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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The Mother’s India Fragrances / Oudh Nagchampa, Palo Santo Nagchampa, Sage Nagchampa + Herbal Sampler (Part 2 of 2)

Please be sure to read Part 1 of this review as this is really a continuation of that review and that context is somewhat relateable to how I continue below. I will also note again here that all incenses in this range can be found at Mere Cie Deux.

The issue with calling something an Oudh Nagchampa is different from a lot of other aromatics because oudh, of course, is an agarwood-based scent and oudhs can be stratospherically expensive, so one must lower one’s expectations for an incense that is only $3 for 12 sticks. We have certainly also had our expectations set by the Absolute Bliss/Happy Hari and Temple of Incense lines with sticks like Oud Masala and so forth that are still quite affordable while delivering very satisfying incenses with legitimate and surprisingly powerful oudh notes (although these are essentially 2-3 times as expensive if not more so). And so for me, I try to look at something like this new nag champa in the sense that does it live up to the name and if it doesn’t is it a good incense on its own? In terms of the former issue the oudh note isn’t the sort of rocketship it is in the previously mentioned lines, it does not sit about the champa base and dominate, it’s a much more subsumed and subtle scent. In fact it took me a bit less incense fatigue and a second stick to notice that it is actually in there as part of the mix.

So anyway, oudh expense to champa mix aside, how does it work out? Well the champa base comes out quite a bit in this, there’s a real sense of the gummy and halmaddi sweet. Most champa bases tend to be at least mildly spicy, if only from the sandalwood, so the oudh actually fits pretty comfortably next to it. For a note you often expect to be loud it ends up complimenting what is surprisingly one of the mellower incenses in this current batch. Its an odd one for me because it feels like the overall diffused aroma seems a bit more generic than when you get in there close and notice that it’s actually a pretty well balanced incense. There’s a bit of spice and tanginess to it overall that the incense gets from the oudh but overall the agarwood notes here aren’t as strong as you’ll find in a Happy Hari, Temple of Incense or Pure Incense scent.

The next two aromas, sort of like the Neem Nagchampa, strike me as pretty strange and experimental for a nag champa format as both palo santo and sage aren’t aromatics I think would match up well with a sweeter halmaddi sort of masala. The Palo Santo Nagchampa may then be the first of its ilk and it’s a very interesting match indeed. For one thing, the palo santo itself is quite good quality and very reminiscent of the finer wood itself, so it’s off to a good start on that front. The base seems to have some of the more chocolate and confectionary qualities of the Sweet Frankincense and Guna Nagchampa, although it’s certainly not quite as decadent as either. But it seems modified appropriately in order to actually make a palo santo nag champa and balance the Mother’s format against what is a very identifiable and unique woody aroma. Now you will either know or not know if palo santo is to your taste, but its surge in interest among lovers of Native and South American culture know that the aroma has made a significant dent in the new age markets with its popularity. I might caution one to try the wood out first rather than dive in here, but honestly the palo santo note here is completely legit and it is hard to imagine Mother’s could have done a better job with this one.

Sage, on the other hand, is a strange beast in that sage wrapped for smudging (or used in cooking) smells a lot different to my nose than oil distillations and then either one’s application to a masala can also end up varying in a whole lot of directions. Check out Stephen’s reviews of the Temple of Incense Desert Sage or White Sage for examples of variance. I also had a Designs By Deekay White Sage review up at one point that demonstrated its more smudge-like, resin-based approach. Japan Incense has a Minorien-sourced Sage stick. All of these really differ a lot. The Sage Nagchampa also does. There is certainly some level of sage like herb in this and maybe oil as well but it felt like the creators dialed it down a bit to mix with the champa base, because, let’s face it, you’d have to. It’s an interesting creative choice because unlike the palo santo where the wood tends to have spicier qualities that might roughly fit in a cinnamon, clove or copal category, sage is going to move more in a direction like the Neem Nag Champa except where that one is green and bitter, this has a sort of general cooking herb sort of scent to it, rather than feeling specfically sage. The Sage Nagchampa also has a very similar base to the Oudh Nagchampa in terms of having a bit of gumminess to it. The issue with a stick like this overall is that so much compromise has gone into balancing two almost opposing formats that even though the balance is successful, it also feels like maybe it’s created something a bit too generic and maybe not as reminiscent of sage or a champa in the end. I know of the seven incenses I’ve just looked at this might be the one that’s the muddiest and hardest to define. But at the same time, one must see it as a unique and interesting experiment for sure.

I was also sent what amounts two a two stick by three fragrance package of Mother’s new Herbal Incense range. I should probably mention another difference in the overall line in that many of Mother’s aromas now have mini stick options which is an even more inexpensive way to try some of their many incenses. Anyway the two mini sticks each here might come close to one regular stick so I’ll just give my initial impressions on these. Well I’m going to try to. I just realized that in order to get the wee packages out of the strange cardboard package you also have to loosen them from their moorings so I now have three incenses where I’m going to also play guess the incense (I’m on the second stick of each)! So here we go.

While nearly every incense in this new line seems to specifically be one note and so close that both cinnamon and clove are broken down into two different types, the masala mix does sort of alter the profile, so these aren’t the same sorts of aromas that you’d find in a charcoal. So the Rosemary actually kind of works a little like the sage does in the Nagchampa above. That is, this doesn’t really smell much like the kind of rosemary used in cooking lamb (for instance), it has a sweeter more distilled oil like scent instead. The masala seems to have some woodiness and sweetness in it to also change the profile to some extent. It hasn’t lost the spice qualities of the herb really, but it feels like its presented more like a floral than an herbal sort of incense. Overall it’s not going to be like most expect.

I actually had trouble telling which of the two sticks left was Clove Bud or Cinnamon Bark because they are so sweetened up that any clear note is kind of obscured. My best guess (in addition to finishing the second mini sticks) was based on the pictures at the site where the Cinnamon Bark shows the darker of the two sticks, but honestly it could have gone either way. The darker stick has a sort of Madhavadas family like base with a lot of vanilla in the mix and the spice kind of plays around the outside. It’s not at all like cinnamon candy you will often find in charcoal sticks (like the brash Fred Soll versions) but a lot more delicate. Once the aroma builds up, the cinnamon does as well, and I would guess there was no use of oils in this and only the bark. But to me the base seems a bit distracting.

Strangely the Clove Bud is even sweeter, almost confectionary like, in fact it reminds me a little of some Japanese moderns in a way. There isn’t really a vanilla-like base , but once again I am struck by how little this smells like the clove you would normally think of, which may very well be because the aromatics are distilled from the fresh buds rather than the dried ones ground for spice? I’m guessing mind you because this is very far away from what I normally associate with clove, a note that is fairly common in a lot of the Tibetan incenses I’ve been reviewing. Anyway I don’t see much more in the way of description to clue in a bit more on these (and Mother’s are actually pretty good with the info thankfully), but they’re an intriguing trio of incenses in how little they tend to resemble what you expect. A different take is OK for me, but I didn’t really have the inches to go into these to maybe do them more justice.

Temple of Incense / Fruits of the Forest, Guava Guava, Indian Express, Indian Rose

Temple of Incense Part 8
Temple of Incense Part 10
The entire Temple of Incense review series can be found at the Incense Reviews Index

This next grouping of Temple of Incense happens to be some of the sweeter entries in their entire catalog. If you like sweeter incense or even have a sweet tooth, these are some sticks to consider.

Starting with Fruits of the Forest, an extruded tan agarbatti without a powder finish, we have an incense that proclaims on the box to have “scent of wild strawberries and blackberries”. I expected this to be a dipped charcoal type of incense for those notes but instead this is a charcoal heavy masala using what I’m guessing are absolutes. The scent is quite nice, and while it can cross into the “Hi-C” type of ‘mixture of fruits’ where you really can’t discern the fruits, there are moments where I feel I can pick out a wild strawberry or blackberry, more specifically the flower of the blackberry than the berry itself, I think.

Either way, this is a very sweet stick and for me, it is pleasant and has enough interplay that I can enjoy it but others in my household don’t like it and say it’s rather cloying with the single sweet note. I happen to like sweet incense after a meal almost like a dessert of sorts, and this, Guava Guava, Pineapple, Pratyahara Sutra, Forbidden Fruit, and Dragon’s Blood are all on high rotation for this position.

Guava Guava looks so very different than Fruits of the Forest, it is a handmade charcoal heavy masala finished with a tan dusting. It is thicker and heavier than Fruits but when you light it, you get treated to a sweet dessert sort of scent. If you have ever spent time in the tropics around guava season, the guava trees start to drop their fruit and as you approach, it will smell sort of like this. The only thing missing from this smell to make it ‘authentic’ is the acrid tinge of fermentation happening to the fallen fruit.

While I mentioned about using these sticks as a ‘dessert’ of sorts after a meal, this one in particular is tricky because it does have a smell close enough to the food that I get hungry if I haven’t eaten and I’m smelling this. One of the things I’m starting to get curious about is that here in Hawaii, there is a combo called POG juice, and the POG stands for Pinapple, Orange, Guava. I’m starting to wonder if this will pair nicely with the pineapple and orange sticks ToI offers. I’ll check in about that in a later review.

Indian Express has a box that says ‘A scent playing with the sweet and layered fun of paan’. I had to look up what paan is and it’s a slightly addictive betel leaf preparation that is often chewed and spit out. The stick is an extruded charcoal blank that has been soaked in scent compounds. This type of dipped incense tends to get the lower ratings here but I think this is another one of those exceptions. While I haven’t experienced paan, I do know I’ve experienced the geranium, rose, rosemary and kewda before and those florals come across nicely in different layers, some of them powdery and sweet and others acrid and bitter. The nice thing is that for a dipped incense, there is so much interplay that this doesn’t get cloying with a single note. I know I’d love to revisit this scent when/if I ever experience paan.

Finishing out this round is Indian Rose, a hot pink agarbatti that looks to be machine extruded onto natural bamboo with no finishing powder. It burns like a charcoal because of how the ash forms. This is a sweeter version of rose than some of the other entries, and there isn’t as much movement between the different scents of rose, but what sits front and center is something like a rose buttercream frosting, it has a sweet, creamy note that carries the rose scent like a petal resting on a pillow. According to the box, this is a blend of different rose oils. What I’m guessing is that there is a masterful recipe blending these because many times this kind of ‘rose oil’ on incense ends up smelling like Vaseline Intensive Care.

Again, when I experienced this as a sample, I wasn’t as interested in it. I have a feeling that the freshness of this particular stick is important because I get the feeling that the first run I had was far older as I could barely suss the rose and what I did smell smelled like ‘stewed’ roses. I get none of that scent here, the rose is fresher, and comes with a sweet scent that sometimes smells like powdered sugar and sometimes like butter cream frosting. Good for people who like sweet and rose scents.

SAMPLER NOTES: Maroma (all but Patchouli Discontinued), Scented Mountain

In most cases Olfactory Rescue Service is driven by what we like, rather than what we don’t, after all, despite the internet’s evidence to the contrary, my theory is it’s better to walk away from what you don’t like than take swings at it, but even though my purchasing schemes are geared to bringing in what I consider good incense, I do try to branch out. At the same time that Pure-Incense and Purelands hit the shores of the US to great acclaim, so did the incenses of Maroma and the story here doesn’t appear to be quite as pleasant. Where the incenses of the previous companies are definitively and boldly Indian, Maroma’s products, at least the few I’ve sampled here, might have come from anyone with a bag of charcoal punks and a small and indistinguished essential oil collection. Suffice it to say this small smattering of Maroma scents were requested as samples and more or less stopped me dead from investigating any more. Of course that’s not to say I necessarily got the good ones in the group, but I think I got enough of a range to make a rough judgement call.

Maroma’s got a few internal ranges, and the first two scents here are part of their Encense d’Auroville range. At roughly the same time I wrote this I was also evaluating Primo incenses and it was difficult not to compare the two charcoal bases between the companies. I’m not fond of the style at all but at least in Primo there appears to be enough vanilla in the mix to mostly account for the off charcoal notes, in Maroma’s Encense d’Auroville line there’s no such luck. That is it’s not difficult to point at this range as an example of what I tend not to like in incense, essential oil mixes whose better qualities get lost in bitterness and overly pungent and astringent smoke.

The Champak (10/8/21 – Discontinued) in this range is described as an Indian tropical floral with a mix of olibanum resin, benzoin absolute and vanilla. I dug up the ingredients list after experiencing the sample sticks and was perhaps not so surprised to see they didn’t add up with what I thought I was smelling. It’s true, with samples, we do often find a decay in the amount of oil strength, but like lots of synthetic charcoal mixes the images that come to mind are commercial products like suntan lotion and deodorants rather than anything natural. Whatever resinous attributions one might guess from the olibanum and benzoin only seem to manifest in a certain background note and most of the time all you’d notice is the harsh charcoal base smoking like a chimney.

I thought the Encens d’Auroville Patchouli might fare better but the ingredient list also includes vetivert and clove, making this far more blend than a true patchouli stick. After all patchouli alone might be enough to make up for a smoky charcoal base, but as it goes it doesn’t work at all here. In fact this is perhaps the sort of smell many associate negatively with patchouli and thus doesn’t do anyone any favors. Even the charcoal Patchouli sticks done by Primo, which aren’t among even that line’s best incenses, are far better than this one.

We get a little more distinction moving to the Kalki line which at least from the evidence found in Clarity (10/8/21 – Discontinued) seems to be more of a masala than charcoal style and it benefits from following the two E d’A sticks. However, the Clarity mix of clove, orange and nutmeg seems like it would work much better in a hot cup of tea than on this masala base. With so much incense to choose from one wonders why such an oil blend is even needed on a stick and the combination of these strangely verges on a lemongrass scent with the spices being a little too mild. I’m not saying there may not be something to like here, but this doesn’t strike me much as good sort of scent for an incense, I’d probably enjoy a blend in an oil mix in a terra cotta ring a lot more. No doubt this is a scent even the most amateur of oil mixes might come up with accidentally.

The Spa line moves back to charcoals (assuming this is true across the whole line), or at least it does with the New Energy (10/8/21 – Discontinued) blend. Here the essential oil mix seems to be more audacious, with a cast of characters including orange, lemon, basil, peppermint, lavender, cubeb and rosemary. I don’t know cubeb, but at least can fairly say that I can evince the notes of all the rest of these from this incense which is no mean feat. For sure the peppermint is nicely placed and not too strong like it can be, rounding the edges of the blend. The same issues for me are true, this seems to be more effective in an oil or perfume blend than in an incense, but at least it mostly overcomes the charcoal base problems, or at least does more than the E d’A duo.

Moving to the opposite spectrum and partially based on some comment conversations elsewhere, I revisited some of the Scented Mountain (10/8/21 – Scented Mountain still seems to exist, but the site doesn’t show up as safe on my browser, so I’m not linking to it. Likely any agarwood products would have changed a lot since this review.) work of late. My journey with these is that when I first sampled the work of this august company (a project I think we’re all well behind here), devoted to ecologically sustainable Agarwood products, I actually really liked what I got, but upon restock I found myself less lucky. I’ve never been able to tell where my general experience with agarwood incense interfaces with my opinion of the Scented Mountain Grade 1 agarwood, but it seems to be declining even at the same time the agarwood actually seems to be improving. While I think cultivated aloeswood still has a long way to go to be talked about in the same breath as Baieido Hakusui or Ogurayama, there is indeed an almost rustic pleasure burning these sticks or cones (my comments are based on samples of both, in the Grade 1 form). My problem actually isn’t with the resin scent which, while average, is still quite nice, but the bitter almost harsh aspect of the wood the resin has come out of. While you can certainly cut down on these off notes by putting product like this one the heater, it in fact is a much worse aspect when you burn a binder heavy cone.

I should also mention that even in the proper packaging, the few samples I was sent of the sticks actually managed to totally disintegrate in the mail, to 1/8 inch fragment and powder which I actually found quite instructive and hilarious as while Japanese style sticks are easy to break I rarely find that to the be the case when they’re protected. But I think it’s reflective of the weakness of the binder, so one might want to keep an eye on these if you’re an owner so they don’t vibrate to death.