Happy New Year (including Gokula and notes on Mermade Magickal Arts)!

I just posted the last two articles for my Gokula series today as Gokula is running a 20% off sale through 1/8, so I figured if you hadn’t checked the line out yet now is a perfect time! There are some definite goodies in their gigantic line and there’s actually a whole back half I didn’t review that are Mahavadhas sourced, so if you come across any of those that are good, do let us know in one of the Gokula post threads! Anyway, this takes us nearly to the end of the reviews stored up from last year, there may be a couple more to trickle in. More on this in a sec…

As I’ve been taking it easy over the holidays, I haven’t had too much of a chance to review or evaluate anything, but I did want to mention a few more Mermade Magickal Arts goodies. These aren’t intense reviews as I basically love all Mermade incenses which definitely all deserve deeper dives, but Katlyn tends to always be really busy during the holiday season and releases quite a few new vintages and I wanted to get in my thoughts before they’re gone. It was really nice to see Baccy Claus again, it’s at least the second vintage but I would guess the batch I had previously was before we started ORS up again. This one seems an improvement, never a surprise with Katlyn’s work, almost as if the middle had been brought up to match that peppery herbal note that makes this a scent unique in her catalog (think a mix of tobacco and herbal with the greener evergreen notes cradling this top scent). This one even has some unique elements in the mix with a touch of Amanita and Sativa, I’ve had the pleasure of an incense or two in the long past where Kat will mix something like this in and the results are always special and a bit different from the normal catalog. So certainly this is one to add to your cart right away.

Also checked out was her latest vintage of the Classic Kyphi, as I have long stated on these pages the Mermade kyphis are always well worth checking out, although I have been really unable to plumb the depths of this one quite yet. It’s really impossible to evaluate something this complex after just a sitting, but this will certainly be out right next to the heater over the next month. Some of the most recent kyphis strike me almost like drier wines compared to the sweeter ones, if you need an overall take. Forest Honey seems like a new experimental merging of two of her lines (say Sweet Medicine and Wild Wood for example) and is quite a bit different from Kat’s usual green holiday mix and a welcome variation. As always you get that great balance that allows you to experience both sides of the scent. But once again, I still need to dig out the time to really sit with it. Similarly with the Jasmine Dreams. I spend a lot of time both reviewing and evaluating and largely getting really fatigued by jasmine incenses over the last year, so it was great to get back to one that really highlights how good it can be. Perhaps part of the reason is this has a lot of green frankincense and repeat customers generally know how high quality this frankincense can be from Mermade. But this has a real nice peach note (resin seems to help bring this out) that you can often get out of the better jasmines and it seems like a perfect match with the better frankincense. So overall and as usual, it’s impossible not to recommend all these new treats, not to mention that it looks like Mermade has several Esprit de la Nature goodies in as well which always go really fast. I haven’t tried any of these but they’re always great as well. I would bet Bonnie probably has more at her site!

So with that said while there are probably a few more reviews in the wing to go, we’re reaching the end of the current “season.” This year is unique particularly in that there’s also very little in the current queue to review as well. I think we’ve debating internally that there are things like Satya incenses that I’ve sort of had on the table, but with less time to really review things of late it can be difficult to force yourself to take a look at incenses better worth avoiding. There’s a Review Information link at the top left if you’d like us to review your incenses, just let us know. Happy New Year everyone!

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Gokula Incense / Rose & Saffron, Royal Vrindavan Flower, Sandalwood & Myrrh, Sandalwood & Saffron, Shiva Nag Champa, Tulsi Vrinda

Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla
Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra
Marigold & Juhi, Musk & Amber, Musk & Champa, Musk Heena, Musk & Patchouli, Pink Rose

This is the last of four in a series of Gokula Incense reviews, please see the first installment for an introduction to the company.

Rose & Saffron is a natural pairing for incense and this one acts as a very different incense to the Pink Rose I covered last time. For one, this isn’t as sweet, but you can still feel some similarities between the two incenses around the base. Strangely enough I detect something like a chocolate note but I also felt what is stepping in for the saffron here might be more obvious on the fresh stick than on the burn. It also has some sort of camphorous-cooling elements in the mix as well. This is very different from, say, the Vedic Vaani Saffron Rose and that’s a good thing as this combination of elements doesn’t really remind you of other incenses and keeps it fresh. In the end I kind of love the minty sort of top on it. Quite a bit to explore on this one, there’s a lot going on.

Every time I see an incense with Vrindavan in it, it’s kind of like musk or lotus, they’re so different from stick to stick that you can’t always be sure what you’re getting. But Gokula’s Royal Vrindavan Flower is a really gorgeous stick and mostly presents a champa-ish incense with a really beautiful and somewhat unique floral oil that I can’t remember every placing in an incense before, at least exactly. I’m not even sure how to describe it because it strikes me as being sort of pink, sort of lotus like, but ultimately really balanced. It’s a touch soft, so likely a bit of halmaddi is in the mix, but overall I love the pretty after effect of burning, it’s as if some of the perfume is separate from the smoke. Definitely one I’d put on your Gokula shopping list, this one’s quite special.

So I had almost forgot until I checked my notes but there was a slight snafu with my order (no worries the kind Gokula folks cleared it up right away) but I think there was one non-Madhavadas I did not get and then one Mahavadas I did get and that’s the Sandalwood & Myrrh. Madhavadas sourced incenses, of course, have their usual base (vanilla, sandalwood – often an equal aromatic note in any of their incenses) which, while the company tends to have a huge arsenal of top notes that are very good, can be quite fatiguing if used frequently. I’m not really quite sure if something like this would have been to my tastes whatever the source, but it does seem like a reasonable low grade sandalwood/myrrh mix, although the combination really evokes something different rather than the listed ingredients. The resin seems a bit more in front of the wood and certainly the base plays a part in it, but overall it feels a bit musky and a touch mysterious. I am pretty sure I have tried this before, may have been Pure Incense but it could have also been Primo, but ultimately it sort of gets on my nerves over the burn.

Visually, the Sandalwood & Saffron seems to look a lot like the yellow dusted thinner masalas we’ve seen so recently with the Absolute Bliss imported King of Saffron. This isn’t a really successful version of it, if it is, in fact it seems strangely a bit closer to a champa, except the combination of ingredients seems to leave the aroma sort of bitter and a bit incoherent. It’s almost like you can tell what they were going for but without distinct notes of either ingredient, it feels more like a sort of sour or bitter mix (perhaps a bit camphorous as well) with vanilla and other more sweeter accompaniment, and as a merger it doesn’t really work for me too well. I’m not sure if that’s because it doesn’t fit my expectations visually, but it just strikes me as a really odd mix. Saffron and sandalwood mixes really only work well if the resolution is higher and the qualities are kept to woody and dry.

Although Shiva Nag Champa is not a Madhavadas incense, the top perfume does remind me of some of the Pure Incenses champas I’ve tried over the years. These perfumes aren’t all that reminiscent of say the Blue Box/Satya Nag Champa perfume or even the Gold Nagchampa/Vintage Nag Champa types you get from AB or Temple of Incense (it’s sort of like Nag Champa vs champa flower maybe?). This doesn’t have the powdery qualities of that scent and is instead much sweeter and piquant. It verges ever so slightly on bitter during the burn which seems to be aspects of the citrus in the mix as well, gulp, as a touch or urine or something. It’s a strangely complex and involved top note for what may seem like a critical perspective, but it could cause a bit of flip flop in impression because it’s like a mix of pleasant and notes that most are probably not going to like too much.

Tulsi Vrinda is an herbal incense that leans a bit in a spicier direction while still having a lot of the same powdery characteristics of Gokula florals. It’s cousin to something like the Kerala Flower in the Temple of Incense line or Happy Hari Samadhi Sutra. This isn’t Tulsi (basil) in the same way the Temple of Incense stick is, but it has some hints of that scent buried in an overall base. It’s enough to perhaps give this incense a bit of personality that some of the others don’t have. There’s also a bit of woodiness in the mix that prevents it from getting too pink or sweet.

So this installment wraps up the Gokula reviews! As you can see there are some definite highlights in the last four reviews, for sure the Musk & Amber and Royal Vrindavan Flower are really strong, and just coming behind those I’d recommend the Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra, Musk Heena and Rose & Saffron (so all six would make a good starter order). A lot of other scents could be growers in hindsight as well, with a number of solid scents in the middle, but for the most part this is a decent quality line overall and at least this “half” of the line has a profile that might be different than what you’d tried before.

Gokula Incense / Marigold & Juhi, Musk & Amber, Musk & Champa, Musk Heena, Musk & Patchouli, Pink Rose

Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla
Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra

This is the third of four in a series of Gokula Incense reviews, please see the first installment for an introduction to the company.

In the latest installment I wrote about three very good floral incenses, some of which used marigold and/or juhi in the aromas. However the Marigold & Juhi as an incense on its own is probably the first Gokula incense I’ve come across I found actively unpleasant. Floral charcoals often have pitfalls of having bitter, sour or other off notes and this one seems to have the middle quality. The lemon or citrus qualities (described on the site as citric floral) are a too loud and while the charcoal often isn’t too bad in Gokula incenses, it’s unwelcome in this sort of combination. Perhaps this is just my own feelings about citrus floral mixes and I admit I don’t usually like them so if you do you might like this one better.

Then we go from maybe the worst to probably the best incense in the catalog that I’ve tried, Musk & Amber. In the last year I’ve sampled a number of great Vedic Vaani musks and this one is akin to those that lean more in the animalic direction rather than the sweet. Amber always seems to pair really well with musk and there is a thickness to this scent that a lot of the catalog doesn’t have as much. There’s something about amber that brings out some balsamic qualities in the middle that really compliment the musk so it’s almost a perfect merger. The site also describes this as having frankincense, hina and sandalwood in the mix and while I wouldn’t expect any of these notes to be loud they certainly help with the complexity. I know this is one I would bulk up on with a repeat visit, it’s just extraordinary so I’d certainly recommend adding this to an order.

The Musk & Champa incense is a scent that I’ve gotten really familiar with through the Vedic Vaani catalog. VV have a gigantic host of sticks that are dark brown colored and usually have some level of halmaddi in the mix. They’re a faint cousin to some of the darker flora/fluxos but in something like 8 out of 10 cases the top note is something that doesn’t quite come together with the rest of the stick. This note often kind of reminds me of crayon or an oil used in a candle. For sure whatever the musk here is very different to that used in Musk & Amber and is much moved over to the sweet side but I’d guess that element is either synthetic or created from a combination of elements. This probably includes the agarwood and saffron given as side notes. Where the champa is soft and powdery in the florals I described last review, everything in this incense blots out those gentle elements. Don’t get me wrong, this is likely to be something ORS readers will like, but I will admit these sort of incenses are heavily fatiguing me. But I have tried a couple that got the balance right outside of Gokula, although I will have to discuss those another day.

One of my new favorite aromas of late is heena (also hina), the leaves from the tree that impart a lovely green note very different from western trees. Like amber, and sometimes included with amber, heena imparts a really different characteristic to incenses that tends to make the aroma a bit more complex, because being fairly unique it tends to broaden any profile its put in. While I’d love to see what Gokula imports could do for a Musk, Amber and Heena incense, the Musk Heena here is still a really lovely scent with the heena sorta of tempering the animalic qualities of the musk. It keeps a sort of bitter but somewhat evergreen meets herbal freshness to the scene that a lot of these other musk incenses don’t quite have as much. So this is a yummy goody as well, well worth checking out.

It’s strange that with some of the Gokula musk incenses being so powerful that the Musk & Patchouli would be such a mild incense and not really be strong in either ingredient. Perhaps some of this profile is because of the additionally listed ingredients of sandalwood, frankincense and neroli. It seems more like this was going for a champa-ish incense without really evoking musk or patchouli all that much. The incense is instead cooling, camphorous, powdery and has quite a bit of vanilla. So it’s a relatively mellow scent but seems to have a bit of resolution nonetheless. The incenses tilts largely over to a dusted charcoal but even some of these that are quite firm seem to have a bit of halmaddi in them. I wouldn’t really get this for the musk or patchouli, and nor would I recommend this as a starter incenses but there’s little wrong with it. It just doesn’t leap out and grab you and I would guess it doesn’t end up being particularly memorable.

Finally, we have the Pink Rose with a similarly colored masala. All roses these days are usually created from something else as it’s rarely been an affordable oil. This often results in incenses well off the aroma and some can be painful. Gokula have the right compromise which is basically something of a sweet floral hybrid, a very common take on a recipe (think Krishna Rose at Absolute Bliss for example). This is certainly a pleasant version of it and while it’s not really all that near rose, it’s likely to be well appreciated as long as you’re not overstocked in this area.

Bosen / Hoi-An Aloeswood, Refining

So I had meant to sweep up these Bosen scents. I think for the most part ORS has covered many of this Taiwan-based line’s incenses through the years but occasionally they have added a new (ish) one like the Hoi-An Aloeswood, which is basically an ambergris-infused aloeswood and one we hadn’t reviewed.

This one’s a real treat from my perspective and the company appears to have matched the ambergris with a decent level aloeswood so you can equally experience the notes of the wood as well as the salty goodness of ambergris (also be sure not to close the link after the first sentence.) This stick of course reminds me of Ross and his “souked” agarwood, which this certain resembles in many ways. Anyway this is simply a match made in heaven, where some of Bosen’s lower end aloeswoods on their own can be average, the mix with ambergris just gives you a whole host of notes to experience during a burn. It’s honestly near the top of my favorite Bosens.

Refining Incense was probably left out of reviews all those years ago by accident as my check on Amazon shows I’ve ordered it twice. This is one I mentally classify with their more Tibetan-style incenses like in this group. Refining Incense is a mix of agarwood, white sandalwood, styrax, ghanten khampa, several Tibetan Dharma medicines and nectars, and binder. However, it really seems to be the styrax resin that stands out, and at 35% it is more than double the amount of any other ingredients. So the overall incense has a very strong and distinct resinous note with the agarwood, sandalwood and ghanten khampa (a Tibetan wormwood) making up much of the incense’s back notes. Most Bosen Tibetans have some sort of fruity-resin like mix that distinguishes them from the usual Tibetan incenses, not to mention the tensile strength of these sticks is certainly stronger. In many ways this actually reminds me a little of the Pythoncidere, although it seems to have some floral and other aspects that incense doesn’t have. But Bosen always made these to smell fresh, high altitude and distinctive and they’re all really enjoyable, there are none of the cheap wood aspects you get in lower tier Nepali/Tibetan incenses in Bosen products.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramakrishna’s Handmade Incense / Special Nag Champa, Special Loban, Special Ramkrishna, Dhuni

In my past few years of exploring Indian-styled incense from multiple different establishments claiming things like ‘all-natural’ and ‘handmade’ and similar, I kept wondering if there was some sort of smallish operation doing things in a more old-fashioned way, using the more traditional ingredients rather than perfumes and synthetic substitutes that are common in 95% of the Indian Incense world.

The problem is that if you read everyone’s marketing copy, they all claim they are “all-natural” using traditional recipes. So in the end, the proof is in the product.

I first was suggested by a friend that I might want to check out this expensive shop on eBay that sold handmade incense. It took me a while to get around to it because it didn’t look all that fancy. Finally, I made my order. I have been excited to try everything they make since making this order. This is really wonderful incense.

If you find yourself interested in purchasing a larger assortment and don’t want to pay eBay prices, the seller, Goa Bay Trading, will also sell to you in rupees on their website and send you a Paypal invoice and add 1000 rupees for shipping/handling. I’ve been finding their service good, though the site seems a bit sketchy since it doesn’t have a proper checkout, they send you a Paypal invoice.

I’m going to start with a few I think are winners. First, they put ‘special’ in front of several sticks and this seems to mean that the sticks are thicker with extra halmaddi, so much so that you have to peel these thick sticks apart from each other.

Special Nag Champa

I am relatively new to appreciating Indian-style incense. I don’t truly know if this is what the old incense was like but this stick was kind of mashed because it is so soft, flattened in places. It is a thick hand-rolled masala dusted with brown finishing powder. As a Nag Champa, this goes in some kind of apple-pie and orange blossom direction with cinnamon, apple, and orange blossoms. I don’t get the typical salty sandalwood/Champa flowers scent of a nag champa but then when I dig down and put my nose in the smoke I start smelling like these thin angel hair threads of nag champa smells mixed in with the other smells. The more I lit these, the more I like them. They have a complicated bouquet dancing around a recognizable core of the “Nag Champa” scent. I’d rate this 9/10.

Special Loban

I have encountered Loban to smell like a wide range of things, despite it actually supposedly translating to benzoin. Note in the picture that this one crumbles and be careful because I had this fall apart as it got exposed to air. This is a natural stick with a very soft masala that crumbles a bit but can be mushed back together, it is finished with a brown powder that marbles into the moisture of the masala. This is unlike any of the Loban sticks Vedic Vaani or other suppliers sell, and is a really strong masala that seems to be made from halmaddi and loban and sandalwood and smells like all three are the highest quality. The smells blend together and create a magic carpet ride of scent that I imagine Mike will say reminds him of something he used to get from Mystic Temple. I really like this one, definitely a 9/10.

Special Ramkrishna

This is a deluxe version of “Ramkrishna” in all dimensions, it is thicker, softer, and easy to mush around, in fact, they kind of stick together and you have to ‘peel’ the sticks apart in the package. They’ve been misshapen by shipping somewhat. Otherwise, this is the regular Ramkrishna turned up to 11, it is sweeter, more expansive, the floral note is both more present and more mysterious, and feels like instead of an attar they went for the real essentials. This is a very charming stick and makes me immediately happy to be smelling it. It’s really just a very familiar smell yet somehow this is like going from a Prius to a Rolls Royce while keeping the whole smell mostly the same, there is none of the ‘cosmetic’ smell I got from the non-special Ramkrishna, just what I take to be geranium and a maybe a drop of rose. 8/10

Dhuni

Like most Ramakrishna’s, this appears like many others, natural stick, soft charcoal masala, and light brown powder finish. This has a sharp musk different than other musks, it has a sweet and vanilla note but otherwise, it’s got a funky BO-but-in-a-good-way kind of scent. Also, urine notes but also in a good way. I realize that adding ‘but in a good way’ to both BO and urine might be suspect but I have a hard time describing this musk other than it has notes from both but neither are the repugnant notes. I really tend to like when incense gets funky and takes me to a barnyard or similar olfactory experience. This is one of the more animal-like musks I’ve encountered and surprisingly more musky than the ‘Musk’ or ‘Kasturi’ sticks from these artists. 9/10

Holy Smoke / Bloom, Cardamom, Dammar, Free Spirit, Nag Champa

Holy Smoke is the name of a domestic incense creator that can be found on both Etsy and its own website. The company states, “All our ingredients are natural and directly from nature. We try to source the best ingredients to produce the finest products. Our incense sticks are hand-rolled using honey, gum resin, botanicals and pure essential oils. Each stick will burn for an hour or more.” This in particular got my attention because even some of the best Indian incenses (and Holy Smoke sticks are Indian-style for sure) out there can be completely charcoal based which has never really been one of my favorite bases for a scent. And one must admit Holy Smoke present their incenses in a very attractive way at their sales sites. So I was very interested in checking out some of their scents.

First of all I was a bit disappointed in that the incenses I received did not have the bright colors that the presentations on line hinted at. This is of course not a deal breaker for a scent, but it IS part of what had me scrambling for a purchase. The incenses do vary a bit in color but one must come to the impression that the lighting may be bringing out what you see a bit more than the reality and in fact if you look at my own pictures in this review, the flash is definitely helping some on that account. In my experience a lot of Indian sticks that use colors may not impart any scent variations through the colors themselves but there is often something psychological about using them and I once raided the Vedic Vaani catalog trying to find the brightly colored ones and this often led to some of their better incenses. So be sure to temper one’s expectations from the pictures.

So that lovely purple color on the Bloom picture at the Holy Smoke website I don’t really see at all in the actual incense, it turned out to be much redder. This is described as a mix of rose, musk and patchouli, but what you immediately notice is just the overall blast of scent coming from the stick, it’s literally drenched in perfume oils. In fact I did not mind at all letting these sit for a while hoping to temper the power of them a little and even in doing so they still strike me as strong and powerful, perhaps even too much. So it’s probably worth setting one’s expectations that a stick like this at an hour burn and this powerful is likely something you don’t want as close to your space. The other issue, which not all of the sticks have, is that the combination of the oils being used often reminds me of air freshener type scents rather than any of the specific ingredients. As we know getting a legitimate rose oil from an essential is virtually impossible at this price range, but the overall floral scent does seem to be largely drowning out whatever is being used as the musk and patchouli. You can certainly sense both in the mix at some level but the combination still adds up in a way that reminds me if your levels on your CD are too high.

The Cardamom is very different to the Bloom. It was actually nice to see this rarely represented spice in an incense and the overall levels turned down a bit. Cardamom is a fairly unique spice but tends to appear as drier in incense which matches a bit better with the honey and resin base. But it does appear that there is more in play than the just the spice (as well as the question of how much of the spice is the actual spice and how much is in the oil). I wondered a bit about some of the natural resin in the midst of it coming through as it seemed somewhat basic quality, perhaps a touch gravelly, but it wasn’t ultimately problematic with the top note. There is some level of a floral feel to this as well as if the base or additional ingredients contribute quite a bit to the overall aroma. It’s an interesting and fairly unique aroma overall, very different to the others I sampled from the catalog. But once again, the sheer strength of the overall stick feels like it gets a bit overwhelming during the burn, something that might be mitigated by burning half sticks.

Part of the issue with incenses whose essential oil mixes are this loud is they tend to resemble household products and that’s the main issue with Dammar, an incense with a resin whose lemon-like tendencies push the overall aroma into furniture polish territory. The thing is, where in the Cardamom I could detect some level of actual resin burning here, the lemon characteristics supposedly coming from this resin all seem to be on the oil level. The issue is that it feels a bit chemical on some level in the sense where fruitiness in an air freshener or cleaning product ends up being too cloying. This also runs into having a bit of a bitter edge to it. Unfortunately, it has probably been a while since I tried the actual resin to see how close it is but it seems like here there’s much more going on than just the resin. I don’t mean to doubt the creators claim that these are all natural but sometimes the mixes can still perhaps not work quite as well.

Free Spirit is a blend of Nag Champa, Lotus, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. One thing that originally struck me about this mix and the plain Nag Champa (below) is that it seems like the company may use a Satya-sourced Nag Champa oil or something very similar as it has an extremely familiar scent to it. The difference in base, then, is made more obvious by contrasting it with this oil which does make you notice the honey and resins a bit more. This is a bit of a drier mix but it still feels a bit crowded with florals and one starts to come to the conclusion that not unlike Madhavadas sourced incenses, the base of these tends to be aromatic enough to be part of every aroma in a way that makes them all somewhat similar. There’s a fruity sort of scent that seems common to all of these incenses that tends to mute all of the specific named notes. And so the mix ends up being quite a bit different from any one scent and in a largely generic sort of way.

Nag Champa on its own is a lot more familiar, and maybe here you can mostly sense what this base is all about as it’s easier to mentally isolate that one note. What it probably does the most is show what this sort of oil smells like outside of the usual halmaddi and sandalwood mix, that is, it’s quite a bit different without those notes and with what is the unique Holy Smoke honey and resin mix. But like the Cardamom, not having the extra oils is a bit more pleasant to my nose. But overall this doesn’t really smell all that much like a traditional Nag Champa so much as the use of that scent in this format.

Overall, with all of these incenses getting some idea of whether you like their base is going to be key where you fall with any of their aromas. But even if you like the base, the predominance of certain oil mixes is very likely to overwhelm if you are not careful. So I might recommend checking one of their samplers first, if available.

Mayraj / Loban Bathi; Pradhan Perfumers / Royal Life; Saranya Traders / Saranya Supreme; Sree Trading Co. / Sree Sidhi Ganesh; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Cottage Industries / No. 14 Sandalwood; Unknown / Mysore Sandalwood

In addition to the range of Meena Perfume Industries incenses Everest Traders sent me, included were a varying batch of Indian scents as well as a varying batch of Bhutanese incenses, the latter of which I will cover in the next installment. The following are incenses from a number of different suppliers, some of which I don’t believe I have seen imported here, at least not often.

Loban incenses are an unusual breed. As far as I’ve been able to tell loban can mean benzoin or frankincense or resin mixes and you’re not usually told which; however, I’ve tried enough Indian frankincense sticks to know most of those don’t smell like lobans. The Absolute Benzoin at Temple of Incense or the Asana Sutra from Happy Hari are examples of pure charcoal benzoins and these are a bit closer to the loban but also not exact. The TOI Big Cleansing incense is probably the closest although in this case there’s more of an herbal quality to that incense that won’t often be found in a pure loban. And the Loban Bathi from Mayraj (I think that’s the company but the package is so thin it’s hard to tell) is about as down the middle of a loban as you will find. The thing about lobans to me is that if you’re familiar with lower grade resins you may know they can have scents that smell like heated stone or even gravel. It’s something I became familiar with through inexpensive Catholic church mixes, which are far and away from like the great frankincense you can get through Mermade Magickal Arts. On the other hand a brilliant high end loban like Vedic Vaani’s Kawadi Golden Loban can move away from this into almost candy-like sweetness and a definite resin presence. This one is more in the middle, it may be one of the most definition perfect loban incenses you will find, there’s some gravel/stone in the mix but there’s also a very nice resin note in the mix and yes a hint of the candy that gets more refined as the quality goes up the scale. It looks largely like a dusted charcoal but it’s a tiny bit softer than I would expected. I’ve never been the hugest fan of the style but outside the VV I just mentioned, this is one of the best I’ve tried and certainly a pleasant burn. Maybe the only issue is these are thin packages with maybe 5-6 sticks, so they’re about a dollar a stick.

Pradhan Perfumer’s Royal Life is a beautiful mix of perfumes for sure. The sticks are much smaller than the average but they pack an aromatic punch that is closer to a champa style incense. This is what I consider a traditional perfume in that it has some elements of the way some Indian incenses have been for decades and if they have moved or changed any ingredients it still seems like a wonderful, nostalgic mix. There’s a touch of licorice or something in the aroma which has always been an element I love in certain Indian incenses (the short-lived Ascendance that Mystic Temple used to bring in one was like this), but this also has some level of wood in the mix among with a lot of sweetness and a big floral bouquet. The stick is a little soft so there’s probably a bit of halmaddi in the masala. Very nice overall and it makes me wonder if the company has it in a longer stick. This one I’d certainly consider purchasing on my own.

Saranya Supreme takes us back into the flora/fluxo category, very much a cousin to the Sai Flora with the thick sticks. Unlike some floras/fluxos this one seems like a thick dusted charcoal stick from its firmness, but it ultimately does a similar thing to most incenses in this style. This mix seems to lean a bit to a smoother sort of aroma which I assume in part because it doesn’t seem to have additional ingredients like most floras/fluxos and there’s a bit of a resin fruitiness in the middle that is a touch loban-like. There is also a touch of a strange woody note that is hard to get my nose around on the outsides that I don’t tend to detect in floras/fluxos usually. Ultimately it’s definitely a different take on the style, a description that’s hard to define further as these types seem to be complex and loud (and this one stings my eyes a little bit), but when I brought out the next incense I was quickly reminded that the central floras and fluxos are much wetter scented and not nearly as dry as this one. For newcomers I’d start with Sai Flora because it’s somewhat more generally available than many of these incenses and acts as a good central base from where to understand the style.

The Sree Trading Co.s’s Siddhi Ganesh works much better as a flora to my nose than either the Sarayna Supreme or Sai Flora. Over the years I’ve often seen floras fall into two categories by sight, the lighter toned sticks like Sai Flora and then those like this one that are colored dark brown and have a different sort of scent profile as a result, while still being unquestionably “flora.” That sort of crystalline brassy top note which always seems to be present in this style merges with a slightly softer base that seems to have a bit of halmaddi mixed in with the charcoal and dampens that top a little bit in a way that often balances it a little. This does have the sort of crayon-like notes I tend to find fairly often in floral incenses and the base is very similar to probably a half dozen or more incenses in the Vedic Vaani catalog who often just change the top note. There’s some level of something like plum or prunes in the mix, but also an interesting spice mix that balances it on the other side. This is a neat incense overall, with some brightness that helps ensure the oil mixes don’t bog this one down too much, which is something I find occasional with dark brown masalas like this one. However, I would say a full stick might go too long a way so I’d test this at a half stick first as it’s very fragrant. But it’s certainly one of the better fluxo/floras I’ve tried.

I believe I received a sample of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Cottage Industries #14, Sandalwood from Padma Store some months ago and getting a full package from Everest Traders reminded me of one thing in particular, that often one or two stick samples are often not enough to really get into an incense. I found after my third stick from this package I started to like this one a little more than on my initial take. My initial take on the whole line was that most of the ones I had tried were very average incenses so keep this comment in mind.

As the history goes, in India, sandalwood trees were overharvested leading to shortages, which also led to a more careful cultivation program in more recent times. However even though this is happening, there is a lot of evidence that scents like sandalwood are actually created synthetically now. Short of actually looking over the shoulders of the incense creators in India, which I would unlikely be allowed to do, it’s difficult to tell what is in sandalwood incenses these days, sometimes Indian sandalwood is used but Australian sandalwood and wood from other countries is also used. You can have sandalwood incenses that are mixed with the other woods and more lower quality. Overall a whole range of different sandalwood scents are available. For me the high end sandalwood incenses that remind me of the old days tend to be a few that Temple of Incense or Absolute Bliss, or if you like the Madhavadas style, Pure Incense has a few as well.

So with that in mind I would place this #14 in a more inexpensive category in that it does not have much of a real sandalwood note to it, but feels like maybe cheaper wood or wood that has had some of the oil extracted might be the base for this incense. It comes across a bit more like a floral mix and the note on top will be different from what you have experience. Back in the day some of the Incense from india drier masalas used to have aromas quite like this and they’re usually really inexpensive. This Cottage Industries line is actually pretty large and while it looks like Everest Traders also have an Amber and a Mattipal, I believe if you’re in Europe, Padma Store has quite a number of different blends from this company in addition to these.

The last Indian incense package I was sent was 100g of something labelled as Temple Grade Mysore Sandalwood; however, I do not detect any sandalwood, scent or otherwise, in this incense at all. For $4 for 100g batch you would basically not expect it to, but since this is an incredibly inexpensive incense I decided to just evaluate it on its own. There’s something intriguing about the incense for sure. It’s a dusted charcoal with maybe a tiny bit of softness to it. It seems sort of like a mix of a sort of sweet champa-like base with a note I remember from previous Asta Sughanda incenses from long ago, a bit like that paper meets vanilla smell, but also there’s something like a rubber tire note to it that flirts between being a kind of weird subnote and a bit too intrusive. In fact given the number of sticks in this I burned at least five before I started writing this. I would guess that the intention of this batch was to give a sandalwood note but the mix was off in some way, it’s something I think importers run into occasionally. And so there seem to be some components in the mix that are kind of interesting. But ultimately I don’t think this one works and it reminds me in ways of some accidents I’ve been able to check out.

Dimension 5 / The Utopian Dream Collection / Division By Zero, Sandstorm, Yume No Supaisu, Borneo LTD, Cosmika Flamboya

I hope those of you who are looking for the experience of a stick incense created from ultra-fine quality materials have had the chance to check out Josh Matthews’ Dimension 5 line. Given that many of these types of incenses tend to be run in small batches with Comiccon-like windows for purchasing, it’s good to see one a bit more available. And not only can you contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com for more information as well as purchasing information on these incenses, this latest batch is also up at Mermade Magickal Arts for purchase as well! We are really glad to see this wonderful series of incenses available at both sources.

The first of the five incenses in this collection, Division By Zero, is described as a Vietnamese agarwood, sandalwood and spice blend with some oil work. Usually with Japanese incenses (or in this case Japanese-styled incenses), we tend to check if they’re predominantly agarwood or sandalwood based. In this case it really is a blend of both woods with a rather equal amount of spices. The mix, which I’d guess must contain a bit of cinnamon and clove, or a similar mix, imparts an almost applesauce-spice like element to the entirely, one that seems an equal to the woods. The aloeswood and the sandalwood sort of blend together where the crystalline nature of the latter seems more topped with the regal elements of the former. One notes as with all of the Dimension 5 incenses that there seems an almost painstaking attention to getting the balance right which allows all of the elements to shine in their own right. In this case it feels like the aloeswood is being used more for the top aspects than for any middle or base. The surprise is that it feels somewhat resinous, although that isn’t listed in the ingredients, but it’s a quality a lot of fine wood tends to impart on its own. In reviewing this on two occasions it was the first stick I burned in the morning and it seemed quite fit for that time of the day.

Sandstorm is Dimension 5’s most sandalwood-fronted incense, although it includes quite a bit of Indian and New Guinea aloeswood in it as well; however, the presence of sandalwood oil in the mix tends to mean the aloeswood is included to contour what is indeed a storm of sand(alwood). I tried an early version of this before this current refinement and was immediately amazed by it. I tend to prefer good Indian sandalwoods by a long margin usually because Japanese incenses seem to mostly center on certain qualities in the wood that have long been diminishing in quality due to shortages. Sandstorm does a better job of dialing the volume up on the overall scent a bit without losing those more heartwood like qualities. As a comparison, while I was reviewing this stick I also had the Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood blend out so decided to burn a stick of it to compare it. As a comparison, Sandstorm does appear to use quite a bit more aloeswood, as the edges of the scent tend to have agarwood qualities that are a bit deeper than what you’d usually find in a sandalwood-based stick. But these notes also maintain a bit more of that central sandalwood note in Sandstorm that the Kotonoha stick basically just hints at. Sandstorm adds what are some neatly complex aspects to what is a surprisingly involved blend for this type of wood. It’s a sandalwood to contemplate and even so just a bit more than that.

Yume No Supaisu is described as “A dry, woods, resins and spices incense with musk, kaiko, and others. An advanced incense connoisseur stick – the least immediate of the collection, tremendous depth, a highly complex incense for the blackbelt afficionado to learn over time. Old school Japanese with whispers of Tibet.” It has a very large list of ingredients: red soil Vietnamese agarwood, New Guinea agarwood, Indonesian agarwood, Tongan and Mysore sandalwood, spices, resins, musk, operculum of sea snail, and others. So where to start reviewing such an elaborate stick? There are really a ton of varying notes that come off this one. In front it feels almost like some sort of tangy fruit or plum, but this front really gives way to a mix of sandalwood and agarwood qualities that are quite startling. With so many different kinds in use, you are treated to a fairly wide range of aspects, but they all sort of hang together as one and that’s before the other elements outside of the woods pop out to tickle your nose. Once again that feeling of the unity giving way to a multiplex of sensations and then back again really arrests your attention. Truly a beautiful aroma and almost hard to believe it was possible to take this big a step up from the first two classics, but I’d dare say this is Josh’s masterpiece to date. There are depths in this one that you don’t reach except at the higher levels of Japanese woods. And the “whispers of Tibet” seem very real on this as well, there’s a note that pops up that feels a bit more swankily herbal than you would normally find in a Japanese stick. It’s a touch on this one I really enjoy.

Josh provides a longer and detailed explanation for his Borneo LTD blend, which gives a window on a creator’s thinking about how they go about crafting their incenses. Josh uses a number of different types of aloeswoods for his blends, but this one focuses on a particular island’s resinous woods. This is somewhat edited but you can request the full explanations directly from Josh if you want to read more: “My apex Borneo island wood blend, featuring 4 different types of top-shelf Borneo agarwood and 2 primo Borneo island Ensar ouds, blended with resins and spices. If you’ve had very high quality Borneo agarwood on an electric heater then you’re familiar with those lovely “green mint honey” types notes and the deep woodiness … I spent a great deal of time balancing the ratios of the different Borneo agarwoods and Borneo ouds, and also balancing those elements with the resins and spices blend – the goal was to highlight those gloriously green, woody, somewhat austere type notes of Borneo agarwood while eliminating the acrid, harsh type notes that can so easily arise from such wood. Is there a sweetness in there? Maybe, but, more this is focused on the pleasure of bitterness. May have a learning curve..”

This was actually the one I dipped in first as I am fascinated by this type of wood and the surprising variation of regionally sourced aloeswoods. To say the least if Josh’s goal was to highlight the honeyed tones this is a pitch perfect job with that element directly in front and center. That mix of sweet and bitter is really the prime experience with all of the different woods and ouds mixing in for a rather unique, powerful, and yet very friendly aloeswood experience. In fact there’s not really a lot more to describe than what Josh does himself except to say this one is an extraordinary success. The thing about a lot of these really rich and powerful sticks with high quality materials is that they often tend to be so multiplex that their uniqueness isn’t always as obvious from initial burns, but I think like most of the incenses in this collection you are really getting a lot of differences as well that highlight why these types of woods are so coveted. This is an absolute beauty for sure and if Yume No Supaisu was a masterpiece on a multi-ingredient level, this one is a masterpiece of aloeswood crafting.

And finally we have the long-awaited Dimension 5 high-ender, Cosmika Flamboya. Josh says “This one pulls out all the stops. By far the most elaborate oil work of any of my sticks. A decadent mélange of agarwood, sandalwood, spices, oils, oud, resins, musk, and others. Stack it against any kyara incense in terms of wow factor.” It includes Vietnamese agarwood, Malaysian agarwood, sandalwood, oud, musk, operculum of sea snail, resins and others. So you could literally write an essay on exactly what kyara is but rather than being explicit that there is kyara in here, I think you can definitely describe this as least as a kyara-like incense. It has the kind of notes you might find in some of the real kyara incenses such as the sadly depleted Kourindo Kourindkyarai where caramel-ish tones meet a much deeper wood scent with that almost definitely kyara blend sweetness in the mix as well as a touch of that sort of minty-menthol-green note you find more in the less blended kyaras. But much of this plays on top of those deeper turpentine-like notes you only tend to find in the more expensive aloeswoods. A lot of these aspects seem matched with the other notes in order to bring out the woodiness, but there’s a rather dank musk note floating on top and some level of acridity that may come from the operculum. It’s all quite fascinating and gives you this feeling there’s so much more to learn from it once the stick has been used up.

There is a feeling with the Dimension 5 line, particularly due to the shortness of the sticks that is kind of Boggle-like in that you have something like a set time to name all the incense notes before the stick depletes. You are reminded that the premium ingredients are premium for a reason but one thing I really like about these is Josh seems to craft these to maximize the notes and really get them out there in a clear presentation. These are very much incenses to give your entire attention to, they are not at all made to light and be peripheral, there is simply too much goodness to these to waste them like that. Even in reviewing I had to almost block out the time to make sure I had a nose on the stick through the entire burn. And these are simply the best Dimension 5 work to date, some of the deepest and most extraordinary mixes that you would almost expect to see in the upper stratospheres of premium Japanese incenses. So if you’re for mining for depth I can not recommend these highly enough. PS: if you have an Instagram account you can also access some short videos where Josh talks about these incenses.

Administrative Status Update

It’s been a bit quiet around here late, but that’s for a few reasons. First of all I’m in what is my peak work period. I write, in part, for a living and Feb to May or June is when I do most of this and unfortunately my team is about half new this year and so I’m having to train a lot, pick up a lot for management and there is really no energy left for ORS (it was kind of the same last year where I posted nearly every day for half the year starting in June). ORS is also working on a lot of stuff behind the scenes as well in terms of research and so forth, which we’re hoping will eventually beat fruit and it does mean there’s a pretty big pile forming up, but this will have to give birth once it can.

I did want to mention really quick that I am really pleased with Mermade’s Dragon Tears. This incense is described by Katlyn as “In my mind, what Dragon’s Blood should smell like…” and in many ways there is no more perfect description that this, because while actual Dragon’s Blood often seems to be prized more for its name, I’ve always been fairly disappointed in it as an aroma on its own. Mixed in with good frankincense and perhaps treated in a way that levels it up with more cinnamon spice pizazz? Sign me up! So don’t miss this little treat. Kat has been incredibly prolific this winter maybe more than I can keep up with at times and I’d describe her as “an artist in the zone” for sure (theres even a couple more things up since the last time I looked). Don’t forget to check out the resins and materials sections either as like I said as she curates some fine materials for sure.

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