Gokula Incense / Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla

With the assistance of a reader, I made a 24-incense order of Gokula incense earlier in the year, basically all of the ones I was informed were not sourced by the Madhavadas family as these often overlap with other companies like Pure Incense. So these are divided into four reviews of six incenses each. My order arrived somewhere in the middle of several early orders to Vedic Vaani which largely eclipsed my entire incense year and while I went through all of the Gokulas, it felt like a good idea to sample and then let them rest a bit and come back to them with a fresh nose. With some exceptions in either direction, Gokula import a lot of decent scents and I might generally rate this half of the line as being on par with some of the Prabhuji’s Gifts incenses. All of these came in 20g packages although I do believe 250g bundles are also available. In my experience Gokula scents are either dusted charcoals almost entirely made from oil mixes or a step into masalas with occasional incenses being a bit softer to the touch.

So up front we’ll start with a trio of aloeswood/agarwood incenses. The Agar Sandal is definitely a masala and one way I can tell is that my package of it showed a number of places on sticks where parts of the masala had crumbled off (you can probably see in the photo) and even if the stick is relatively hard it definitely feels there is a noticeable amount of halmaddi in this. So in a way this is something like a cousin to Absolute Bliss’ King of Sandal in that it’s a bit of a “sandalwood champa” type. The agarwood doesn’t feel like it’s particularly woody or perhaps even the real thing, but whatever they are using does modify the aroma away from it just being sandalwood heavy on its own. I have noticed a lot of incenses like this in the Rare Essence or Prabhuji’s Gifts catalogs and this is basically on par with those, but perhaps not quite up to the resolution or balance of King of Sandal. There’s a feeling that at this level a lot of the aromatic functions of an incense tend to blur together to its detriment. But don’t get me wrong, this is still a pleasant burn, but unless you’re new to Indian incense it won’t be much of a surprise.

On the fresh Agarwood & Musk stick you really do get something of an idea of what the musk is supposed to be like here. And in the burn, it’s in there somewhere. But like the previous incense, there probably isn’t any actual agarwood in this, rather it feels like a mix of things meant to approximate it. So the overall aroma is almost like a collection of notes in between both of these things with the musk pulling the other elements over in its direction. It’s a reasonably pleasant scent overall but lacks a bit of distinctiveness, although I do like that this isn’t a sweet musk. For a charcoal it has some surprisingly masala-like characteristics and it reminds me a little of the Parrot Green Durbar that Shroff used to carry 10 or 15 years ago. The issue in the end is that the description isn’t quite what you get, but it for sure isn’t anything like what a Madhavadas incense would be with the same description. But it reminds me too much of what is missing from better incenses, which may not be an issue for everybody but it pushed it out from being a keeper.

I will admit that I am at a place in incense life where jasmine incenses are getting on my nerves, no matter how good they are, so I may not be the best judge of Aloeswood & Jasmine. Unlike the previous two incenses I don’t smell a lot of anything that might fall under the aloeswood category here but there does appear to be a reasonable jasmine perfume here in the sense that it’s that sort of weird mix of floral and peaches. This incense verges slightly in both bitter or astringent sort of areas which may be part and parcel of having jasmine in it because even some of the better Absolute Bliss, Temple of Incense or Vedic Vaani variations tend to still have these aspects (for example the deluxe “tube” Vedic Vaani Jasmine Sambac incense is one of the few premium tubes they do I don’t really like much). But it’s also possible some of this is where the “aloeswood” comes out. My opinion has often been that even in the best cases some of these florals either don’t work out or just as likely I’m not naturally fond of them. So definitely a YMMV sort of thing.

Amber & Frankincense is a recipe somewhat similar to Samadhi Sutra in the Happy Hari line. In Indian incenses, particularly those that are more akin to champas and have a little halmaddi, frankincense often sort of appears in a more peppery-spicy sort of form often with like a touch of licorice and these remind me a bit of frankincense champas and more of an old school recipe like Maharaj. It’s the green dipped tip that often identifies the formula as well. The amber, of course, gives it a bit of balsamic heft and an overall richness, so it’s a nice merging. This is really as good of a place to start with the formula as any, but if you’re familiar with a lot of Indian incense it’s likely you will know this one already.

With Celestial Fruits I’m largely out at the name. It’s the sort of incense that tends to inspire mini rants from me on why fruits are usually not a good idea in incense and this is even more so when it is a fruit salad sort of scent like this one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant but it’s definitely way too generic. The lightly dusted charcoal sticks gives it away and it’s essentially what I’d call a fruity floral in that I would guess the bouquet is probably a combination of elements all used to approximate fruitiness that is akin to something like one of those canned fruit cocktails by Dole or something. It’s soft, powdery, inoffensive and ultimately dull. And even though it’s supposedly in a sandalwood base I don’t sense much in the way of that.

Chocolate & Vanilla runs similar risks to the Celestial Fruits but incenses that cover coffee or chocolate are usually a bit more on point. However this is a bit softer of a masala which implies there’s a bit of halmaddi in the mix. I’ve tried a Vedic Vaani or two that had a similar profile to this and even though this doesn’t explicitly say so there’s a bit of coffee in this mix as well. The masala like elements of the stick do tend to help when it comes to moving this a bit farther away from a purely charcoal stick and for sure there are some elements of the burn that feel more traditional. But I would not go into this thinking you’re going to really get much in the way of an actual chocolate and/or vanilla scent. But it is kind of intriguing as a scent, there’s some level of woodiness (identified as sandalwood but more generic to my nose) along with something that roughly plays along the chocolate to vanillla to coconut axis. I actually enjoy a stick like this here and there but it’s the kind of scent I find fatiguing with overuse. It’s still quite a ways away from the kind of smell you get from baking or melting chocolate or so forth.

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Nippon Kodo / New Morningstar / Aqua (Discontinued), Bloom, Earth (Discontinued), Grass

Nippon Kodo’s New Morningstar line includes four different incenses, all of which roughly align to one of the four elements. Each box contains 40 sticks and will run you about $5 a box, although package deals can be found that reduce this a little, and there are gift sets with ceramic burners.

For my money, a line like this seems targeted more at the casual incense lover. While I have a fondness for one of the blends in this series, the others strike me as possibly synthetic or synthetic seeming, in a way that will remind you of perfumed soap. Fortunately it’s only a mild note in the line and probably won’t bother most, but it was enough to make it hard for me to get fully behind these.

Aqua is a jasmine, tangerine and cyclamen blend that was already familiar to me due to a smokeless version Nippon Kodo has in their Ka-Fuh line (also called Aqua). While both versions are very close, I thought the watery nature of this incense was a little more prominent with the New Morningstar version. This blend strikes me as wet, with citrus accents, and the jasmine seems mostly sublimated to the blend rather than being obvious. I know the local store really prizes the Ka-Fuh version of this incense (and it appears to be the best selling of that line for NK), but for me it just doesn’t have a real cutting power to it and there’s just a bit of a synthetic feel that doesn’t work for me. But it does have a uniqueness to it that might appeal to those who want something light and floral.

Bloom looks like the fire incense with the red stick and packaging. It’s also the most floral of the four incenses with its white plum, muguet (lily of the valley) and tulip blend. This is the incense of the four I liked the least, and without looking at the ingredients I wouldn’t have even considered it next to other white plum incenses (it also makes me wonder if this corresponds to the Ka Fuh White Plum as well). It has a burn that reminds me more of a scented candle than an incense and is perhaps a tad on the sweet side for my tastes.

In comparison to the rest of the line, the Earth blend stands out like a sore thumb. Where the rest of the line usually has a strong floral note on top, this blend of black currant, cinnamon and chocolate features the cinnamon element as the oil note. I really liked this incense when I first bought it, it struck me as being the best of the chocolate-themed incenses I’d tried from Nippon Kodo (the other two would be the Café Time Mocha cones and the Fragrance Memories Paris Cafe blend) with all three elements playing off each other so that at times each of the three notes is dominant. While over time, it has struck me (and mostly in comparison to other incenses) as a slight touch soapy, it’s still quite enjoyable.

The last of the four has a strong air element to it with the lavender note blending with bergamot and artemesia. It’s less Grass than a wind blowing through a field and it has a rather dominant citrus/lavender oil to it as well as a slight floral touch. I can imagine lavender lovers might take to this one as it’s a pretty crisp blend, but like the whole line it’s difficult to see the blend as particularly distinctive.

In summary, I’m probably not the target audience for this line so much, particularly considering it’s more a floral line than a wood or resin one, but like a lot of Nippon Kodo incense, you have to admire the ambition at work. If your tastes are similar to mine, you might want to give the Earth a try, but if they’re more to the floral than these are inexpensive enough to be worth a try.