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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dimension 5 / Urrere Unlimited

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

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

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

Kousaido / Sanshi-Suimei / Gion Koh; Waboku Set (3 scents); Koto koh, Take koh, Sumi-koh, and Ume koh

Kousaido is a Japanese company of a very modern bent, carrying many of the same sorts of lines you see with Nippon Kodo. So I’ll be straight up when I say that these styles aren’t usually to my taste and this review is of a few places I cast my net looking for some things I thought I might go for or to at least get some general overview of the company. Like in Nippon Kodo and even some of Shoyeido’s lines, some of these incenses are the sort of short 2 1/2 to 3/4 inch, slightly thicker sticks that tend to be machine produced and laden with perfumed aromas. They are perhaps not targeted at traditional incense fans, although one of the boxes here perhaps presents a slightly closer pitch to wood-based scents.

You usually don’t see moderns in pawlonia boxes, but Gion Koh is part of a series of five moderns in small little ones called Sanshi Suimei. Japan Incense sells a nice little sampler of 3 sticks each which you can find here. I received these close to the beginning of reopening ORS, so not only did I really not think to make notes of the other four, but none of them were really to my tastes. That’s not to say I disliked them all, but it was only Gion Koh that really stood out in a way that made me order a separate box. As I’ve probably gone on record elsewhere, I do tend to like amber themed incenses and a mix of that with sandalwood and ylang ylang ended up being quite a pleasant affair. Don’t mistake what this is, a perfumed modern, but it reminds me of the better aspects of some of the deluxe and discontinued Shoyeido Floral World sticks. The sandalwood is still pretty strong in the midst and while this doesn’t really smell much like the ylang ylang I remember from essential oils, as that’s a fairly gentle scent compared to the somewhat hair product level strength of this, the note doesn’t really overwhelm the wood or the base amber scent. And for me it’s that last piece that makes this something of a pleasant diversion for me. Other scents in the series just hit different areas within the same format, so if you think you might like the style I’d probably recommend the sampler first to see what you gravitate towards.

These next two boxes are actually made up of multiple scents and are sampler boxes whose contents don’t appear to be imported separately. So before we go back to the short stick format, we’re going to discuss the Kousaido Waboku set, which includes Kusunoki (Camphor), Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) and Keiyaki (Zelkova) at 25 sticks each. This set seems far and away the most traditionally minded series Kousaido exports to the US through Japan Incense. I was curious, not at all for the Cypress which tends not to deviate from either Baieido or Nippon Kodo versions, but for the other two incenses which actually seem to be fairly rare aromas on their own. And I do love me some camphor. First of all, I should say that the inserts each of the three series of incenses come in are less boxes than cardboard wrap arounds. As such it felt like a bit too much trouble to unwind and take separate pictures of the incenses as it feels like these wraparounds are likely to degrade with too much use. Besides the incenses themselves look almost exactly what you might expect from something in an inexpensive Nippon Kodo line.

And unfortunately the Kusnoki seems strangely contrived. It’s not difficult to tell what Kousaido was going for, just that it’s somewhat puzzling it doesn’t really hit the camphor sweet spot when expenses shouldn’t need to get in the way. It’s as if they dialed it back a bit on purpose which really kind of sets it a bit too close to what is a fairly, obviously, inexpensive wood base. Even that’s fairly mellow but matching this kind of light base with a dull note really doesn’t work all that well. But it’s a modern right? When you pitch woods as moderns this is often the sort of effect you get. The Hinoki is really little different, although inexpensive Japanese hinoki incenses tend to work out OK, even the smokeless Hinoki in the NK line isn’t a bad incense. But when I think of something like the Bosen Pythoncidere and that super green cypress scent in comparison, this just feels a bit lukewarm. It’s closer to the NK but even closer to the Camphor in that it’s got that thin wooden base with just a bit of the main scent sort of submerged in the middle. As such I think most will probably find this a bit more pleasant than the Camphor, but I’d still advise sticking to the Hinokis you already have as this one doesn’t have much to offer. And strangely the Zelkova tree, based on rummaging the internet a bit, seems like a shade tree and not something usually considered an aromatic source. But Keiyaki might be the most fascinating blend of the three here in that this incense has an aroma that’s fairly unique. And it’s not only that, but where the previous two incenses felt like mild aromas in lighter wood, this seems a bit stronger and more in your face, which might imply a greater level of perfume here. So even though I’ve never smelled a zelkova, nor could make any fair comparisons, it’s still the incense of the three I enjoy the most. Make no mistake, this one is still obviously perfumed, but at least its distinct.

The next Kousaido grouping falls under the name “Set of 4 Scents.” This artistically designed box set, where the four different boxes provide a nice little mosaic of tree branches, hides four different modern aromas with 2 and 3/4 inch sticks (I would guess this is a typo at the Japan Incense site as nearly all modern mini sticks are in this range). Koto Koh is described as including sandalwood, amber, ambergris, and oak moss and could almost be a cousin of Gion Koh because of the red-colored base and the amber. The oak moss element is surprisingly noticeable in the mix, although it blends into what is perhaps too much of a generic perfume. On the outside of the individual box, Sumi Koh also says “(Ink).” Along with borneol you essentially get a decent description of the purple stick’s bouquet. The borneol gives the aroma its piquant top end while the ink scent makes up the rest of it. I find ink scented incenses to perhaps not be the kind of aromas I’d burn all the time, but I do appreciate their originality and difference. And at least here the muskiness of it outweighs any sort of heavy floral note. I’m pretty sure Nippon Kodo has one or more bamboo themed incenses but from those or the Kousaido Take Koh, it’s difficult to tell what this is going for as the lily of the valley, cyclamen and bergamot notes sort of mix aqua like and citrus qualities up into one very muddy green floral. It’s honestly a bit of a mess and not a bad example of a modern that really doesn’t work. Finally there’s Ume Koh which intends to be a baika or plum blossom incense, but is so full of off and synthetic lilac notes that any hope of the plum and clove saving it is completely lost. It’s virtually impossible to find a sunny side up on this one as it has more in common with insect sprays than anything pleasant.

Overall, Kousaido moderns may not really be at all to the taste of most of the ORS readership. They are perhaps more tailor made for the causal browser who might stumble across the Koh Shi brick and mortar on a visit to the bay area and want something more in line with the types of modern air fresheners, perfumes and candles that tend to proliferate in modern stores.

Temple of Incense / Himalayan Spikenard, Wood Spice, Bengal Beauty, Ganesha

Temple of Incense Part 1
Temple of Incense Part 3
The entire Temple of Incense review series can be found at the Incense Reviews Index

So here’s the other half of my initial order, minus the samples, from Temple of Incense. I noticed there’s an “est. 2012” on the boxes which just made me wonder why news on these fantastic incenses took so long to spread. It does seem like there’s a substantial UK to India connection that really helps with the foundation to some strong companies there, so I’m sure there’s more hunting to do. Anyway in this round we have both charcoals and masalas (including a very familiar traditional) and another of the line’s baton size wonders that nearly makes me faint away due to the beauty of it.

Himalayan Spikenard acts as one of the high enders in the Temple of Incense catalog at nearly twice the price much of the range goes for. That’s because it’s not just a spikenard-fronted charcoal but because it has a something of a bakhoor-like oud scent in it as well as musk, oak moss and vetivert. The thing I really love about spikenard is you can experience it ranging from the sweeter notes found in Japanese incense or Greek monastery-styled incenses to musky, earthy aspects of it that feel a little wilder in the natural source. Here you have the full range of the spikenard note even though it’s essentially fronting a blended oil. It is a charcoal, so I do think the mix of these elements actually goes to highlight that in a way not everyone might like, but there’s nothing wrong with this mix of oils on their own, in fact it’s a bewitching blend with a bit of a erotic flair to it. And most importantly it has some aromatic elements I don’t think you will find in most incenses. It’s like having something familiar with a more exotic edge to it.

The Wood Spice is an intriguing (also charcoal, but not as obviously so as the Himalayan Spikenard) incense that reminds me of a couple different scents. The notes listed here are not specific, just flowers, woods and spices, and while I think the woods obviously take the central place, there seems to be a lot of other activity rotating around this center. It feels like it works on two levels, the woods blend on one hand and then some sort of tangy richness on the other with a powerful hit of spice that reminds me of anything from cardamom to clove or nutmeg. The spicy wood feels like it goes in a bit of an Oud Masala direction, but without the more expensive agarwood touches and with the heavier spice touches, the scent profile ends up being something like the old Maharaj or Maharaja blends of the original champa era, although to be fair I think this is more due to the oils than any sense of halmaddi at play. It just feels that there are dozens of ingredients and that the mix creates something that justifies the more general notes than being specific of just a few. The oil overall feels like it could work either as a perfume or cologne, depending on your definition or preference.

Bengal Beauty is one of the latest in the family of incenses that have a long history of lavender-ended goodness. My old favorite was the old Mystic Temple Honey Dust incense, which was a delectably sweet treat of honey and vanilla and I’ve seen it in the old Satya Natural and Happy Hari’s Yama Sutra and probably a few more lines I’ve forgotten about now. It may very well be the second most common traditional Indian masala next to Nag Champa itself, although it feels like this version may have shifted more to a charcoal or hybrid style than it used to be in the old days. And this is as good of a version that exists on the market currently. Part of that is the sweetness, another part is it’s a bit more balanced in a sandalwood direction and part of it is that its more obviously an amber as well (there are some similarities to ToI’s Amber Supreme as well). The other notes mentioned on the box are khus and rose and while I get the earthy notes of the former, the rose is far more subtle. It probably tends less to the sweet side than other versions, but that makes it a better balanced incense. This is a very friendly Indian masala and not a bad one to put on your starter list.

I don’t know what it is about these thick stick incenses like Ganesha, maybe it’s just that they feel like they’re frontloaded with a lot of halmaddi resin, but just like the Shiv this is a stone classic of a scent. The notes are lotus, lavender, eucalyptus and light florals, but the overall effect is like some modern candy fronted Japanese stick except in big stick form. It is super pink in color and in aroma in fact “Valentine’s Day candy champa” popped right in my mind as I wrote this in front of a burning stick. This is fairly well blended, sweet and feminine floral, you certainly get the lavender and eucalyptus notes in the mix but it’s so sweet that most of the rest of the floral notes just kind of converge into this big bouquet of hallelujah. It’s an incredible floral and because of the oils not quite as gentle as the Shiv is, but it’s no less impressive. I would love to see what a big batch of this looks like and smells like. More like this please!

Mother’s India Fragrances / Arjava, Hansa, Lavanya, Om, Purusha, Sattwa, Yajna

[Recipes may have changed and review may not be relevant anymore. Further research needed. Mike 6/17/21]

Since the last installment on the newly released Mother’s Fragrances Nagchampa incenses, the company kindly sent me what I’m dubbing the “Nag Champa Construction Set,” which is a series of ingredients that go into making their fantastic bases. One thing I learned fairly early about incense is that information from the east on these treasures has actually been remarkably sparse and so I’m extremely thankful to have received a further education from the creators. Not only has the set helped to show me where the sandalwood works into the base, but in particular having a sample of halmaddi resin has really helped to narrow down just where this works into these incenses. And overall my already high respect for the creator of these incenses has grown when I consider what the base smells like compared to the finished product. These are just works of art on every level.

So I wanted to say a few words about halmaddi resin before getting to the “back seven” nagchampas (10/8/21 – This link goes directly to US distributor Mere Cie Deux now; however, there are no specific pages for each aroma). This ingredient is particularly interesting in that the actually fresh smell of the resin itself (almost like a combination of chocolate and turpentine elements) is completely different from the smell while it’s burning, which is floral (likely that element similar to the champaka flower), slightly bitter and very balsamic. Not only is this obvious from the resin, but also from the base stick. Even on its own this a pleasant scent but what struck me is how much of a chameleon halmaddi must be since the oils that go into the incense change the nature of the relationship. Also, the Mother’s bases, while soft, aren’t gooey like the resin or many of the incenses I used to burn 15 years ago and as I intuit from the oils, there’s a really impressive level of balance and restraint here.

I wouldn’t have even recognized the base stick in the Arjava Nagchampa, which is the first of four incenses in this group that was not part of the original 12 incense sampler I received months ago. If there is a slight wildness to the halmaddi, you wouldn’t find it in this incense, which has a level of gentleness that is quite surprising. Where the descriptions of many of the other incenses list as many as 5 or 6 ingredients, there is only one specific listed here: rose. It’s interesting in that this is one of the new 14 that really stands out as being quite different, there’s an unusual herbal note at the top that is quite exotic and unique. The central scent is almost akin to some of the herbal-rose combinations found elsewhere and this all lies on a wood level that has been turned up a notch, while remaining pillowy soft. While it could be said that this is another wonderful contrast of spice and floral elements, the results aren’t quite so piquant as they are in the other scents, leading to a very sublime finish. Particularly because when I burn this I feel like I’m always trying to reach a description of the end, one that’s essentially elusive and mysterious. Like all great incenses the final notes end up as part of one’s memories.

Hansa Nagchampa is similar to the Arjava only in that it also has a fairly noticeable woodiness in the mix, but essentially this is a scent that returns to the floral/spice mix of many of these incenses. A lot of the main players in the whole line are in this one, including kewra, vetivert and lavender, but as always the addition of other ingredients modify the aromatic contour substantially. In fact, of the entire line this is perhaps the incense I find the most difficult to describe as the ingredient combos seem familiar, but the overall scent has been changed enough to be completely unique. Perhaps part of this is the golden champa scent in what I’d describe as the fourth fifth from top to bottom.  The amber here isn’t as strong as it is in the Om Nagchampa but it definitely flirts with the attention around all the floral notes and in many ways actually accentuates these notes so one feels that the florals are dominant to the spice mix in the background. And overall it’s the Kewra and Lavender that make, incrementally, the boldest statements in the mix. But in the end it’s puzzling because perhaps the best word to describe this incense is kaleidoscopic, because at any different time it’s possible to see new interactions among the ingredients. Which means in the end any static description won’t do this justice, as the base and the vetivert that tie it all together are really the only constants.

Lavanya Nagchampa really clicked with me after a couple sticks when it became obvious that the central part of the incense is very evergreen and spicy. I’ve discussed some of the incenses that contrast florals with a spice that could be roughly described in the cinnamon/clove/hot area, but this seems to get part of its spice from the use of resins as well as cedar, so that the spice note feels more green than red. Users of resin blends may have come across those that are resonantly foresty and that would be the comparison here. But it’s only a beginning and a platform because what dances on top is the jasmine and ylang ylang, and like the Arjava the results are just so delicate. It constantly strikes me that among Indian incenses, many of which can be incredibly strong and aromatic, that these are among the most refined and gentle, something only a master perfumer could gauge so perfectly. In the end it’s almost as if your aromatic senses try to convince you of its floral nature as the bewitching, rich evergreen and liqueur like background bubbles underneath, creating an almost yin/yang like paradox.

In fact as you use these incenses it’s really hard to separate one masterpiece from another, but there’s something in the Om Nagchampa that has made it my fastest used incense in the whole line, I literally have trouble trying to keep from burning my stock up in a couple days. It basically presents a triangle of amber, vanilla and cassia that is simply breathtaking and close to my sense of aromatic nirvana. My idea of the perfect incense is something that manages to be dry and rich at the same time, hinting at sweetness without being cloying. The cassia in this incense is just so perfectly placed that it’s a sheer delight and the amber notes are virtually flawless. As this scent burns it becomes so sublime by the end of the stick that it manages to represent the concept of Om in a way that might evoke ain ineffable response in the user. In fact it’s even difficult to want to burn another incense after this as it leaves such a powerful energy in the air after the last elements go up in smoke. By a long shot my top incense of August and it could be a reigning favorite for a while now.

Purusha Nagchampa is another of the dominantly lavender incenses in the line, which follows the absolute success of the Ganesh Nagchampa. Mother’s uses a number of different lavenders, however, and in this case we’re seeing an English lavender at the front, a note that is probably the most dominant lavender scent in any of these incenses. But while sitting on the top, the ingredients from the base up do a lot to modify the scent. For one thing this is one of the few, if not the only incense that has a sage note, an ingredient that seems to be far more common in American incenses (specifically southeast or Native American blends). Here it’s used to modify the lavender, and the results seem to bring out some of the wilder, herbier elements the two ingredients have in common. I’m not as familiar with orris, but I suspect this has a great deal to do with the more unfamiliar middle subscents that help to give this incense its individual personality. Closer to the base, the patchouli blends with the balsamic nature of the halmaddi to help make sure the top notes don’t go overboard. In the end this is definitely on the sweeter side of the Mother’s range, but it’s got just that touch of wildness to rein it all in.

Sandalwood is a main ingredient in all these incenses but it perhaps makes its presence most known in the Sattwa Nagchampa. With kewra, lavender tuberose and vetivert in the mix, this is definitely something of a cousin to the Atma and Hansa blends, if you can imagine the biggest change to be an increase in the amount of woodiness used. The vetivert here also seems to be turned up enough to give the scent a pleasant and sharp subnote and adding this to the woods and halmaddi base helps to balance the florals without reducing the richness of the scent. Overall this is a very pretty incense with a lot of activity in the mix and it’s among the bolder scents in the line. And like its cousins, the mix seems gauged to reveal its complexity slowly over time, something a review really can’t account for without an excessively lengthy preparation period.

Continuing a number of incenses with a strong lavender element is the spicy Yajna Nagchampa. However, if some of the Mother’s scents tilt more to a floral side, this is a decidedly spicy incense with woody notes, nagarmotha oil, patchouli and oakmoss all combining to imply a spice that also reminds me of cinnamon toast. This is also a very woody incense, however the type of wood scent it reminds me most of is akin (but far superior to) Satya’s Patchouli Forest scent, with that sense of crystalline, green resin that that incense evokes. Not only is the Yajna spicy, but it’s also devilishly complex in that there seems to be a lot of elements that make up this level of the incense. The oak moss is particularly noticeable here, almost more than a subnote at times, and with the patchouli it grounds the scent as something far more earthy the fire-like. In the end as you notice all this spicy, grounded activity it makes the presence of the lavender on top such a surprise and delight.

I’ll have to admit nearly every incense in this line is at a level of intricacy that they’re very hard to do justice to in words. So many of them are like a puzzle, because I feel that in a lot of other incense lines you wouldn’t expect some of these ingredients to work together like they do and in the end appraising them is like looking at a beautiful painting and switching between the singular elements and the composite final work. I may have mentioned strongly how much I love the Om, but over time I have no doubt that I’ll switch from favorite to favorite because in the case of complex aromas like found in the Hansa or Yajna, you get the feeling that it will take at least 10 sticks to feel that you’ve got a full grip on what’s going on here. And in the end I think this is the real joy in the use of incense, that what you have has the potential to continue to surprise and elate you as changing circumstances provide the varying viewpoints to smell new facets of complex bouquets. Because in the end with this line of Mother’s Nagchampas, all 19 exquisite treasures, you have some of the finest incenses available, particularly at an affordability that is quite astonishing. And please do check out the previous article for buying options, as I suspect in less than a month’s time they should be widely available to most of our readers.

Mother’s India Fragrances / Nagchampas / Agni, Amrita, Atma, Bhakti, Jyoti, Lila, Moksha

[Recipes may have changed and review may not be relevant anymore. Further research needed. Mike 6/17/21]

After being introduced to and living with Mother’s India Fragrances’ original five Nagchampas, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t have asked the question “How come there aren’t more of them?” After all the originals are a phenomenal quintet of nagchampas in an era where the form has mostly degenerated. Where so many companies have either eliminated or reduced the content of halmaddi in their products, often creating inferior recipes that only resemble the incenses they used to create, Mother’s have managed to continue a line that not only still contains the ingredient (also called mattipal) but considerably expands the art form.

That is, when nagchampas were made 15 years ago or earlier, the incenses were so full of the gum that the sticks remained so wet you could easily pull them apart. The Mother’s Nagchampas (10/8/21 – This link goes directly to US distributor Mere Cie Deux now; however, there are no specific pages for each aroma) don’t aim for a similar effect and while the incenses are still quite damp, often visibly through the inner packagaing, they all have a uniform consistency that follows the original five scents to what is an incredible 14 new scents. And for those of you already well familiar with the original five, these are going to surprise and elate you as in most cases they have brought the form up to a new level of complexity. Almost all of these incenses have as many as five or six different oil or material sources not even counting the halmaddi/mattipal and honey base. The results are so impressive that it’s difficult to feel that even after sampling several sticks of them that the full story has been told.

I’d like to thank both the home company of Mother’s India Fragrances and their Dutch distribution company Wierook for not only making Olfactory Rescue Service aware of them, but by providing a bounty of gifts and samples in time for me to get some reviews out just before the products come to the United States (not to mention one of the most informative and descriptive English language documents I’ve ever seen for a line of incenses, something that strongly assisted my reviews). Where it was difficult to label only five incenses as the finest Nagchampa line available, now that the total is up to 19, there’s really no question that this is the top line of its format, with a fascinating and aromatically superior range that doesn’t stop to recreate any old recipes and instead uses superior essential oils and absolutes to create a wide range of impressive and intricate scents. This installment will cover the first half of these 14 new incenses with the second half to follow shortly.

The first of these incenses is Agni Nagchampa. Perhaps the most simple description is that this is more or less a musk nagchampa, but it’s far more complex than that. It’s essentially a French Musk sort of scent, which bears some comparison to Shroff’s incense of that name or even the old Blue Pearl Musk Champa, however we know from the description that the central musk scent is created from ambrette seeds. My experience with musks created this way is that they usually aren’t quite this sweet, so one has to look to the other ingredients to see how the bouquet is formed. Obviously the halmaddi and honey anchor this quite nicely at the base as they do for all of the incenses here, so it’s really the middle of the aroma where the magic is. The pivotal ingredient here is neroli or orange blossom oil, an aspect which is the first of many through these incenses that show an incredibly clever perfumery at work because it’s a scent that is mellow and doesn’t overpower while anchoring the musk to the base. The cedar seems to bring out the balsamic aspects to the scent more which both balances the neroli and ensures the fragrance doesn’t go over the top on its way out. Make no mistake, this is still a decadently rich and sweet incenses as any sweet musk would be, but you can almost feel the restraint nonetheless.

As rich and sweet as the Agni is, the cinnamon-laden Amrita Nagchampa is almost a study in contrasts. Even with the amazing halmaddi and honey base, the results are very dry and of this seven, this could be the most direct incense. The cinnamon is very beautifully drawn, in fact the description the company uses is “edible,” something easily understood with a sample. However the cinnamon does have its supporting actors, including patchouli, cedar and some unnamed woods and resins. There are some elements in this that remind me of Nippon Kodo’s Silk Road incense except with a much more genuine feel) but the comparison hints at an exotic subnote that really helps to transmute the base to support the overall dryness.

The Atma Nagchampa is also a restrained piece of work, but in this case it doesn’t transmit a single essence like the previous scent did, instead it portrays a balancing act with a number of different notes at work. What’s amazing about it is that even with so many players the composite aroma remains gentle and subtle. On top we have the dominant floral oils at work, some lavender and what seems like a closer mix of geranium and kewra (pandanus or screwpine) notes. But like several incenses among the new aromas, Mother’s have chosen to contrast these floral elements with a spicy backdrop (including clove), something the company is clearly adept at. The results are actually akin to a standard (if exceptional in quality) nag champa with a soft floral in touch. What it loses without a particularly aggressive bouquet, it gains with a gentle aura and since everything seems to work on such a subtle level, it’s one of the most difficult in this group to get a hang on. But by the last stick I had out it was really starting to get under my skin.

Bhakti Nagchampa is something of an instant classic. As mentioned with the previous incense, Bhakti goes for a floral spice mix that is extraordinary in that it seems possible to pick out the individual elements as they interact with each other. The rose/tuberose/geranium mix on the top could be the best among a number of incredible floral elements across all these incenses and this is perhaps because they not only have strong definition but they’re contrasted perfectly with the patchouli and cedar base. In fact the only question I have is whether a scent like this might lose some of this fantastic definition with aging, because the balance here is like a highwire act with all the base elements a stage for the florals to dance lightly over.

Jyoti Nagchampa has some similarities to the cinnamon heavy Amrita, but here the scent is less monochromatic and more of a tangier multi-spice blend. In fact, it seems likely some of its spicier attributes come from the mix of myrrh, vertivert and patchouli, a group of ingredients that all have great transmutational qualities in different blends. In fact any time Mother’s uses a larger amount of resins in its incenses, it seems to trigger the more balsamic and sometimes evergreen qualities of the base. The mix definitely leaves me very curious about the quality of benzoin used in the ingredients as I recognize none of the usual subnotes and a quality that is truly exquisite. Again this mosaic (which also pulls in kewra to a slight degree) really hits a great balance with a vanilla and spice presence that is just perfect.

Lila Nagchampa is a patchouli heavy incense whose other ingredients really shift the whole tonal balance you normally associate with the herb in new and fascinating ways. For one, this is an incense as sweet as the Agni or Moksha blends, something particularly unusual for something so prevalent with patchouli. Sharing the stage with the patchouli on the top is tuberose, which has already shown its effectiveness in the Bhakti, but where that incense contrasted the floral and spicy, the Lila goes for the composite approach, like a rainbow color chart changing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Undoubtedly the vetivert changes the patchouli element some, always a great partnering, but perhaps where the benzoin and oakmoss lies is where the true transmutation occurs as it falls into the sweet base. The informational material also calls chocolate as a note as a result of the benzoin and you indeed find a powdery cocoa-like subnote in the mix of all this interaction. Like so many of these beautiful scents this seems like one that will have a learning curve as long as the best incenses because it’s not at all what you’d expect in the long run. It’s better.

Moksha Nagchampa …. well if you think it couldn’t get any better than what I’ve already run through then we’d have to at least call this a gamechanger. Champa users may be familiar with a lot of the intersections between style and addition, but the incredibly lily of the valley scent (muguet) that crowns the Moksha is positively ecstatic. And Mother’s doesn’t shy from the contrasts here either, setting off on a trail of oriental woods and saffron notes that end up creating a very rich depth before giving one a floral shock that starts with the rose notes, part of which are described as “citrusy rose petals” which seem to be what I’m picking up as a slight melon-like fruitiness. It all results in the most incredible, kaleidoscopic aroma that has the feminine, floral notes of so many modern perfumes but with the depth of the traditional. I’ve had a few incenses with lily of the valley in them, but none quite so stunning as this one.

One thing you’d expect from a great company is that in expanding what was a really impressive quintet, Mother’s haven’t sat on their laurels and tried to spin similar variations off of an already established success, they’ve possibly surpassed them, or if not, they’ve added such an incredible amount of variation to their line that it breathes new life into the whole line and makes you want to go back to the original quintet for reevaluation. With each stick I became far more deeply involved with each one to the point that picking a favorite is very difficult, there’s really not a blend here I wouldn’t want consistent stock on. There’s just no question that this is the crowning line of the modern nagchampa and I’m fortunate to be able to bring seven more to your attention in the next installment.

SAMPLER NOTES: Shochikudo, Shorindo Kobiana Line (Discontinued), Tahodo / Sekizen Koh (Discontinued)

This is a slight summary of some of the more recent modern Japanese incense imports, including one traditional scent and another on the fence. [9/28/2021 – Please note that although the Shorindo Kobiana line has been discontinued, I have added one link below to what looks like remaining stock.]

Like many of the new imports we’re seeing there are quite a few new companies making their entry into the US Market, including an incense from Shochikudo called Kirari or Ocean Breeze. This one has a rather huge list of ingredients given as: rose, lavender, jasmine, ylang ylang, iris, lemon, bergamot, blue cypress, sandalwood, vanilla beans and oak moss. It’s almost like a starter list of essential oils and with a sampler I’d be hard pressed to say that any of these particular ingredients stand out more than any other except for, perhaps, the vanilla bean (I get an impression of some amber as well). This is an incense generally in the vein of Nippon Kodo’s Aqua, a floral mix with a distinct seaside sort of aroma, not quite briny, but a more upbeat and pleasant approximation, like a mix of garden and beach. It’s going to be only for those who really go for a sample as with a box of 200 sticks, it’s one you’ll want to be sure you really like at first. I found it quite pleasant, but my experience with Aqua was the same and I found it quite cloying over time so I’d be hesitant even though I think this is a better incense.

Shorindo has been extremely active on the exportation of front after entering the US market with their Chabana Green Tea mix, in fact since I received the following samples, they’ve added two more incenses in the Chabana line. The first of the four samples here is the most traditional incense in this whole group, a sandalwood and cinnamon scent called Wakyo. I love cinnamon so I found this instantly a winner, it’s not a particularly complicated incense, but it differs slightly from the traditional sense in that it seems polished and possibly made partially out of oils or perfumes. But give cinnamon essential oil is quite cheap, it all comes off quite authentic and just a bit stronger than the average Japanese traditional blend that doesn’t use oils like, say, Baieido Koh. It’s somewhat reminiscent of incenses like Shoyeido Horin’s Hori-kawa or even Kunjudo Karin or its Gyokushodo analog Kojurin in scent, maybe in the middle of this group in terms of a traditional to modern axis.

Shorindo has also brought over three perfume incenses in a line called Kobiana. These are definitely far to the modern style and seem to exist to carry over previously created perfumes, although they seem a little different in that they’re not quite smokeless. I doubt my impressions are going to be particularly useful, so as an addendum I’d like to refer you over to Sprays of Blossoms, Curls of Smoke for a much more informed review before I take a clumsy stab at these.

All three of these sticks, despite the color names, seem to be a dark blue color. The Kobiana Yellow Cute is created to be reminiscent of Etro’s Magot perfume and the notes given are, on the top, bergamot, lemon, jasmine and iris; lavender and cloves in the middle; and patchouli, cedar, vanilla and musk at the base. Like with the Kirari, I have trouble picking these apart although at least I can distinguish this scent from the other two in this series as being distinctly floral and very reminiscent of the types of perfumes you run into being worn in the US. As is the case, I tend to get as much of the alcohol or synthetic scent as I do the florals and completely miss any of the elements supposedly in the base with, perhaps, the iris, lavender and jasmine the most obvious scents to me.

I have a lot of trouble telling the Kobiana Red Elegant and Kobiana Blue Sweet apart, but both strike me as fruit and florals, and like the Kirari above, both are somewhat reminiscent of Nippon Kodo’s Aqua in that they both have an almost watery like scent. The Red is reminiscent of Chanel Chance perfume, the Blue Etro’s Anice. The Red lists pink pepper, lemon and pineapple on top; hyacinth, jasmine and iris at the heart (likely where I’m getting the Aqua similarity from); and amber, patchouli, vetiver and white musk in the base. Strangely enough from this mix I get watermelon, cyclamen and the listed jasmine, but it’s such a light scent that with a sample it’s really hard to break it down. Similarly scented, the Blue lists Brazilian rosewood, anise and bergamot; the middle notes iris, jasmine, anise and garden dill; and the base notes amber, musk and vanilla. I’m not sure if the note similarities between these two incenses account for why I can barely tell them apart, but for some reason I wasn’t getting much anise or rosewood and still felt it was mostly watery, fruity and floral. In the end I had to separate the two and test them at different times just to confirm for myself I hadn’t accidentally gotten the same sample twice and to maybe convince myself I don’t quite have the nose for moderns like these.

Like Shochikudo, Tahodo has currently exported only one incense to the US, although similar to Shorindo Wayko, this is something of a modern/traditional blend. In this case Sekizen Koh is clearly something of a perfumed sandalwood stick and not authentic in terms of a pure sandalwood, but it makes up for it with a nice blend of clove, nutmeg and slight floral and citrus hints. It tends to the slightly sweet and in another life could have easily been added to, say, one of Daihatsu’s modern lines. Like most perfumed incenses I’m not sure how long I’ll last in terms of appreciation, but my initial samples were extremely pleasant and I liked it right away, especially due to the attractive nutmeg subnote.

More in the next installment including pairs from Nihon Senko Seizo, Saraike Kunbutsado and Scents of Japan.

Boudha / Riwo Sang Chhoe, Tara, Tara Naga Lokeshor (Discontinued Line)

Boudha Tibetan Incense neatly crosses the divide between Nepalese and Bhutanese incense. With only three different incenses being sold, the statement that the incense is made by a small family in Nepal seems to only apply to the third of these incenses while the other two also seem to be made in Bhutan and given the style and consistency of these two, I’d say they’re rather definitively Bhutanese in that so many Tibetan style incenses from this country have an almost plastic like consistency and strength.

Boudha Tibetan Incense also uses the same type of packaging, artwork and in some cases even some language akin to the original Red Crystal incense. Although they’re apparently different companies altogether, it’s difficult not to make a connection between the two in not only the packaging materials but in the scent of the incenses. Perhaps the middle incense is the closest in style, but again the big difference between the two is Red Crystal is a very traditional Nepalese incense and Tara incense is certain Bhutanese. So it all gets a bit confusing to say the least. Overall, however, you’re not likely to find superlative quality work here, in both price and scent these incenses are ultimately mediocre.

Riwo Sang Chhoe Incense is created from so many different substances, including microsubstances from gold to coral to cat’s eye (let’s assume we’re talking about a stone here), that any meaningful notes are more or less submerged in one very Bhutanese blend. Unlike a number of Bhutanese incenses with this sort of tough consistency, Riwo Sang Chhoe is the typical tan color rather than pink or red, however, it’s still fairly close in style to the midrange of Nado Poizokhang’s graded incenses. While the production and artwork is reminiscent of Red Crystal, the incense itself lacks that scent’s more sagey and tobacco like herbal notes leaving it mostly in the inexpensive sandalwood range. It’s rather tough to quantify, there’s a bit of spice at work and a bit of juniper berry in there somewhere, but overall it lacks its own personality.

Tara Incense is a bit closer to Red Crystal, although the consistency remains Bhutanese and the stick not so thick. Unlike RSC, this does have some wilder herbal notes in the mix and the more overt sandalwood feel is submerged into something less expensive with that slightly alkaline tang common to low end Tibetans. Overall it’s fairly dry and also not unlike Nado Poizokhang except for the tan color, but it also doesn’t have quite the same character. In a blind scent test it would take a fairly careful nose to tell this one apart from the RSC.

Tara Naga Lokeshor is much shorter and less expensive and moves solidly over into Nepali fare with a more brittle consistency and a darker brown color. Made with 108 different ingredients one will wonder why the necessity of such an endeavor when the end result is largely woody and inexpensive smelling. For the most part I get binder, cheap sandalwood, juniper and cedar in there and only a faint hint of anything else. It’s actually quite harsh overall which is typical for the very low price range.

Unfortunately it’s difficult to recommend any of these incenses in that it’s fairly easy to pick out others close in style that have more personality. Although Nado Poizokhang is quite a bit more expensive, it’s also a lot more savory then the two Bhutanese sticks here and Tara Naga Lokeshor may indeed comform to some ancient recipe, but it’s likely to have little positive impact on most Western noses. If you like the Tibetan artwork on the boxes, it’s far easier to recommend Red Crystal which has a much greater personality and a strong sandalwood middle none of these quite have.

Sam-Sung / Bo Rim, Ja-Kum, Seok-Hyang, Il-gakmun

It’s something of a convenience, but I tend to think of Korean incense as a hybrid of the Japanese style with Tibetan-like aromas. But ultimately they’re really a unique style with threads of similarity that run through almost 80% or more of what’s available. Korean incense tends to use ingredients both familiar and unfamilar to those found in other incenses. In particular, red sandalwood tends to show up quite frequently, and to a lesser extent elecampane, pine, along with the more familiar elements of frankincense, sandalwood, clove, and cinnamon.

Overall the description I could use for most of Korea’s incenses would be tangy. This in itself can be reminiscent of some of Japan’s less sweet aloeswoods and can approach similar elements in Kunmeido and Shunkohdo incenses. While the four incenses in review here are basically Korea’s finest and highest end incenses, lower end Korean sticks become a bit coarser with this tangy sort of aroma, and include what I’d almost describe as a mesquite/lime tinge. These qualities make it fairly difficult to differentiate the lower end sticks from one another, and it’s a pattern that follows Korean incenses from the most to least expensive. That is, while the style of incense is quite distinctive compared to incenses from other countries, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between similar Korean aromas. This is even the case with the two top line Korean incenses, Bo Rim and Ja-Kum.

Bo Rim means “treasure woods” in Korean and is the gem of Korean incense, a stick fine enough to compare to similarly priced Japanese aloeswood incenses. Described as a combination of pine and red sandalwood, other ingredient lists have Bo Rim containing aloeswood and while it’s not the particularly expensive, mind-expanding class of wood, it complements the rest of the ingredients nicely. The previously mentioned tanginess is almost perfect here, while in the less expensive sticks it can occasionally become cloying. Part of this is the high quality of wood used which imparts a smoothness that helps to bolster the more intense herbal content. The ingredients really help in making this a refined, world-class incense, one apparently enjoyed by the Dalai Lama himself. But be warned, if you start here you do run the risk of many other incenses from the country not being able to compete.

Ja-Kum (or Ja-Keum depending on transliteration, I’m using the spelling on the wooden tube) is an incense very close to Bo-Rim. The ingredients list is likely to be unfamiliar to most, including teucrium veronicoides and white poria cocos. With all these new and unfamiliar ingredients, I found it to be surprising that it’s not particularly unlike Bo Rim, but with the herbal content starting to win out over the background woods. The tanginess is more pronounced and a little less balanced, but not so much as it is in the lower end sticks where it can be a little overbearing. Other than the Il-gakumun, this is one of the incenses that can be considered a high end version of many of the more inexpensive Koreans. Ja-Kum still has a slight alkaline edge, but it’s only a slight note here.

Given how similar so many of these Korean incenses can be, Seok-Hyang actually sticks out like a sore thumb, being very different to the tangier varieties of Korean incense. It’s basically a rather high quality sandalwood incense that can be reminiscent of Tibetan sandalwoods due to the occasionaly unusual spice involved. The stick itself is colored slightly pinkish intimating that there’s probably as much red as there is white sandalwood involved and the stick is also a bit thicker than most Koreans. Overall it’s similar to old mountain sandalwoods with a little kick added, one that can really hit the spot at times. Overall it’s a bit coarser than most Japanese sandalwoods and not quite as refined, but it’s unquestionably of good quality. It’s also reminiscent of the Essence of the Ages rope incense Nava Durga.

Il-gakmun‘s probably the least of these four (click to page 2 and scroll down to find it), the crossover incense into the multitude of lower end Korean incenses. In a way it does represent a step sideways from Ja-Kum. The main ingredients appear to be aloeswood, Japanese cedar and gardenia seeds, but there’s a large unknown herbal content that tends to dominate the wood. The tangy, mesquite qualities mentioned earlier are the most prevalent of the four in Il-gakmun, with a spice content that always reminds me of the oregano found in pizza sauce. It’s a difficult incense overall, with so many unfamiliar and possibly clashing elements that I’ve never been able to get comfortable with it, despite the quality of ingredients involved.

Coming up in a moment, a small series of notes on seven other Korean incenses that I wrote down so long ago I’ve almost forgotten, but might as well share while there’s a sale on.

Les Encens du Monde / Moments of Eternity, Moments of Serenity (Discontinued)

In the Encens du Monde Short Rolls list are a couple of incenses that are actually quite different from the others in the line. For one thing, they’re at least an inch shorter each than the rest of the short rolls and they’re also quite a bit thicker. The thickness of the stick, however, doesn’t really add to the smoke content and both of these incenses are quite smooth and consonant even while made up of a number of ingredients. Like many roll incenses, these two come singly or in boxes of (12) rolls. I’ve also seen gift boxes with rolls of both and a holder, but as far as I know these haven’t been imported yet and could be discontinued.

Moments of Eternity is an earthy, tan colored stick and made from white sandalwood, cinnamon, oak moss and essential oils. Overall it’s actually not a heavily perfumed incense, which is often the case for many brands in the Encens du Monde canon, instead it definitely goes for a strong spice content and as such is reminiscent of gingerbread cookies or graham crackers. While it’s not a particularly startling incense at the beginning, I’ve found myself presently surprised coming back into a room full of the aroma of one that has been burning for a while, it has a mellow consistency to it that’s quite nice, a spicy stick that’s really never overwhelming.

Moments of Serenity is the green stick companion and a far less distinctive incense, created from sandalwood, cinnamon, benzoin, kansho (spikenard), star anise seed and cloves. I could see this ingredients list almost being more appropriate for Moments of Eternity as it implies a high spice content. However Moments of Serenity is far more like a green, every day sandalwood in scent. While there are notes of the ingredients list in the top part of the aroma, they’re very subtle and often lost with fatigue, leaving the stick smelling rather standard after a while. I spent quite a few sticks just trying to suss out further qualities from this one and was left disappointed (nor was I convinced age was a factor in this case). However, it does share the same slick and consonant qualities of Moments of Eternity, even if that particular incense is the most successful of the two.

Overall, I’d recommend Eternity, but would suggest other green sandalwood types with more distinctiveness (for example Kyukyodo Ikaruga or Shoyeido Evening Zen) over Serenity.