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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Mermade Magickal Arts / Kyphis, Incense Cakes; Espirit de la Nature / Giroflee Ordorante

It seems like with the new kyphi mechanism in play that there’s been a substantial creative outburst at Mermade in the winter months. Combine that with ORS being in something of a downtime, it can be really hard to keep up and deeply go into some of these new and wonderful scents that Katlyn has been whipping up in winter months, so I thought I’d do my best to try and do some sort of overview to catch up on some things. As I’ve mentioned before, the catalog window for a lot of Mermade goodies is short and often ORS reviews can shorten them a bit more, and even when I start a review page in draft, I have to keep tabs on what is still live or not by the time I’m ready to publish something. And this too, of course, goes for the Espirit de la Nature incenses that show up. It’s often like watching a car zip by.

So let’s start with the Mermade kyphis. I covered Kyphi #2, Goddess Temple, here. I believe the #3 was the green Emerald Temple variant and the #4 was the Amber Kyphi (pictured left), all of which are now gone, at least for the present. If you read the #2 review then you will realize these are largely intriguing variants of the same sort of kyphi base with a new front. All of them are wonderfully etched in detail and I’m just generally of the opinion that if you see a Mermade kyphi go up for a sale then it’s a good idea to start planning an order. The amber variant did not last long at all and it is a really wonderful incense, with the back half connected through this kyphi lineage and the front a wonderfully perfect amber scent, distinct and almost definitive. And I think the #5 variant here (coming soon, will link when live) will be Goddess Temple with Oud (pictured right). I just have a few early samples of this one from Katlyn’s last package but I might have to separate this one from the “usually special and magnificent” to the “particularly special and magnificent” category. I love the way the oud in this one sort of tinges and modifies the kyphi lineage of all these previous incenses. It does so in a way that might create the most significant change of this line of incense. It feels less like it has a new top note and more like the oud has just deeply infused itself into all aspects of the scent. When you think of kyphi as this sort of aged melange of ingredients that all add up to something like an aromatic vintage, the #5 seems to be a really cool leap sideways that might make you feel like you’re trying kyphi all over again.

Another project Katlyn is working on is “incense cakes.” There are three different ones that are all very recent, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, Rose of Isis and Dionysos. These are all essentially a mix of resins, woods, herbs and spices that are all formulated into small little discs with a stamp applied and mostly mixed in with another natural ingredient. The first blend is subtitled a Mesopotamian incense and includes cedar wood and essential oil; Suhul and Yemeni myrrh; Iranian galbanum; styrax – liquidambar; labdanum resin and absolute; black frankincense; and juniper herb and berries. Not sure if my botany is up to this guess and it’s not in the ingredients, but the cakes look mixed in with eucalyptus leaves or something visually similar. You can actually really suss out the specific ingredients in this mix and one thing I like about it is that a lot of these are not as common in available incenses so you really feel like the styrax and labdanum are quite forward here and the evergreens give it all a more herbal quality than a green one. It all adds up to a nicely mysterious mix that reveals a cool creative take on a regional scent.

Rose of Isis is a bit more straight forward a blend, with the rose and sandalwood mix out in front. The rose comes from three different absolutes, and the sandalwood is the quality Mysore, but in addition there’s Sahul myrrh, Saigon cinnamon, Hougary frankincense, and benzoin; the mix dusted with agarwood powder. I’ve long understood Katlyn to have a really deep connection with Isis energy and have experienced a number of her crafts in this vein both on and off the market to know she is a vessel for it. The rose here is lovely and powerful, redolent even in the fresh tin, in the way that a friendly rose absolute can lead to it being a bit like valentine’s day candy. But there’s not just that element, but a really genuine scent of the actual rose flower that is paired with that. As the heat continues the rose note will tend to fade into the background more, with the myrrh and cinnamon comng in louder towards the late heat. The sandalwood seems a bit milder than you might expect, mostly due to the powerful rose front, but it tends to tie everything together in the background.

Dionysos is something of an incense cake version of one of Katlyn’s older incenses with the same name. In fact this review is still probably fairly spot on in many ways and here you can get this almost vintage spirits sort of vibe just over the fresh cakes in the tin. Part of this I believe is the black currant bud absolute. As a kid who grew up in England in the 70s, black currant was almost ubiquitous in sweets and I loved it. Here it’s modified by some of the other ingredients into kyphi-like age, like a fine intoxicating spirit. There’s classic incense resins (undoubtedly part of what carries the currant), agarwood, juniper berries, sweet tobacco absolute, cassis (also black currant), galbanum and a pinch or two of sativa. I sort of roughly classify this kind of incense into Katlyn’s later summer blends, there’s this sort of feeling of heat and harvest at work, ripe berries, hay and herb. One you definitely would want to pull out at a party, an event much richer with the god of wine in attendance.

There were also a couple new Encense du Monde incenses in the Mermade catalog of late but one blew out incredibly fast and the other might be gone by the time I get this incense live (3 left! Going, going..). This last one left (well they both were!), Giroflee Ordorante, is naturally up to Bonnie’s incredible talent, an incense that boasts a very involved ingredients list: “Matthiola longipeta ssp bicornis enfleuraged [night-scented stock] while still on the stem into benzoin, palo santo and tolu balsam resins, propolis, rose extract, palo santo wood, sandalwood, rosewood, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, patchouli. Bound with reduced organic honey. Powdered with monarde fistulosa- rose variety.” What I immediately notice with this Nerikoh style blend is the mintiness and balsamic qualities combined, but it’s sort of the layer a lot of complexity sits on, a complexity I am not sure I’d even have the time to get into before this very original blend disappears. I’m not even familiar with what appears to be the main note, the night-scented stock, so I can’t place it in the aroma exactly. So in many ways Giroflee Ordorante is certainly unlike any nerikoh style incense I’ve tried in a Japanese catalog, but it stretches the form in quite the innovative way. These little pellets pack both a massive and quiet aromatic punch with that almost trademark creative touch Bonnie has that feels like fractals disappearing into infinity.

And I’d be amiss to not mention that the latest batch of WildWood is in stock, and while I haven’t tried this latest one yet, it’s certainly in a lineage where I have loved every single one and it is something you’d have to consider a Mermade evergreen classic.

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.

Dimension 5 / Voyager, Ottoman Empire, Ethyl Phenethyl

The three incenses here, along with the previously reviewed Urrere Unlimited and Tibet With Love, are all part of Dimension 5’s “Eclectic Collection” (all five pictured above). This seems quite fairly described as there’s a lot of diversity in style across this group, a range that really touches on a lot of scent areas. When Josh sent me the first samples I received of his work, two of them were early versions of both Ottoman Empire and Voyager, so I also got a chance to see how his recipes evolved over time, although it wasn’t until later that I got to see the approximate recipes.

With Voyager, you get a list of sandalwood, agarwood, frankincense, spices, resins and others, but as Josh describes, the incense is essentially “frankincense forward.” Voyager reminds me of a lot of the Japanese frankincense sticks, not only the Minorien and Tennendo sticks but the Shoyeido Incense Road as well, like the profile shares aspects of all of them. In this sense it would be sort of the frankincense on wood of the Minorien, a bit of the sort of banana tang you find in the Tennendo (although I notice this a little bit more in the original recipe, the piquancy is a bit mellower here) and a bit of the confectionary like sweetness you would fine in the Incense Road. As in many of the Dimension 5 incenses, Voyager has a very noticeable high quality sandalwood in the mix, one that peaks its way out in what I assume is Mysore glory. Obviously at a more luxury price it is the additional elements that complement the Frankincense that are the draw here over the other more affordable frankincenses made for the US market, although compared to a lot of other Dimension 5 incenses the agarwood is dialed back a bit. But overall I can’t really think of a sort of deluxe Japanese-style frankincense incense that has this more luxury take and so Voyager is actually quite unique. And the more you use it, the more you will see some other interesting things pop out from its profile.

With Ottoman Empire, you are more or less instantly reminded of fine Turkish rose oils. I’m not sure what the specific scent is but it strikes me as a fine absolute (it is actually a specific essential oil so I am adding this note on 12/3). Although it is listed second it may be the scent’s real primary note. With agarwood, sandalwood and other spices in the mix it’s probably not shocking that this is going to be reminiscent of ouds in a surface sense, however this feels a bit less wet or oil/perfume based and more of a dry wood kind of thing. The difference between the earlier version I received and the one being reviewed here is the balance has been adjusted for the better and it feels like the new one has a bit stronger of an agarwood presence, which means it is balancing quite nicely with the rose being used. I’ve said this before but often Dimension 5 incenses will elicit a wow out of me. Like if I have this routine where I light a stick, and then say check an email or something, the aroma will hit me and for a second I’ll forget what I lit and be wow that’s really good. Ottoman Empire is one of these. There’s some very fine aloeswood in this one, the kind of higher end wood that tends to have more of a personality, but that mix of it, the sandalwood and the rose essential oil melts really nicely with whatever spice part of the blend that gives it a nice tertiary deepness to it. A really gorgeous stick and one that after burning a few sticks of the original blend and a few of the new blend, I’ve gotten to know really well.

Ethyl Phenthyl could possibly be the most chemical name I’ve seen for what seems like such an organic sort of stick. The alcohol appears to be used in perfume, and I looked up some rose and honey descriptions of it, and for sure there is a really honey-ish note in this intriguing stick. But given the list of ambergris, agarwood, sandalwood, orris and others, it’s really that list of notes nearly in that order that is what is really featured here. The ambergris is exquisitely lovely on this, salty and rich, but I found that in some of the sticks, when it hits the sandalwood pockets, the incense is really arresting in how it profiles how great that note is and I would assume it’s because the orris (extract?) is melded so closely with it. Orris is something I’ve never quite checked out on its own yet, but when it pops up in incense it seems floral and yet deep at the same time, imparting a note that’s all too unique (it strikes me as a bit violet-like). So there is really a ton going on in this one, because I got through all of that without talking much about the agarwood, which also does really weave it’s way in here nicely. All of this is just further testament of Josh’s improving skill with melding a wide array of aromatics with deep complexity, and this is another that is a real joy to listen to. I’m starting to do that thing where I’m like no maybe THIS one is my favorite Dimension 5.

If you are interested in any of these incenses or previously reviewed sticks, please contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com. In many ways the Eclectic Collection is really a wonderful place to start in his catalog as it shows such great diversity, as well as some really unique incenses that aren’t particularly common in the field. Stay tuned as I will hopefully be getting to his Terra Collection in a couple of installments later this month.

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.

Rokok / Sintren Frankincense Cigarettes

Happy Halloween! Since Mike already reviewed some of the ‘Vampires Blood’ incense sticks I figured reviewing a much more dangerous kind of incense – the kind that you inhale to get the ‘aromatherapy’. Let me just preface that I am not a smoker in any real way. When I go to Europe, I will roll my own tobacco-cannabis mixture with rolling papers but I really don’t seek out smoking pleasure.

However, when I encountered the simple idea that someone out there was lacing cigarettes with frankincense, I was intrigued. Digging into it further, I was able to find that there is one village with a bunch of 60+ people who roll these with the hopes that kids somewhere will get interested in the ‘benefits’ of smoking frankincense.

So here I am, having bought a pack of Rokok Sintren Asli Klembek Menjan, and having paid more in shipping by four times, I am getting a chance to scratch my curiosity itch. But I found I was too much of a wimp to just light one up, so I lit one and stuck it in an incense holder and smelled it. The smell was so exciting and relaxing that I decided to take a puff. Three puffs in and I am seeing first hand the psychoactive qualities of frankincense, enhanced by the stimulation of the tobacco.

How does it smell? Well, if you’re familiar with clove cigarettes where you smell clove oil and then the tobacco and the cloves sort of marry together. This is the same, the prime scent is tobacco with a bit of frankincense. The flavor? The paper is slightly sweet like a clove cigarette and the smoke is smoother than I imagined. The cigarette is rolled with a thick end and a thin end and there is no filter, reminding me of the kinds of ‘professional’ joints you’d get at a cannabis dispensary.

If you’re a smoker and you like novelties, give this a try, but if you don’t like smoking, it’s not worth the effort of importing a pack or two just to light it like incense. It’s cheaper to just get some loose-leaf tobacco and frankincense resin and put it on a puck of charcoal or incense burner.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Goddess Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi #2, Moon

There’s a virtual history of Mermade kyphis being reviewed at ORS going back to 2011 (and a much longer tradition of Mermade making them) if you take a look at our Reviews Index. The Egyptian Temple incenses known as Kyphi are not only some of the world’s most famous historical blends but they are some of the most involved, complex and fascinating as well. One of the things I find most fascinating about them is that in the right hands a kyphi incense can be both simple and complex, creating a composite aroma out of a large ingredients list. The amount of preparation that goes into one of these incenses can be daunting and based on Katlyn’s words at the incense link, she has devised a new way of blending Kyphis to save both time and energy, which will allow the incense to be made more available. Anyone who has tried a Mermade kyphi knows this is a very good thing indeed.

Reviewing a kyphi may not be as difficult as making one, but it’s a scent that is kind of hard to pin down. I’ve always used something like a fine wine or whiskey because the overall bouquet of a kyphi can be so rich and multi-faceted, usually with a distinct sense of age. It rarely feels like something you can just pick the elements out of, it’s more like the elements come together into something new. There are definitely similarities from one kyphi to another (usually for me it’s whatever the raisins and honey do, if they’re in there). However, I think this vintage, Goddess Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi #2, is a bit different than previous years. It feels like this is more resin heavy overall. The ingredients listed are frankincense (Hougary, Black Sacra, and Honey), Yemeni myrrh, Pinon pine, labdanum, Chios mastic, Saigon cinnamon, Turkish galbanum, and styrax liquidambar, all dusted with agarwood powder. It’s interesting because this feels more like a modern reformulation of a kyphi, one I wouldn’t be quite as sure of if we weren’t in safe hands with a creator who has spun out years of brilliant kyphi vintages, not a one I didn’t love. While it does feel somewhat different from previous Mermade kyphis, and I’m assuming the #2 is marking the occasion, the feeling that this is still in the style with a lot of depth and creativity is still in place. The notes tend to loom larger than the listed mix with quite a bit of interesting floral activity and heavy spice content that becomes even more noticeable as the incense melts on a heater. I’m not sure if there are raisins or anything like that in the incense, but that sort of defining kyphi note is still in the mix somehow, it’s a scent that reminds me of anything from plums to prunes to raisins. I very much like the idea that this is now an “all year around” kyphi as if you’re a fan of loose incenses kyphi is really one of the first incense types I would recommend. So it is a very cool thing indeed that the availability of this has widened. It is still complex, releases all sorts of subnotes along the timeline of the heat, sings with really quality ingredients, and still has that lovely feeling of fine spirits about it.

Katlyn has done a lot of what I would call lunar blends as well (Temple of the Moon, Mermade Moon, Moon Goddess, and Luna all come to mind). These have what I would call western magical correspondences about them, which means they tend to have some up front jasmine notes. Mermade has done a lot of fine work with jasmine and you may not be surprised that Moon is another solid entry of the type. For this blend she has used Tamil heartwood sandalwood and Jasmine Grandiflorum in a base of Yemeni myrrh, kua, black frankincense, and rare okoume resin, with some Chios mastic drops mixed in. The sandal and jasmine mix is really what is out in front on this one, although it’s perhaps not quite as overtly floral as previous lunar Mermades, and I would guess the okoume resin is giving the entire scent an intriguing subnote, a little bit of a slight gravel that I might liken to some copals and that helps the scent not to get too safe. So overall it’s a bit of a different direction for a lunar, a bit more fruity floral overall with some intriguing wood and resin subnotes to top it off. But I think in the end you will want to visit it for the sandalwood and jasmine mix.

Oh and before I close, there’s great news on the “restock” front in that Sweet Medicine is back in stock. I know I’m incredibly happy to see this beautiful honey and sweetgrass scent become a mainstay, it is one of my favorites in a great line up of goodies, so be absolutely sure to pop off and grab some.

Incense Works / Rare Essence Incense Collection / Frankincense Deluxe, Lavender Fields, Moon Goddess, Patchouli Supreme, Rose Absolute, White Lotus

Incense Works is an incense company in Salt Lake City that has a banner “celebrating 50 years in the world of fragrance,” but strangely if you look at any of the individual incenses sold on the site there doesn’t appear to be a shopping cart system anymore, nor any indication of whether it still survives. Rare Essence is also sold via Sensia and Incense Warehouse (I’m including Sensia links, but if any are unavailable I’d check Incense Warehouse or even start there if you’re inclined, both have always been reliable), so perhaps Incense Works has gone purely distributor. Way back in 2008, I reviewed four of Incense Works’ own Rare Essence Incense Collection here. Before I reopened ORS earlier this year, I made a couple orders to grab some Indian sticks and managed to get most of these again, including some of the ones I previously reviewed and I honestly notice no substantial differences from what I remember last, except for one in this bunch. Even when I first started with the Incense Works incenses I felt that they had some reminiscence to incenses I liked in other lines, although even by 2008 any semblance to the old school composition was gone and what you end up here is something like a Bangalore masala lineage a la Satya but maybe slightly higher quality. This has always made me feel there is a Satya factory or something similar that contracts with US companies to create incenses that are a little higher quality than they offer in the usual boxes. When I wasn’t sure what was left on the market, these still felt like old standbys, maybe not the best Indian incense you can buy but certainly not unpleasant (I actually might start with the incenses in the first review over these). I only include a picture of the boxes because quite frankly if you’ve seen one Bangalore provenance masala you’ve practically seen them all except for some thickness or shading changes.

As an example of an incense that reminds me of the old days, Frankincense Deluxe is really the only remaining incense I know of on the market that resembles a stick that used to be called something like Frankincense Champa or Golden Frankincense back in the earlier Mystic Temple and Incense from India lines. Those had a sort of crystalline, resinous but somewhat peppery top aroma on the old halmaddi base and of course this is just a more modern shifted version of that stick, because it feels from touch that it’s still a heavily dusted charcoal or masala hybrid. As always the bases these days aren’t quite like they used to be, but this is aromatically way different from frankincense sticks in any other line. There’s about the same amount of real frankincense as any of these others, and while it may not be as true to the resin as Happy Hari’s King of Frankincense, I like it more because it’s also trying to be a bit of what passes for a champa these days and it doesn’t have the King’s more bitter tendencies. This aroma used to be a great incense and isn’t maybe quite that good anymore, but I still find the general aroma to be enough to my liking for this kind of style. And there’s enough for me to enjoy the nostalgia of it too.

Having the superb Temple of Incense Lavender Supreme on my mind lately, it’s going to be fairly unlikely to find one that beats it for a great lavender scent. I’m not sure if Rare Essence Lavender Fields is going for the same profile, because again it feels like its really going for a more lavender-fronted, champa-like scent. In comparison to the Lavender Supreme this doesn’t seem like it has as authentic a lavender scent, although saying that it’s possible this box is old enough to have lost some of the oil on top. Overall it feels less lavender themed and more of a muddier floral blend that is fairly typical of modern Bangalore-provenance champa-cum-charcoals, at least on top. In the middle there seems to still be a lot of spicier qualities you don’t often find matched with lavender that makes it slightly more intriguing. At least in terms of its lack of definition it’s not super unpleasant (it has a slight off note on it that’s mostly buried) and has a bit of tanginess I like, it’s just not really doing what it says on the box too much. It’s one of those sticks that makes me wonder if it would be more balanced in a halmaddi base.

Moon Goddess appears to be the only incense in the line that doesn’t really list a note of any kind. Given the sort of haziness of blends at this price point it’s actually fairly difficult to describe because like the Lavender Supreme this is sort of a mix of floral oils and spicy qualities. It feels a bit softer to the touch and more masala-like, and has some powdery and perhaps jasmine-like qualities to it. There’s the usual underlying woodiness to it as well, the usual bit of sandalwood sticks like this come with and overall it’s actually quite pleasant and you do feel on some level there’s an attempt to give this a bit of a nighttime feel to it. However, it has virtually no resolution when it comes to ingredients and I’d guess there is some use of synthetics in the perfumes. Overall this is one of those “decent enough” sticks in that the positives and negatives sort of balance themselves out.

I’m not sure if I’m misremembering this, but I seem to remember that the Patchouli Supreme used to be fairly old school and resembled sticks that were called Patchouli Champas except it wasn’t as sweet as this current stick. Once again I am wondering if there’s some old stock where the note has faded off the stick as this barely smells at all like patchouli to me, although it may be there in the background a bit (it’s more noticeable if you walk out and back in the room). It’s a reminder that expectations can often be the guiding hand at evaluation because if this was named something else I might think differently about it, but as a patchouli it’s just working in a completely opposite and muddier direction. There’s something a bit cloyingly sweet about the overall aroma that I’m not even sure would work on its own if it had a different name. Only a bit mind you as this isn’t entirely unpleasant, but again, it’s a good example of an incense that maybe doesn’t know what it wants to be.

It’s something of a truism that a $4 box of a rose incense is either going to attempt to imitate a rose and fail miserably or blend some minor rose note into a floral backdrop and if lucky come up with a pleasant incense. Rose Absolute probably leans a bit more to this latter option and relies on the base with its sweetness and bit of spice to come up with something approaching a fruitier rose. If you’re willing to spend a few dollars more and go for a Temple of Incense of Absolute Bliss/Happy Hari incense I’d just say stop reading and do that. But for a $4 box this isn’t a bad incense, but even for that there are still some edges that feel cloying or overly perfumed, just not overwhelmingly so.

Finally there’s the White Lotus which has a lot of the same issues the Rose Absolute does in terms of having very little in the way of an identifiable floral note. Like if you were to compare it to the AB White Lotus Oudh Saffron you just wouldn’t notice it had anything in common. Again, you do wonder if maybe the incense is just old and has lost its oils, but even so you’d still notice some stamp here. Instead what’s most notable is the masala base with the vanilla and sandalwood feautured most prominently. Now this doesn’t have any of the overly perfumed issues that the Rose Absolute does but where I can’t really notice a lot in the way that’s unattractive, I can’t think of much to say to promote it. In this sense it’s not unlike a lot of Satya incenses except without the fairly common off notes.

Anyway it’s hard to tell if this is just a line at the end of its stretch, given that you can still find these fairly easily still. But it feels like they largely rise or fall on the strengths of their top perfume and many of these feel a bit faint.

The Mother’s India Fragrances / Frankincense (Sweet), Guna Nagchampa, Meera Nagchampa, Neem Nagchampa (Part 1 of 2)

[Please note that in the writing of this it got really long, so I decided to split up the review into two segments and will be using the same top picture for both.]

I got wind of the first five Nag Champa incenses from Mother’s Fragrances probably late 2008 or early 2009. For my nose these were easily some of the best Indian sticks on the market and all five scents were amazing, particularly Ganesh Nagchampa which was something of a revelation. It wasn’t actually until a bit later that I was told they were using halmaddi in their incenses, but I felt Mother’s had really devised an incense recipe of their own with these five that set them apart from everything else in the market at the time. So I wouldn’t have called any one of them a traditional Nag Champa, but they were great nonetheless. Soon after I posted this original review, Mother’s in India got in touch with me when they released their expansion of 14 new Nag Champas, which I review in two parts. They were exceedingly generous, well beyond the usual samples I receive for review, and sent me something like 5 20 stick packages of not only the new 14 aromas but the original five as well. I was just blown away, but after this they also sent a package of aromatics, including a jar of halmaddi to show what they used in their incenses. I was just amazed at the transparency and kindness of the company, moved even. And while not all 14 incenses hit me in the same way as the original five, I still found much to like including my second favorite in the whole series, Om Nagchampa. But overall all 14 seemed well in line with the original 5 and my enthusiasm for this line was at a huge high.

Not very long after this, Essence of the Ages did a restock on their incenses including smaller packages of 12 sticks each. I didn’t buy many but I had mowed through at least my Ganesh and Om stock (I probably gave packages away too) so I restocked a few of each of these in the 12 stick packages. I remember when I first opened them, I thought something had changed. I wasn’t quite sure because the general aroma was still the same but everything felt a bit thinner, like there was less halmaddi or the perfumes were not as complex anymore. Soon after this I was contacted by someone different at Mother’s who wanted to send me the first half of their second expansion. Still very generous, multiple packs, a second mailing of aromatics. I review this group here. My enthusiasm of these was more tempered and I was starting to notice that not all of the oil mixes were working out really well. But, perhaps as a result of the less enthusiastic reviews, I was never sent the second half, nor really motivated to ask if they were coming.

Mere Cie was the US importer on these incenses (although all my contacts up to this point were directly in India) and I believe the owner of the company changed hands somewhere here (indicated by the slight change in name to Mere Cie Deux). But I was always left a bit puzzled by the remaining stock of Ganesh and Om I had left, every time I’d return to them the difference between them and the original stock became more and more obvious. Not only that but over time they both developed mold in a way that the original incenses haven’t. This isn’t an unheard of thing mind you, but I live in Sacramento where its is extremely dry and mold is very unlikely to occur, in fact other than this one and probably the Om, I’ve only seen it happen in uncured resin mixes where it’s a foregone conclusion.

This isn’t a huge deal mind you, the packages must have been something like 10 years old and anyone is likely to use them a lot quicker than I did, so I would not take this as an indication of anything but this curiosity I had over this stock and what I had previously received via samples, because none of the even older sticks have developed the same issues. Once ORS reopened I felt like I needed to add caveats to the first three series of reviews, to warn people that these reviews may no longer apply anymore. I take absolutely no pleasure in doing so, but one of the largest difficulties of reopening ORS (in fact it had a lot to do with closing it in 2016) is dealing with these recipe changes, particularly when it comes to incenses we were in support of. This is a huge thing when the lion’s share of a site’s reviews are at least five or six years old and as many as 14. But to me the changes are also unconfirmed yet, because there are other reasons that might be in play like just a batch that didn’t come out right and so forth. The aim is to be objective and not punitive.

I know Tara, Mere Cie Deux’s new owner, had asked to send samples my way and finally I have received a new set of packages from her of seven new-to-me incenses and a small sampler package of three herbal incenses. I want to first thank her for sending them. Again, please understand that I try my best to objectively review the incenses as much as I can, even if I might not like a particular scent I know other people have different tastes and I want to write in a way that people can identify if they might like something that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. The issue over whether something is bad incense is something I mitigate by not reviewing samples of particular styles like most dipped incenses and so forth. I don’t regularly do things like Gonesh or Hem or oil-based hexagonal boxes of Indian incense or WildBerry or stuff like that. There are other forums out there including the Incense group on Facebook that have large groups of fans who like certain dipped styles and so forth and I just make it a habit to stay away and let them be. In fact even Mother’s has lines of charcoal and oil incenses that I think are outside the framework of ORS. However if they are masalas or Nag Champas then they are entirely within our framework.

So I wanted to set this context for when I opened the new sample box. Immediately what I noticed was a very strong and unusual wood or herbal note that permeated absolutely every single incense in the box. I literally began to go through most or all of the incenses to hunt down what it was because it seemed to me to potentially pose an aromatic conflict with some of the incenses. I didn’t know if maybe the herbal samples had contaminated the champas or if the note was part of the new base of incenses or if it was just one of the nag champas. As I initially went through them I found that this note seems to be part of the base of these new incenses. I don’t know if any of the line’s earlier incenses have switched to this new base or of it’s specifically formulated for these incenses, but I also noticed that this note is largely part of the unburned stick and not really part of the actual burn. I’m still not sure what to make of it. Mind you it is not an artificial or unnatural scent, it’s just strangely different and not a note you would imagine would compliment halmaddi.

But it’s important to bring up I think because this batch of incenses is actually very interesting, maybe even experimental in some ways. It’s one reason I wanted to sort of give a precis of my Mother’s journey to date because these are quite a bit different. If you look at pictures at Mere Cie, you can still see the lighter champa base on the older incenses and while I’d still love to rest my thoughts on whether the early lines have changed or not, the seven under review here appear to (mostly) be completely different incenses with a very new and unusual halmaddi-masala mix. There’s the unusual wood or herbal note I mentioned above but the base also can be something more like sweet chocolate, almost confectionary in a way. As you can see from the names of the incenses, we’re covering a lot of ground here that’s very unusual in the world of nag champas, in fact we’re stretching the definition of this way past where Mothers originally took it and into new territory. Don’t get me wrong, as I sort of adjusted to what I was smelling. I found these all to be intriguing incenses and increasingly fascinating as I went forward. You can find these for sale at the Mere Cie Deux website on the champa page.

So first of all there’s the Frankincense (Sweet). While this isn’t labeled as a Nagchampa on the package like the rest of these are, it still roughly fits into the same format and that addition is actually listed in the insert in the package. It’s a bit more akin to the sorts of masalas I used to see in the Triloka, Incense from India and other lines, where it would be brown colored and very sweet. Different from say the Happy Hari/Temple of Incense formula. But the same masala/halmaddi base used in all the rest of these incenses is here as well, and this sets it apart from the usual sweet frankincense masalas. There is some actual level of the resin, like it’s crushed up in the mix some, but it’s not a level of top flavor that really strongly outweighs the base. And this sort of sugary, confectionary, chocolate feel to it is really dominant here in a way some of the other champas in this batch don’t have because of the more divergent top notes. The other ingredients listed for this incense are Indian benzoin (where it supposedly gets its more balsamic tones from), gugal resin, cedar wood oil and a trace of Assamese oudh. In my hunt for that earthy note I mentioned above, I did guess it might be the gugal as its in the same family of myrrh and I’ve noticed this sort of wood-like quality that comes from the actual plant wood itself rather than the resin alone. Anyway overall this is a pretty intriguing incense for sure. It’s unlike most other Indian frankincense sticks, champas or otherwise, and the cedar oil also works nicely with the balsamic and resinous qualities. It’s a very friendly incense that I think most will like.

Guna Nagchampa is simply Coffee Nagchampa (or maybe more accurately Mocha Nagchampa), which is something I thought I’d never see myself write. This is a stick that reminds me a lot of Nippon Kodo’s Paris Café Fragrance Memories stick. Now one of my favorite smells in the world is a high quality brewed up coffee, but I tend to think of that aroma without the cream and sugar. When you have this sort of sweet halmaddi base you’re really going for something more like a mocha or latte sort of aroma. And to my nose this is a bit more superior to the NK stick simply because the halmaddi base seems more natural as a sweetener than extra perfumes. Because there are so many Japanese sticks that really only reach an approximation of coffee, I think this one might move into the lead as one of the most attractive coffee aromas outside of coffee itself. It’s a modern for sure and there’s nothing like premium bean about it, but Mother’s often tend so close to traditional ingredients this actually feels pretty authentic. But once again, you’ll be a struck by the interesting chocolate-y base as any of the coffee top notes. It’s funny but I always remember liking Nestle’s Quik for chocolate milk as a kid, but there was always some secondary powder I remember liking a little less that smelled a lot like this incense, but for the life of me I couldn’t dig anything up (maybe Ovaltine?). Anyway yeah this one’s a very interesting take on it, although you really have to think halmaddi rather than champa with this kind of thing as this doesn’t smell anything like a mainline floral Nag Champa. And that’s OK.

After really starting to love the Absolute Bliss Natural Beauty Masala, Meera Nagchampa with its mix of sandalwood and cedar wood top oils is really a pocket sort of aroma for me and maybe my overall favorite in this grouping. This is a champa a bit more akin to the early incenses I reviewed (links above) but for me this is something of a perfect top note with a really great mix of the two wood oils. It’s not a complex incense, it doesn’t get too sweet in the mix which really allows the natural fragrance of these two great incenses to mesh and meld. If you like cedar this is a no brainer for sure. Very nicely done and proof simplicity is often a net positive.

Neem Nagchampa is a very unique mix, with neem leaves from the azadirachta indica tree. Neem leaves are an herbal aromatic that repel insects, and seem to be used for other unconfirmed medicinal reasons as well, but it’s the first time I can remember it being used in an incense. Now I have never smelled these leaves, but they appear to be part of the Indian lilac tree, but if I am getting the note right the leaves are a somewhat pungent, green scent and certainly herbaceous in the way we normally think of it. So in a lot of ways this is the first top note in this series that I think is quite unusual and experimental as a mix for a “nag champa.” But I’ve said it before, exploration and new scents are exactly what you look for in new incenses, so I definitely laud the company for trying some new things out. Overall this isn’t a sweet nag champa like many of the others in the series, the base seems a bit modified to sort of pull the Neem note out on it, and I’d dare say it seems to be successful in presenting this almost as an alternative to a lemograss or citronella sort of scent.

As mentioned above, my writing over the ORS Mother’s journey went on longer than I expected, so I moved the remaining three nagchampas and the Herbal Ambience samplers to a second installment that should be live in a few days.

Shoyeido / Overtones / Frankincense, Patchouli, Palo Santo

Many years ago I did reviews of quite a few of the more affordable and baseline Shoyeido incenses. When I first started with most of the dailies, I liked quite a few of them, but found by the time I got to the end of the box I was fatiguing on every single one, top to bottom. Part of the reason for this is that most of Shoyeido’s more inexpensive incenses are sweetened up considerably. Whatever delicate notes any Daily (or Zen or Kyoto Moon etc.) have, they are nearly guaranteed to also have this sugary or candy like addition. Benzoin is usually ascribed to this sweetness and it shows up as a substantial ingredient in many of these incenses, including the first two of the three in question here. I’ll leave it up to the reader if they find it cloying, but I wanted to mention it here as well since it seems to be an element of the entire Overtones series as well. Strangely I don’t find a lot of benzoin resin particularly sweet (or at least as sweet as budget line Shoyeidos) so I wonder if its an absolute or essential distillation that intensifies it.

Anyway, in this case I started with an Overtones one stick sampler and then bought boxes of the three I liked the most. Right now these feel a bit of a break when I burn one, but I can easily see the fatigue coming because they’re all very sweet. But, unlike the line’s more thematic and traditional recipes, the Overtones series does appear to be going for single notes. For the most part they do get something fairly reasonable especially while retailing for just under $5 a box/roll.

Frankincense, then, is much sweeter than equivalent sticks at Minorien or Tennendo and a lot less truly frankincense as well. If you’ve ever tried an Incense Road Frankincense or maybe even a Xiang Do variant, you’re more likely to be familiar with the Shoyeido Frankincense profile, it’s a bit less like the resin and more like a sort of candied variant of it with a bit of cinnamon toast spice (both sandalwood and benzoin are also listed in the ingredients). Most users of the resin use it for its citrusy qualities, but you’re not really likely to find those here, it’s actually a bit more like a tea in some ways. It is very sweet and somewhat ambery as a result and is likely to be initially friendly to most users. I find it pretty pleasant as long as I don’t overdo it, but it’s like I said earlier, I worry a bit about how I’m going to feel by the end of the box. But so far so good, and it is fairly inexpensive enough to make it a low risk try. However if you have the budget to justify it I’d definitely go for an Incense Road first.

Palo Santo seems to be all the rage in incense these days, something I’m not sure you’d find if you go back ten years or so, but the wood seems to have made its way so far into incense scent profiles that you even see this South American wood in Japanese and Indian sticks now. It’s a fairly low cost wood overall, so you can rest assured almost anything is going to have some level of real note to it, but once again the Overtones line assures that even a sort of dry, resinous wood is going to be sweetened up a bit. Cinnamon and benzoin are also listed and it seems both are used to compliment or even out the wild notes of the palo santo to some level, but fortunately neither overshadow them and what is left probably entirely relies on whether you like palo santo and don’t mind the sweetness. The only thing really missing are some of the top notes of the more premium graded wood. Like with the Frankincense I’m still in my enjoyment phase, and feel that judicious use might not eventually overwhelm me. But I also like some of the cinnamon highlights in this, more actually than the Cinnamon Overtones stick itself.

It may not suprise you that the Overtones Patchouli is also sweet. However the thing I like about this stick is it doesn’t lose too much presence of the real herb. It might be that in saturating myself in Temple of Incense Patchouli Woods and the Absolute Bliss equivalent Patchouli Khus had tilted me way over to the experience of a less sweet earthy patchouli and so coming back to something sweeter may be not noticing or caring if its too sweet. But it also allowed me to recognize the real thing in this scent too, after all patchouli isn’t terribly expensive. So yes, as a designer, affordable patchouli, the Overtones is pretty decent. But like with the Frankincense, whatever sandalwood that’s in the incense is fairly well subsumed under the general aroma.

Overtones also include Sandalwood, Cinnamon, Vanilla and Tea Leaves. None of these really worked out for me in the end, but I didn’t out and out dislike them. It was more that as incense notes you’re not as likely to recognize the main ingredient as much, they felt a bit more like variations of the aroma. For example, you’re just not going to get a reasonable good sandalwood aroma out of a $5 box, it’s just going to be generically sandalwood-ish. You’re better off trying a Yamadamatsu low end for a few dollars more. The cinnamon felt like an affectation, the vanilla a bit too sweet and where I often like tea incenses this one just wasn’t for me. But hey there’s always a 7 stick sample, although one might need to directly request it from Shoyeido with an order.

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