Ap Sonam Tashi/Bhutan Jewel Incense: The Lost Fragrance of the Mountain Gods

I wanted to talk about Bhutanese incense for a bit. While of course there’s some overlap with Tibetan incenses due to the monasteries, Bhutanese incense commonly falls into what are essentially pink, red or slightly purple sticks that are all created largely similarly. Most stick incenses from Bhutan fall in this category and I would guess Nado incenses are probably the brand most people are familiar with. I don’t tend to see a huge variation in this theme. These sticks are created for a bit more durability than you see in many Tibetan sticks. They’re much harder to break, have a higher tensile strength, and tend to thickness. They’re also very blended in the sense that individual components are much harder to pick out from the overall scent. To my nose Bhutanese incenses tend to be a bit higher in resinous content than most Tibetan sticks, frankincense in particular seems to be a dominant note. These sticks can not only be fruity but they’re a bit berry like, likely from the juniper content which often tends to be the incense’s top ingredient. There’s certainly a lot of wood, herbs and spices in them but my general feeling is the ingredient list tends to be large enough to mix into a more homogenous whole. The difference between variant Bhutanese sticks then tends to be how deep the aroma is, whether it’s a sort of general theme or whether the more variant notes pop through a little more.

To that end, “The Lost Fragrance of the Mountain Gods” seems to be a pretty solid entry into this field and one that appears to be aimed at the English market. So in this case we can find out the incense also contains giwang (bezoar) (this appears to be something of a medicinal/herbal mix), clove, musk, nutmeg and saffron as well, most of which are also quite common in all Tibetan and Bhutanese incenses. In fact it has been impressed upon me quite frequently of late how much of a player saffron tends to be in these blends, it often seems to be what imparts a floral note to the top end which mixes nicely with the musk note. This incense is probably not quite as resinous as other Bhutanese, but I personally prefer that as it lets the woodiness out a bit. Overall, this is not a bad place to start overall if you want a good example of the style.


Nado Poizokhang / Grades A-C (Obsolete/Discontinued Review)

[NOTE 10/7: Nado Poizokhang is possibly Bhutan’s most famous incense company and still exists today. However it looks like there has been a reconfiguration of their line since the days where they had grades like this. I have seen it mentioned that the Grade A has been renamed as their Happiness incense, but given how long it has been, a new look needs to be one (I do have samples of the Happiness, can not really compare to old stock, but given the narrow range of Bhutanese incenses it’s still likely this review is close.) Anyway we do have plans in place to review the newer line available at incense-traditions.ca. So stay tuned for that.]  Nado Poizokhang claims to be the the oldest and largest hand-made incense stick manufacturer in Bhutan. The company’s main incense, if you will, actually exists in seven different grades, from A to G. The ingredients in all of these incenses includes sandalwood, clove, red sandalwood, major cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, and a dozen or so other herbs and spices. The difference among the grades appears to be the amount of juniper used, the amount increasing as the grade of incense gets lower.

The general Nado Poizokhang scent is like many Tibetan and Bhutanese incense sticks, it’s composed of so many different herbs and spices that it takes quite a while to get used to the scent and realize how complex the incense is. I have the same experience with almost all Tibetan blends that have a large list of ingredients, an initial feeling of disappointment and bewilderment, only to find as I get used to the scent that I was actually quite off in my initial assessment. In fact, all three of the grades in question have been getting quite a bit of “air time” lately, and the more I burn them, the more I enjoy them.

However, the quality level, at least between Nado Poizokhang Grade A and C is quite significant in that the amount of juniper used changes the color of the stick from a deep, almost cherry red color to a sort of pink-tinged beige. It begs the question of just how much difference there could be in scent among the lower grades from D to F, if the change is this significant in the higher grades. The consistency of the stick is sort of unusual as well in that they’re very strong and almost have a sort of plastic feel to them, which is a bit of a change considering how many broken pieces of various Tibetan sticks show up.

Grade A appears to be the only one to come in a sort of weird paper-ended bamboo tube, the others seem to come in boxes that differ mostly in the color or “wrappers” for the two lowest grades. Honestly I’d rather have them all in boxes, the tube can not be opened without it being opened permanently, with a hole in one of the ends. Like many multi-ingredient incenses, there’s a hell of a lot going on here, but initially one’s likely to get some berry hints and stronger tobacco/sage like characteristics. In fact it’s tribute to the blenders that it’s only with experience that one starts to notice the individual players in the orchestra, all sort of popping up in random variations as your stick burns. Of course, with Grade A these characteristics are the strongest. Grade B is still very close, but the presence of juniper mellows out the intensity some, and in Grade C it almost seems like the juniper presence is on an even par with the other ingredients. After burning A and B, I still get strong hints of it with C, but I do wonder how much presence the lower grades could possibly have.

Overall, like a lot of these central Asian incenses that use lots of ingredients, it takes a while to suss out the central scent and this sort of longevity is definitely a plus, one generally finds that you kind of grow with it and that the familiarity starts to make it a bit addictive. The prices are close to Tibetan premium prices (around the $20 mark and descending per grade), but honestly one should definitely start with A or B first in order to a get a grip on this company’s central scent (B being $5 less than A is probably the best bet). I might eventually find Grade C a decent substitute, it’s certainly pleasant, but the juniper kind of obscures some of the stronger more energetic herbs, making it a bit slower to “get.”