Baieido / Kobunboku, Tokusen Kobunboku (long sticks)

So third in a series of recent Baieido incenses is somewhere between the new review and revisit review of the last two in that I’ve had rolls of both of these incenses before but not the long ones. And I wondered just how much have these incenses changes given they’re both created from all natural ingredients and no perfume oils. The first thing I thought was is this true, but unfortunately we don’t have David Oller around anymore to check in with him. Because my thoughts with both of these was wondering if maybe they were using just a little bit now?

If I was to name one of the great affordable incenses in Japanese incense, I would easily name the great Kobunboku. In many ways this could be the archetypal “plum blossom” incense. Baieido have always included a really wonderful sandalwood to balance the mix but it still has a distinct and gentle plum blossom scent without drifting into anything harsh or cheap smelling. These plum blossom incenses are a hallmark of Japanese incense and many of them also go right up the price range when they’re mixed with aloeswood. Now this long stick version does remind me very much of the old shorter stick bundle (or two) I went through years ago. It often struck me that I enjoyed that incense as much as any of the aloeswood blends in Baieido’s ready for market traditional line. It does seem a bit different to me now, which is to be expected with ingredients drift, but there’s also a feeling that the bouquet is a bit stronger than it used to be. Baieido incenses have always been the sort that smelling the fresh stick without burning means you can’t really smell much and that still seems to be fairly true, so I can’t be certain if the company is using oils now or if perhaps this is just a lot fresher than I remember. But it at least invoked the question for me. Anyway this is described as a mix of sandalwood, aloeswood and herbs, but I would guess the aloeswood note is very faint and used more as coloring in the base. And that’s entirely because this range moves up in price when there’s more in the mix. And while this is technically a “blossom” incense and not a fruit incense, I really like that there is a distinct scent of plums on top in a sort of floral way that doesn’t feel cheap or artificial. Anyway I think this is an incense that you want to check out if you are exploring Japanese incense as it remains a classic at its price point.

Tokusen Kobunboku is a good example of a plum blossom incense that bumps up the aloeswood. In doing this that top fruity-floral plum aroma drops a bit backward into the wood mix without entirely disappearing, but at least to my nose it creates a very big change between its aroma and the regular Kobunboku even if some of the similarities are still there. Now I had a bit of the same feeling that it was stronger when I lit up a stick of the long stick version after purchasing a box, but now that I have sit with this a bit the afternoon I wrote this, it feels very much on par with what I remember. And even if there is some aloeswood tang to it that has moved in front, I still feel this has quite a bit of good sandalwood in the mix. This woodiness also brings out the spices a little more, as if to accentuate that element in the sandalwood.

So it appears both the regular and excellent Kobunboku are still in good health, which is fortunate as Baieido are really well knowing for making price-efficient incenses that still give you plenty to meditate on and enjoy. They’re really good examples of blends actually and while you can discuss the idea of how much aloeswood and sandalwood are in these, there are a lot of spice and herbal notes that make the overall scent that much more fascinating. If you haven’t checked these out, I highly recommend both. And be sure to check out the entire Baieido catalog at Japan Incense as there are some even more price conscious choices available to sample these. Even if you’re paying a little more, to my nose the quality is much higher here for low end incenses than you’d find in Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo catalogs.

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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!

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.

Gokula Incense / Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra

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

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

My general impression of flora/fluxo incenses is they usually come with an orange dipped stick (either full or just the end). And Gokula’s variant (one of them really) is actually called Flora Fluxo. I have reviewed or burned so many of these types of incenses in the last couple months that they probably feel more redundant to me than they actually are, but if you’re not familiar with the style then usually the standard version (kind of like how blue box Nag Champa is – or maybe used to be – the standard for those incenses) is the red package Sai Flora and it’s a reasonable baseline although it is heavily perfumed and often stronger than those I have reviewed lately. Gokula’s version is somewhat muted and not quite as bright and brassy as Sai Flora. Most floras and fluxos have earthier levels in them but they’re usually much more buried than they are here, which tends to give me an August, almost Dionysian vibe like prunes or grapes. I am not sure the balance maybe quite works for me on this stick, but I would not take that as gospel because most are just minor tweaks from one to the other and if you like the style, you’re likely going to search for the one that works for you. This is certainly a reasonable quality take.

Floral Bouquet actually does what it says it’s going to do and presents a floral mix that’s very pink and sweet. It’s a bit of a masala although still fairly firm but it’s worth noting because it doesn’t feel like it’s battling charcoal but is more of a blend with a bit of woodiness. I’ve gone on record many times the pitfalls of presenting general florals, but this one has no bitterness or off notes and it’s probably friendly enough to be kind even to incense muggles. It actually reminds me a little of some of the old Dhuni incenses, perhaps in a more manageable form than that, but approaching that kind of pleasantness (I keep being reminded by the sadly lamented Dhuni Frangipani for some reason). It feels like it has something like pink Valentine’s candy at heart, but the structure of it seems to balance it out in a good way.

Gold Sandal seems to be a cousin to the Agar Sandal we reviewed last time, but like a lot of midline Indian sandalwood incenses, they really don’t smell a lot like sandalwood. There is some inherent woodiness to the incense but there are bitter/sour off notes as well as some really strangely placed fruity notes like peach or apricot in the middle. One wonders if this was an attempt to build a sandalwood out of a different set of ingredients. The Agar Sandal actually felt a bit closer to me in getting to that note or at least it ended up being more genuinely woody than this one. Certainly, the overall bouquet of the Agar Sandal is much more coherent, so I’d suggested starting there before heading to this one.

Even though I am going in alphabetical order, the next three incenses share quite a few of the same ingredients and operate very closely in style. The Jasmine and Lotus (and according to the description juhi, kewra and parijata) is an interesting blend for sure in that you’d expect that to be tilted way over into jasmine when the noticeable lead aroma seems to be something similar to the blue lotus that’s part of the Madhavadas catalog. It’s a very pretty, powdery sort of scent where if you can imagine it, the jasmine kind of faintly provides a background color to give a bit of complexity to the lotus scent. And honestly I think that is where jasmine is at its best. So after introducing some incenses Gokula imports that may be wobbly, this is one that I think has a rather distinct sort of mix I haven’t turned up in other catalogs and that is indeed what one often looks for in an incense.

And better yet, the Jasmine & Nag Champa may be one of Gokula’s best. While I’m not sure either aroma is dead on, they are both close and the juhi and lotus they meld with work well together. Whatever one has in mind for a mix like this, it’s going to be a bit different than you expect. While the champa perfume isn’t the classic style you get on something like the AB or TOI Gold Nagchampa, it does have a much more powdery bottom to it that evinces maybe a bit of halmaddi in the masala. The top note is very pretty and while you can kind of sense jasmine in there somewhere it’s not unlike the previous incense where it seems to mostly come out in some aspects of the bouquet as part of a merger. And overall, it leans over into pink florals a bit.

Finally the Lotus & Kewra is a very interesting experiment. This stick is a lightly dusted charcoal, but even moving back from a more masala like approach this still seems to have the same sort of warm and gentle powdery qualities of the last two incenses, which I like very much. The charcoal does spike a little through it as is always the case with floral charcoals but the perfume mix is quite nice nonetheless with what seems like either a balsamic or vanilla like quality in the middle. And yes there is even a distinct kewra note through the middle! Screwpine is definitely an aroma I’d like to see more often as it’s such a distinct and different scent to anything else. While the lotus isn’t quite as distinct as it is in the incense above where it’s paired with jasmine, and this may be because of the kewra, the resulting merge is certainly worth it. The incense description also describes the blend “in a sandalwood base with swirling notes of champa and marigold.” The powdery quality is certainly champa-esque and the marigold can be faintly ascertained but to my nose I don’t get any sandalwood and nor would I think you’d need to. Whatever the case this is definitely a Gokula winner.

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.

Baieido Premium Assortment Set / revisits of Kokonoe Aloeswood, Ho Ryo Aloeswood, Kun Sho Aloeswood, Koh En Aloeswood, Koh Shi Boku Kyara

Anyone who is an afficianado of aloeswood knows that the stocks of the premium woods have been slowly shrinking over the years. The fact that the best of these stocks came from woods buried underground in deep jungles, allowing the fungus that turns aloeswood into the aromatic treasure that it is, not to mention the wood’s popularity, has essentially made it close to impossible for Japanese companies who deplete their stocks to make the same incenses. The response to this has been either to discontinue the incenses, permanently or temporarily, or use lesser quality woods. It is perhaps somewhat surprising that Baieido, a company well known among aficionados for using the least amount of oils or perfumes in their natural sticks, would choose the latter approach. Simply because it means Baieido, of all the great Japanese companies, has taken the biggest hits in quality in the last decade or so. And some of the evidence comes from the five aloeswood incenses in this assortment set, a set bought last year. ORS reviewed all five incenses in this line by Ross here and here many years ago, and I would only add that around this time I owned full boxes of all five of these and got very familiar with them and largely agree with Ross’ take on these incenses. They were almost entirely great through the line and matched perfectly at their price points.

And this is why the Kokonoe Aloeswood, at the most inexpensive point in the line, seems like a completely different incense than it used to be. Baieido have long claimed that they essentially present the actual woods with just enough binder material, so the usual oil or perfume trickery to help modify the scent just isn’t here on these incenses. In fact one of my first impressions is this smells more like the binder than the aloeswood. There is really very little in this stick to commend for it and while the 00’s version of this scent wasn’t really my favorite in the series, I seem to remember it having much more personality than it does now (not to mention it used to match up with the actual aloeswood Baieido used to sell as well). And Ross’s review, where he says he burned this one more than the other two featured in that review, really underlines the differences here. Honestly my feeling is that if you were to have me smell this incense in a blind taste test I’d probably tell you it was a low quality aloeswood without a lot of personality. But at a guess what may be happening is that there may still be a small amount of the better Indonesian wood it’s just that there is either other wood and or/more binder in this. I just walked in and out of the room while this was burning and did get some notes that reminded me of the older version. But then when I sat down next to it, not so much. And $48 for an actual roll of this seems well above its worth, but keep in mind it’s hard to get unstuck from the lower prices to better wood ratio of a decade or so ago.

So how does the Thai wood stack up? Honestly, the Ho Ryu seems very similar in that the issue could be a higher binder to aloeswood ratio. Of the sticks from the original boxes that lasted the longest I believe this may be the most recent I had sampled. Fortunately this one seems to have some level of presence left. It’s interesting because if I was to reasonably guess which countries come up in aloeswood discussions, obviously the most prized Vietnamese woods be first and then probably the Indonesian woods. I don’t see Thai aloeswood spoken of quite as often, but I do love how its scent profile tends to differ from the others and you are not missing that display even with the current form of the wood. It made me wonder if this was the wood in the Kai Un Koh for example as it shares some of the more perhaps leathery or “masculine” spiciness in the woods. So honestly if all you’re paying is $2 more for a box than the Kokonoe, you are getting a much more interesting woody stick here and not feeling so much that the price is too high for the resinous content or level of quality. The resin is here, if in slightly less dense thickness than it might be in a more expensive stick. But ultimately Ho Ryu is still a very enjoyable stick. I don’t quite remember how much this differs from the last version, but it’s not striking me as all that different.

So after such a hoary, dense treat as the Ho Ryu, the Cambodian aloeswood Kun Sho seems to dial back the energy a bit, but the resin content and overall high quality presence do take a leap both quality wise and price wise. So certainly, and this was true both a decade ago and now, this is where the aloeswood jumps up to a higher grade and you start to feel a true, deep aloeswood presence. This is also where latent floral qualities and subnotes start to abound aromatically. Now my impression in general is that the Kun Sho of a decade ago was a better wood. I don’t have a lot to prove there as my box of it was yummy enough to burn up a long time ago. But looking at Ross’ review again I am reminded that this was and probably is one of those incenses you really want to spend time with. Any good aloeswood really deserves this kind of meditation because initial smells will throw the scent into your face and your brain needs work to pick out all the sub-elements. Right now I am particularly bowled over by what Ross calls the “exotic fruit” subscent. It is absolutely the hallmark of a great wood to have this sort of note in it. It is what sets one regional wood apart from another. So even when you read my impression that this might have been better, it’s certainly different as I don’t remember the herbal qualities quite as much from my initial box. But I genuinely do feel like this earns the price of $80 a box, especially considering all the shifts in pricing.

From my experience Koh En may be the biggest change in the series. This was actually one of my favorite incenses back in the 00s because the aloeswood really had this wonderful cherry blossom note. There are a lot of incenses in more inexpensive realms where they do a cherry blossom scented aloeswood, but the wood here is much finer than the wood normally used in these types of incenses and in many ways it made it one of a kind. The new version of it seems to have some sort of herbal note in front with maybe a touch of the cherry blossom scent a little farther back. As always, the stick follows the wood and it certainly does here but there’s no question this is a different aromatic bundle. The aloeswood is still quite nice, there’s no lack of resin and there are some interesting camphor and floral notes around the side that really get your attention. Honestly as you go through the stick, it’s so impressive that you actually start to forget that it isn’t the same Koh En as you remember. I was told by a venerable vendor once about a fairly popular incense which was something like when incenses change it’s usually the old hands that have an issue with it, but not so much those who are new to it. Keeping that in mind then I think you’d only have an issue with this one coming from an older version. But then you’re looking at a $140 price tag. Is it worth that? Well it’s definitely an aloeswood with some great notes. It might even be somewhere in the top tier of what you can get from Vietnamese aloeswood now. It’s still a very good incense, complex, multifaceted and deep. But hey that’s where the premium assortment is really helpful.

Finally there is the great kyara incense Koh Shi Boku. For a long time this was a very affordable and yet completely legitimate kyara incense. It had a distinct green kyara note down the middle and even if there was binder or maybe other aloeswood mixed in, it always felt like a classic and truly great kyara incense, in fact only the line’s Kyara Kokoh is a better incense and that’s because Kyara Kokoh may be one of the best incenses anywhere. So the first thing I do when I burn a stick of this is to look for that green, camphorous and complex note. The strange thing, like I discussed with some of the earlier incenses, is this feeling that some of the better notes in these incenses have been dialed down a bit. And without having a stick from 2009 it’s hard to be completely objective about this, but indeed my memory is it was a bit sharper in the 00s. But generally the front facing wood is still a kyara fronted aloeswood with a lot of denseness in the center. There are truly some beautiful notes in this, some floral notes that make me wonder if a little of the wood used in the Koh En is used here. But I do remember when I first pulled this out of the sampler feeling like this was a completely different mix to the one I remembered. But there is no question this is still great incense, there is enough going on here to take many sticks to learn. And even though it showed a sale price at Japan Incenses when I wrote this, this is still the same price it was many years ago so at least there’s been no appreciation on this account.

So really the moral of the story is that woods change and so do the incenses, but at least in these cases it feels like there was some reformulation or changes needed. Maybe only the Kokonoe here suffers from the changes even if 2 or 3 of the rest are really quite different incenses than they used to be. If you’re coming in fresh the Baieido Premium Assortment Set is a really good way to sample them all. If you’re only familiar with the older versions then it’s still a good way as Japan Incense does not appear to carry smaller samples, but then again all the deep cuts in this lovely box are all worth exploring for many sticks. Keep in mind there are very few other high end aloeswood incenses out there that don’t formulate the blend with oils and perfumes so these are quite special even if you need to nudge up really close to them.

Baieido / Ensei / Healing, Gallant, Pure

Baieido started their Ensei series many years ago with five different aromas and looking in the index I see Ross did a review of four of them in 2009 (I’m still kind of amazed any time I’m reminded how long ago some of our reviews are at this point). I tried them in a sampler back then, I think, and don’t remember them being particularly great, they felt more like a way to modernize some of the more traditional scents and in a catalog of wonderful aloeswood and sandalwood incenses, they didn’t strike me as measuring up. Ross said in his review, “These are not super powerful scents, but rather work on more subtle levels, one can use them near others without “blowing them away,”” which I think is a solid statement that also goes for this new trio. I don’t know if any of these particular sticks match up with the old (and still available) Ensei scents, but Healing is a “spicy aloeswood aroma,” Gallant is a “meditation aloeswood,” and Pure a “thick aloeswood aroma.” So some overlap maybe. But anyway, all of these are shorter sticks and come in smaller tubes of 20 sticks. They’re priced about where you would imagine at $15 and the aloeswood is probably what I might describe as low to mid end wood, with the sandalwood being a bit more premium, and Baieido usually do a pretty good job with both (although I might argue with aloeswood depletions the company is not quite what it once was).

And so they burn fast, real fast. Healing is really not terribly unlike one or two of the Kobunboku blends. It’s not heavily spicy and there is some level of aloeswood in the mix but it’s not a dense or resinous blend, it’s definitely pitched a bit lighter. There’s also a bit of like fennel like cooking spice in addition to whatever that cinnamon clove layer has in it. And I would guess there’s some nice sandalwood (it has fresh quasi-heartwood notes) in the middle as that’s part of what reminds me of the Kobunboku series. Overall it’s a bit cooling as well. So yes this one is very Baieido and if you know the company then you would expect to get to know the materials, although in this case 20 short sticks may not be quite enough. On the other hand after four sticks I’m not terribly sure how deep this one goes.

Initially, I found Gallant to be a bit richer of a blend, somewhat tangy, in fact the kind of smell I more usually associate with a spicy aloeswood rather than a sweet one. But there were some comparisons where it actually felt like it wasn’t all that different from Healing, so I figured the spatial configuration of your burning set ups may bring out different notes. I noticed what I thought were some intentional floral elements blended in and then searched for them on a different burn without finding them. Once again it feels like there is some decent quality sandalwood in the middle and once again it’s actually quite nice and beneficial for the overall aroma, but there is no really powerful aloeswood scent here. It feels more or less like the aloeswood exists to contour the overall scent. Like Healing, I was left fairly nonplussed by this one.

Finally, there’s the Pure. I’m assuming thick isn’t meant to reflect modern slang, and after two rather delicate blends I was hoping this one might be dialed up a bit more. And it is, maybe a little. It’s a bit cooking spice like the Healing, a bit more aloeswood-aroma heavy on the front end. But calling it thick seems to not take into account that like the others this is a very mellow aroma, with maybe a bit more tangy of a mix than the other two.

Ultimately these are not unpleasant incenses but they match my memory of feeling like the Enseis were really not all that much to get excited about in a crowded world full of aloeswood mixes, even in the Baieido catalog where most of their sticks are better than this. The format means it’s something where you might want a touch of scent and in a home full of heavy incense use, these are probably too fleeting to make much of a dent. Of course if you’re someone who leans to the Japanese style and even finds some of those too powerful, this might be more to your speed. But it feels like if I get the slightest bit of a distraction, I’ll turn around and the stick will be out.

Nado Poizokhang / Zhingkham Kunchhab Chhoetrin (#2)

Zhingkham Kunchhab Choetrin #2 (ZKC) is a “purple” stick incense from Bhutan’s largest incense manufacturer. We have documented at least some of this company’s incenses through the years, a chore made a bit harder by some accusations of bootleg Nado incenses roughly a decade ago but all of this has largely settled down under incense-traditions.ca, and Stephen’s most recent review is a good starter guide to the line’s classic Bhutanese scents. Honestly Bhutanese incense, at least to my nose, doesn’t vary in scent all that much, even across companies, they are usually red, purple or tan color incenses that mostly vary depending on how much sandalwood is included. Any general scan of our reviews here are likely to be referential of previous reviews as my initial take is usually something like “that’s kind of like the last one.” ZKC would be little different, it has a very traditional blend, featuring hints of sandalwood, berries, gentle spices and a bit of sweetness, a whole conglomerate of aromas that largely form a traditional Bhutanese scent (it’s listed ingredients are clove, nutmeg, saffron, red and white sandalwood and other medicinal ingredients). These are a bit fuller than most Nepalese brands, not quite as wild or variant as the monastery incenses from Tibet and are generally pretty friendly. ZKC is perhaps a little bit more astringent, there’s a bit of chalkiness in the scent but overall it still largely has that tart red berry topped smell most of the incenses in the style that are not tan colored have. If you’ve never tried a Bhutanese this is good a place to start as any, in may ways it could be the mean scent in that there are probably better and worse incenses of the style. So it’s perhaps a little generic. I also believe I got a sample of the #1 which looks like the same wrapper but white instead of pink, but I am not sure if they are different.

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