my enthusiasm for this line was at a huge high.

Not very long after this, Essence of the Ages did a restock on their incenses including smaller packages of 12 sticks each. I didn’t buy many but I had mowed through at least my Ganesh and Om stock (I probably gave packages away too) so I restocked a few of each of these in the 12 stick packages. I remember when I first opened them, I thought something had changed. I wasn’t quite sure because the general aroma was still the same but everything felt a bit thinner, like there was less halmaddi or the perfumes were not as complex anymore. Soon after this I was contacted by someone different at Mother’s who wanted to send me the first half of their second expansion. Still very generous, multiple packs, a second mailing of aromatics. I review this group here. My enthusiasm of these was more tempered and I was starting to notice that not all of the oil mixes were working out really well. But, perhaps as a result of the less enthusiastic reviews, I was never sent the second half, nor really motivated to ask if they were coming.

Mere Cie was the US importer on these incenses (although all my contacts up to this point were directly in India) and I believe the owner of the company changed hands somewhere here (indicated by the slight change in name to Mere Cie Deux). But I was always left a bit puzzled by the remaining stock of Ganesh and Om I had left, every time I’d return to them the difference between them and the original stock became more and more obvious. Not only that but over time they both developed mold in a way that the original incenses haven’t. This isn’t an unheard of thing mind you, but I live in Sacramento where its is extremely dry and mold is very unlikely to occur, in fact other than this one and probably the Om, I’ve only seen it happen in uncured resin mixes where it’s a foregone conclusion.

This isn’t a huge deal mind you, the packages must have been something like 10 years old and anyone is likely to use them a lot quicker than I did, so I would not take this as an indication of anything but this curiosity I had over this stock and what I had previously received via samples, because none of the even older sticks have developed the same issues. Once ORS reopened I felt like I needed to add caveats to the first three series of reviews, to warn people that these reviews may no longer apply anymore. I take absolutely no pleasure in doing so, but one of the largest difficulties of reopening ORS (in fact it had a lot to do with closing it in 2016) is dealing with these recipe changes, particularly when it comes to incenses we were in support of. This is a huge thing when the lion’s share of a site’s reviews are at least five or six years old and as many as 14. But to me the changes are also unconfirmed yet, because there are other reasons that might be in play like just a batch that didn’t come out right and so forth. The aim is to be objective and not punitive.

I know Tara, Mere Cie Deux’s new owner, had asked to send samples my way and finally I have received a new set of packages from her of seven new-to-me incenses and a small sampler package of three herbal incenses. I want to first thank her for sending them. Again, please understand that I try my best to objectively review the incenses as much as I can, even if I might not like a particular scent I know other people have different tastes and I want to write in a way that people can identify if they might like something that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. The issue over whether something is bad incense is something I mitigate by not reviewing samples of particular styles like most dipped incenses and so forth. I don’t regularly do things like Gonesh or Hem or oil-based hexagonal boxes of Indian incense or WildBerry or stuff like that. There are other forums out there including the Incense group on Facebook that have large groups of fans who like certain dipped styles and so forth and I just make it a habit to stay away and let them be. In fact even Mother’s has lines of charcoal and oil incenses that I think are outside the framework of ORS. However if they are masalas or Nag Champas then they are entirely within our framework.

So I wanted to set this context for when I opened the new sample box. Immediately what I noticed was a very strong and unusual wood or herbal note that permeated absolutely every single incense in the box. I literally began to go through most or all of the incenses to hunt down what it was because it seemed to me to potentially pose an aromatic conflict with some of the incenses. I didn’t know if maybe the herbal samples had contaminated the champas or if the note was part of the new base of incenses or if it was just one of the nag champas. As I initially went through them I found that this note seems to be part of the base of these new incenses. I don’t know if any of the line’s earlier incenses have switched to this new base or of it’s specifically formulated for these incenses, but I also noticed that this note is largely part of the unburned stick and not really part of the actual burn. I’m still not sure what to make of it. Mind you it is not an artificial or unnatural scent, it’s just strangely different and not a note you would imagine would compliment halmaddi.

But it’s important to bring up I think because this batch of incenses is actually very interesting, maybe even experimental in some ways. It’s one reason I wanted to sort of give a precis of my Mother’s journey to date because these are quite a bit different. If you look at pictures at Mere Cie, you can still see the lighter champa base on the older incenses and while I’d still love to rest my thoughts on whether the early lines have changed or not, the seven under review here appear to (mostly) be completely different incenses with a very new and unusual halmaddi-masala mix. There’s the unusual wood or herbal note I mentioned above but the base also can be something more like sweet chocolate, almost confectionary in a way. As you can see from the names of the incenses, we’re covering a lot of ground here that’s very unusual in the world of nag champas, in fact we’re stretching the definition of this way past where Mothers originally took it and into new territory. Don’t get me wrong, as I sort of adjusted to what I was smelling. I found these all to be intriguing incenses and increasingly fascinating as I went forward. You can find these for sale at the Mere Cie Deux website on the champa page.

So first of all there’s the Frankincense (Sweet). While this isn’t labeled as a Nagchampa on the package like the rest of these are, it still roughly fits into the same format and that addition is actually listed in the insert in the package. It’s a bit more akin to the sorts of masalas I used to see in the Triloka, Incense from India and other lines, where it would be brown colored and very sweet. Different from say the Happy Hari/Temple of Incense formula. But the same masala/halmaddi base used in all the rest of these incenses is here as well, and this sets it apart from the usual sweet frankincense masalas. There is some actual level of the resin, like it’s crushed up in the mix some, but it’s not a level of top flavor that really strongly outweighs the base. And this sort of sugary, confectionary, chocolate feel to it is really dominant here in a way some of the other champas in this batch don’t have because of the more divergent top notes. The other ingredients listed for this incense are Indian benzoin (where it supposedly gets its more balsamic tones from), gugal resin, cedar wood oil and a trace of Assamese oudh. In my hunt for that earthy note I mentioned above, I did guess it might be the gugal as its in the same family of myrrh and I’ve noticed this sort of wood-like quality that comes from the actual plant wood itself rather than the resin alone. Anyway overall this is a pretty intriguing incense for sure. It’s unlike most other Indian frankincense sticks, champas or otherwise, and the cedar oil also works nicely with the balsamic and resinous qualities. It’s a very friendly incense that I think most will like.

Guna Nagchampa is simply Coffee Nagchampa (or maybe more accurately Mocha Nagchampa), which is something I thought I’d never see myself write. This is a stick that reminds me a lot of Nippon Kodo’s Paris Café Fragrance Memories stick. Now one of my favorite smells in the world is a high quality brewed up coffee, but I tend to think of that aroma without the cream and sugar. When you have this sort of sweet halmaddi base you’re really going for something more like a mocha or latte sort of aroma. And to my nose this is a bit more superior to the NK stick simply because the halmaddi base seems more natural as a sweetener than extra perfumes. Because there are so many Japanese sticks that really only reach an approximation of coffee, I think this one might move into the lead as one of the most attractive coffee aromas outside of coffee itself. It’s a modern for sure and there’s nothing like premium bean about it, but Mother’s often tend so close to traditional ingredients this actually feels pretty authentic. But once again, you’ll be a struck by the interesting chocolate-y base as any of the coffee top notes. It’s funny but I always remember liking Nestle’s Quik for chocolate milk as a kid, but there was always some secondary powder I remember liking a little less that smelled a lot like this incense, but for the life of me I couldn’t dig anything up (maybe Ovaltine?). Anyway yeah this one’s a very interesting take on it, although you really have to think halmaddi rather than champa with this kind of thing as this doesn’t smell anything like a mainline floral Nag Champa. And that’s OK.

After really starting to love the Absolute Bliss Natural Beauty Masala, Meera Nagchampa with its mix of sandalwood and cedar wood top oils is really a pocket sort of aroma for me and maybe my overall favorite in this grouping. This is a champa a bit more akin to the early incenses I reviewed (links above) but for me this is something of a perfect top note with a really great mix of the two wood oils. It’s not a complex incense, it doesn’t get too sweet in the mix which really allows the natural fragrance of these two great incenses to mesh and meld. If you like cedar this is a no brainer for sure. Very nicely done and proof simplicity is often a net positive.

Neem Nagchampa is a very unique mix, with neem leaves from the azadirachta indica tree. Neem leaves are an herbal aromatic that repel insects, and seem to be used for other unconfirmed medicinal reasons as well, but it’s the first time I can remember it being used in an incense. Now I have never smelled these leaves, but they appear to be part of the Indian lilac tree, but if I am getting the note right the leaves are a somewhat pungent, green scent and certainly herbaceous in the way we normally think of it. So in a lot of ways this is the first top note in this series that I think is quite unusual and experimental as a mix for a “nag champa.” But I’ve said it before, exploration and new scents are exactly what you look for in new incenses, so I definitely laud the company for trying some new things out. Overall this isn’t a sweet nag champa like many of the others in the series, the base seems a bit modified to sort of pull the Neem note out on it, and I’d dare say it seems to be successful in presenting this almost as an alternative to a lemograss or citronella sort of scent.

As mentioned above, my writing over the ORS Mother’s journey went on longer than I expected, so I moved the remaining three nagchampas and the Herbal Ambience samplers to a second installment that should be live in a few days.

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Awaji Koh-shi / Seasonal Yuzu, Water Lily, India Ink, Japanese Musk, Coffee, Green Tea

Scents of Japan has some pretty deep ties to the Awaji Island incense makers and has had these scents custom made for them for their Awaji Koh-shi line. There was a lot of R&D involved as they wanted incense’s that could hold their own in the market as well as be unique. This is Part 1 with Part 2 to follow shortly.

Seasonal Yuzu (Awaji Baikundo): This particular incense is not like anything else I have sampled. There is a great citrus note combined with an almost pink pepper top note and way under it all a slight wood scent. This is really surprising and delightful in its delivery, excellent for an overall refreshing room scent. Very uplifting, light, and the pink pepper  really brings it up into another level.

Water Lily (Less Smoke) (Keigado): This is a very subtle and almost etheric scent. I think the name aims more at a concept rather then a true scent as I am not too sure that water lilies have a scent( well maybe blue lotus). All that being said this is a very pleasant light floral note that is very much a back round rather then in your face incense. Not particularly sweet, and it does invoke the feel of the name. A lot of people who would like to try incense but do not want something too strong will find this just right.

India Ink (Less Smoke) (Seikado): India Ink is famous for( well one of the things) its scent, which is a mix of many materials as well as Patchouli oil and camphor. This incense is a wonderful combination of materials that has a very soothing and grounding quality to it, much more going on here the just the Patchouli oil and camphor. A great back round scent that to me invokes far away places and times. Somewhat stronger then many less smoke type sticks. It is defiantly a distinctive scent and something that could fit in many different enviroments.

Japanese Musk (Daihatsu): Whoever figured this scent out is really good. The musk is right up front with a light floral/spice and cream back round. Its surprisingly strong but not over powering and every time I burn some I think of the colors magenta and violet, which sort of describe the scent characteristics to me. Very elegant and almost hypnotic at the same time, a solid winner. I think it will appeal to a wide variety of people.

Coffee (Less Smoke) (Kunjudo): This smells like a very good cup of French Roast with a bit of heavy cream, no sugar, to round it out. An very pleasant and friendly sort of aroma that is actually stronger burning then unlit. It is supposed to act as an air purifier and freshener. I was not at all sure what a coffee scented incense was going to do for me but ended up being quite pleased. I can see this could be very useful in commercial areas or at home as a back round scent.

Green Tea (Less Smoke) (Kikujudo): A nice medium tea scent. Not really sweet and with that subtle bitter edge that tea can have that, to me, gives it character. There is a green note that flows through the whole mix and kind of holds it all together. There are no forceful notes in this stick, rather it is a grouping of three or four delicate scents that work very well together to add a distinctive “Japanese Tea” scent to a room, in other words, it smells like its name.

Nippon Kodo / Café Time / Cassia, Mocha; Sakura (Cherry), Green Tea; Lime, Mint Tea; Lotus, Wine

As a creator of a number of different modern lines, it could be said that Nippon Kodo, at least in its American front, leads the market when it comes to user friendly, accessible and modern scents, and as such it’s a company that doesn’t really make a lot of incense that appeals to my personal taste. But even beyond this disclaimer, a lot of modern incenses I have tried in the Nippon Kodo stable have gone beyond just having a different aesthetic into what I find to be unpleasantly perfumed incenses. That is, there’s a difference between not being a big fan of fruity or floral incenses while recognizing that there are times when they are well done and just dismissing anything of the sort. Having reviewed (and not altogether positively) incenses in lines like Free Pure Spirit, East Meets West, Elemense and New Morning Star, it’s time to turn to some incenses that, while not being my thing, are sometimes well done for what they do.

Café Time is a series of cone incenses that come in pairs in cylindrical cardboard containers with five cones for each of two flavors per container, with a theme to tie them together. Café Times are rather small cones and even if they’re quite affordable between $5 and $6 a container, you’re still paying at least 50 cents a cone. Given these cones are done in 15 to 20 minutes, you’re not getting a lot of value for the money, but at least in most of these incenses you’re getting a decent scent, with very few of them showing the off notes and cheap perfume aromatics of some of other NK’s lines. Read the rest of this entry »

Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Agarwood, Forest, Peppermint, Frankincense, Sandalwood, (Fresh) Green Tea (Sencha), Tea, Coffee

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

The eight incenses in question here are part of Shoyeido’s pressed Xiang-Do line, a series of short incenses using a patented technology to create aromas that are much more intensified than one finds in traditional and even most modern or perfumed lines. In this group are what I consider perhaps the best of the line, 16 incenses of which are currently exported to the United States. More details on the line can be found in the first Xiang-Do article which can be accessed by clicking on the above link.

For a company well-known for deep and deluxe aloeswood incenses, the Agarwood version of Xiang-Do actually evinces as much the woody scents of aloeswood as the resin scents and as such this incense reminds me of more inexpensive aloeswood sticks, where the actual bitterness of the wood peaks through. Xiang-Do does manage to balance these aspects of the scent so they’re not as harsh as they would be in a traditional incense, the results of which give this incense a very unusual scent. It’s the least sweetest incense in the line and as such may be slightly unfriendly to the casual user, but appreciators of aloeswood may end up liking this one the most.

I have an extreme fondness for Xiang-Do Forest, possibly due to the way it hits some notes of a pine incense I used to like as a teenager, in fact that might have been one of the first incenses to really grab my attention. Almost every time I burn this it’s somewhat evocative of these years, with an extremely fresh, concentrated, multi-evergreen blend that smells of pine, fir and other conifers. It’s perfectly made for the style, with all these fresh evergreen-like resins working well under such concentrations. I’m on my second if not third box of this aroma and really wish this was one they brough 60/80 stick packages over for. It may be one of my favorite incenses for breaking up a string of traditionals.

I warmed up to Peppermint immediately. It probably should be said that Xiang-Do incenses that are very close to one another in the rainbow of colors are quite close in scent at times, and this subrange of greener Xiang-Dos tends to appeal to me a little more than the others. In fact that the Peppermint is colored greenish gives way to the idea that it’s actually more of a peppermint/spearmint sort of combination, the latter quality being part of its richness with the peppermint notes on top. It’s as cooling as you’d want, with a bit of that green freshness that Forest also has.

Frankincense I like in most incenses, but I found this version to be slightly disappointing, perhaps because sticks from Tennendo, Minorien et al tend to capture some of the high quality resin’s more profound notes. The Xiang-Do version is somewhat muted, icy white and overall a bit on the standard side. I’ve used the white coil in the Sakaki set as a comparison ever since a reader pointed it out, they both have a sweet and candy-like nature to them that capture the center of the resin pretty well. But for such a concentrated series, I actually expected this to be closer to the resin than it was.

Like the Agarwood, the Sandalwood seems a bit closer to standard or lower quality wood without a lot of quality resin notes. It does manage to come off rather woody for the style, without the sort of spicy breadth to it you tend to expect in pressed incenses. Overall it’s a bit airy and powdery, surprisingly light for the style and scent. I’m always amazed at the restraint of these incenses, when stylistically they could be a lot more off. That it actually seems woody still in this sort of base is rather clever.

The last three Xiang-Do incenses here have been marketed in a sampler subtitled “Fresh,” but I believe this may be just a way to promote them in the United States, as like the others in the line all have a number, implying a much larger range to be found in Japan. All three of these follow the wave of popularity of tea and coffee incenses, a passion I only partially share.

The Green Tea (or Sencha) incense is roughly in the Forest and Peppermint vein, and like many Green Teas I’m always struck by their sweet patchouli-sort of aromas. Fortunately the central green tea oil does bring out the leaf quite a bit, I’m always reminded of sage family plants when I smell this, almost as if there’s a slightly psychoactive side to it. It does have the range’s rich base to it and I was actually a little surprised this one didn’t grab me as much as I’d expected, although I’m definitely warming to it with every stick.

It was actually the Tea incense itself that really impressed, a reddish, pungent blend that combined tea with spices in a way that reminds me of Chai without the milk. There’s both jasmine and cinnamon/clove hints that really give this a richness beyond just the leaf itself and I fell for this in a way that puts this on my next Shoyeido shopping trip. Tea, spice and floral all at once, there’s a definitely exotic bent to this that’s as far away from Earl Grey or Darjeeling as you can get.

Readers will know I don’t go for Coffee incenses in general (and I should mention that I do love coffee itself) and while this Xiang-Do moved a little closer to the bullseye for me, due to the way the overall aroma smells more like vats of crushed beans than a café after a long day, it still doesn’t strike me as something I’d particularly want to fragrance a room with. But overall if you are a fan I think this is one you might prefer as it has an intensity that helps to mitigate the funkier aspects found with charcoal coffees.

I noticed by looking at the numbers on the Xiang-Do boxes that there has to be a good four or five dozen more aromas we don’t even see in the United States, similar to the LISN lines. It’s hard to imagine how successful more aromas would be given the short stick and expensive (16.50 for 20 sticks) price. When I think of these incenses, I think of them as game changers, that is a pleasant way to mix up my traditional incenses without the funkier perfumes. One can find samplers of the line in order to check these out on your own, as the style is similar enough in most cases that everyone’s going to find their favorites. For me, the Forest is the huge favorite, although I’m finding Peppermint and Tea to be both on the ascendance in terms of use. And as a great example of a modern style, these are incenses likely to be friendly to the visitor who is casual about these things.

Baieido / Black Coffee (Discontinued), Coffee, Green Tea, Honey, Hinoki, Izumi

Baieido are well known and highly praised for their traditional Japanese incense blends; however, they also have a number of incenses that aim at the modern end of the market. In most, if not all of these cases, Baieido use a special charcoal for the stick and oils for the scents, the type of incenses that are more likely to appeal to the casual user or those not interested in the traditionals. In this group are a number of scents growing in popularity, such as Coffee, Green Tea, and a fresh cleansing floral called Izumi. All of these scents, except the Izumi, are smokeless.

Even though Baieido appear to use a very user friendly charcoal base for these incenses, it’s a delivery method I’ll never be fond of because even in the best cases charcoal imparts certain qualities to the incense that detract from the actual scent. This is true for most of the incenses in this article as well, although I find in both the Hinoki and Izumi cases that it gets in the way the least. All of these are quite affordable incenses and now that Baieido are starting to break down some of the larger $20 packages (Honey, Green Tea and Coffee) into smaller 40 stick packages they should be even more accessible.

Both Black Coffee and Coffee are very similar yet slightly different incenses. I read something to the effect that the former’s more about the bean where the latter’s more like coffee with creamer. Perhaps due to the charcoal presence I only noticed a slight difference between them. The Black Coffee is very earthy with hints of clay, wet slate and soil among the coffee bean. At first this seems to be offputting but the smell does grow on you a little bit. The Coffee is still almost as penetrating and earthy, but reminds me more of a cup of coffee than the bean. Unfortunately I’ve never tried a coffee type incense that doesn’t remind me of the smell of a cafe rather than a fresh cup, so I’ve never found one that I find successful, but to my nose there’s lots of subtle differences between different kinds of gourmet coffee, while both of these seem to be going more for something like Folger’s. But it should be said that both of these seem to be fairly popular incenses and my reaction is definitely from a traditionally minded perspective.

The Green Tea I found to be a bit less sweet than those by other companies, almost as if it accentuates the slight floral nature of the aroma rather than the tea leaf aspects. Like most Green Teas this is an aroma that actually reduces or absorbs off odors, leaving a lingering freshness. My short experience with this actually seemed like it reduced the aroma of whatever traditional incense I was burning before it. You could compare this to the Shorindo Chabana I wrote about a few weeks ago, except this is a bit warmer and even has a summery vibe to it.

Baieido’s Honey appears to be kind of unusual for this style, or at least I can’t think of a comparable incense in another company off the top of my head. Those familiar with the durbar/champa blends Satya Natural or Honey Dust will have a rough idea of the type of scent here, except in this case the pesky charcoal base interferes with the aroma more than most in this line. The oil/aroma itself is quite pleasant and mildly sweet and it sort of split my experience, when I got more oil and less charcoal in the scent, I enjoyed it, when the charcoal was dominant I didn’t.

Baieido’s Hinoki isn’t a traditional stick, even if it’s definitely a traditional scent. I’ve tried woodier cypress incenses and have not really been fond of any, but this incense has a real clarity to the essential oil one that comes very close to the natural scent of Japanese cypress. At times this is quite sublime, very delicate and is quite reminiscent of higher end oils with a very distinct definition. Perhaps the charcoal works better with this oil as it didn’t interfere with my experience so much, in fact I found this to be one of the best smokeless incenses I’ve tried. Even traditional-minded users should give this one a sample.

However, I think my favorite in this group is the Izumi. While I believe I got the essentials of the previous five with just samples, I’ve had a little more experience with the Izumi. Like the Green Tea it seems to have freshening and perhaps odor reducing qualities. The aroma is described as “the essence of many flowers, mixing in the spring winds” and it has a fresh, cleansing and uplifting vibe about it. Like many multiflorals, this will be reminiscent of home fresheners or even suntan lotion and some perfumes, but there’s never a moment I think of Izumi as synthetic or offputting. It almost has a meadow-like aroma, and works nicely as a contrast to traditionals. [NOTE: 7/2/21: Izumi appears to be discontinued, at least in the US.]

Overall this is a group of incenses that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of potential appreciators as it covers a wide spectrum of scents. I can imagine with many of these that leaving a stick burning in a corner somewhere will mitigate the effects of the otherwise decent quality charcoal format and a couple of them will help freshen up the home too. Indeed, both Hinoki and Izumi I’d have no problems recommending.