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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Sanctuary, Pan’s Earth (2021) + Esprit de la Nature / Lavender Kyphi (via Mermade) (Discontinued)

Here’s another handful of Mermade offerings including one direct from Esprit de la Nature. One I almost missed and the other two newly arrived…

I bought Sanctuary a little while back so I’m not sure if what I’m reviewing here was the first or second batch as mentioned on the page. Katlyn lists the ingredients for this blend of sacred space as Copal Blanco, Copal Negro, Maydi and Sacra Frankincense, Breu Claro, Greek Sage, Palo Santo, Peru Balsam and Fir Balsam. So I think the one thing that this instantly brings to mind is the idea that this is something of a South American blend with a touch of the outside. Space clearing incenses often to tend to be resin heavy, so this checks the box, plus this has that sort of uplifting feel that copals frequently bring to incense especially when they’re high quality. Sanctuary is also a bit of gentle blend, much more so than resin mixes that are frankincense heavy, in fact the frankincenses here seem to have not so noticeable an impact on the overall bouquet. The Palo Santo is fairly obvious as it always is in a mix, and I very much like the way the balsams weave in here as well. Once again Katlyn’s skill at blending multiple ingredients and getting them all to face out in a noticeable way is quite apparent.

Be en Foret’s Lavender Kyphi (picture is just a sample container but cool enough to include – check out the final artwork at the link) is another one of her intriguing variations on the old Egyptian formula. Check out this amazing ingredient line up: “From the Garden: Salted lavender buds and Dominican Sage leaves from my garden, Spikenard root from the Himalayas, Violet leaf extract from France. Resins: Dark Frankincense, Tolu Balsam, Dark Benzoin, Labdanum, Kua Myrrh, Liquidambar, Peru Balsam. A dash of aged Ambergris in Sandalwood oil ● Bound with organic honey and raisins ● Rolled in Agarwood and Sandalwood powder.”

Gulp. That’s a whole lotta goodness there, as is common with labyrinthine Kyphi preparations. Be sets this at a very low temperature kind of melt so you really gotta get in there to experience how complex this is, but of course the lavender is in front just like the name implies. One thing I love about kyphis is there are multiple ingredients, multiple recipes, everyone does them differently, they’re aged and tend to have vintages even among single “authors” and so vary all over the place while still hitting these notes that remind me of the finest of wines or even ales. The second thing I notice off this incense is the honey and balsam scent, a lovely mix that also tends to highlight the spikenard which is a favorite of mine. I do tend to like my lavender as close to the plant as possible, so I appreciate that it’s the kyphi that tends to be sweet here, which is a really nice contrast. And yes this does have that almost thick, wonderful base of a kyphi, more noticeable as the heat progresses, which I always contribute to the raisins and the way they kind of infuse a bit of wine-like goodness to the mix. Anyway I hope you’re convinced on this one, Be has the kyphi juju down!

And if kyphis are a tradition going back to Egyptian times, Katlyn has made something of a vintage out of Pan’s Earth herself. This is one of Mermade’s perennial classics, an almost definitive pagan earth incense, a mix of divine resins with all sorts of herbal notes that furrow their roots deep into the soil. And like kyphi, repeated vintages of Pan’s Earth always seem to improve and get more deep and impressive, and honestly, this one’s even a bit of a quantum jump in how good it is, easily my favorite of all of the good scents under this name. So what’s in the 2021 version? Black frankincense; breu claro; copal negro; vetiver root; aged patchouli; agarwood chips, powder, and oud; Pan’s Earth Special Blend Oil; Arbor Vitae cedar tips; jatamansi; costus root; kua; and Yemeni myrrh. The first thing that always strikes me about Pan’s Earth, despite all of the high end ingredients is that patchouli and vetiver mix. That green, soil-rich earthiness is just right up my alley and has always been the feature that would draw out this god of satyrs (and to be fair jatamansi and spikenard also have a little of it). If you’re gonna talk about Pan you need something feral and dark, something that makes civilization vanish. However to my nose this is actually a bit more resinous than I remember previous vintages, and it almost feels like the aged depth of it actually highlights and provides a well-roundedness to the incense that reminds you that the mystery of Pan still remains and that matched with all that earth is the sense of the universal as well. Perhaps 100s of years from now, some future archaeologists and anthropologists will be trying to make sense of the complexity of Pan’s Earth. Because this great incense is now becoming a tradition like kyphi, where there’s so much to experience, a review may not be able to do it full justice. One subnote melts into another into another. Definitely don’t miss this!

Mermade Magickal Arts – Dia de Los Muertos, Pachamama, Sweet Earth, Sandalwood Oud Antique, Ali’s Rare Incense Powder 2015, Kyphi 2016, Oud Kyphi

As mentioned in my New Year’s post, Mermade Magickal Arts incense goes fast these days, although many of their incenses come back as vintages. This, of course, is a credit to the venerable Nevada institution who never fail to keep improving their art form. In recent years we have seen all sorts of new directions from them, including a line of central/southern/meso-American incenses, forays into Japanese style oud and sandalwood mixes, hybrids of these with resin and oud ingredients, and even a successful jump into Tibetan incense. Personally this continual high level of excellence and creativity has me watching the site fairly often, which means that the reviews here can come from samples or purchases. Sometimes I can’t get to reviews fast enough before certain scents rocket out of the inventory. So it’s worth keeping an eye out whether at the site or especially on Facebook for the next creation. Anyway I hope to tackle some recent new incenses here. The last time I looked all of these were available for purchase but it’s worth acting fast these days. The two new Kyphi vintages just went up after the New Year!

The first two incenses on this list fall roughly in the central/southern/meso-American category and are somewhat superficially similar in that both are blends of white copal, black copal and palo santo. In Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the emphasis is on the two copals with the palo santo wood being a slight, although noticeable touch. Copal has been called the frankincense of the west for good reason, but when it comes to the really quality forms of it, copal really has a strong and powerful personality all of its own, a much denser, earthy undertone to it that only the darkest frankincense resins and myrrhs touch on. Mixing the white (blanco) and black (negro) copals tends to be a perfect match, just like frankincense and myrrh, chocolate and peanut butter, salt and pepper etc. It gives the overall aroma the bright, lemony-piney notes of the white copal with the more subdued and mysterious elements of the black copal. I really love how in the middle it’s all so foresty but in such a different, more temperate way than how we describe it when we think of something green. It’s worth noting that lower temperatures on a heater won’t volatize the copal quite so quickly and allows the scent to dreamily work its way to your attention.

Pachamama incense uses a similar list of ingredients but I believe the locations from where the copals come may be different and there is a much higher ratio of Palo Santo in the mix. The ingredients list Palo Santo resin and wood from a recent shipment of really extraordinary Palo Santo which almost revolutionized my opinion of the wood. This is a really powerful and aromatic, with some minty overtones I had never noticed from previous samples, and is certainly worth grabbing on its own. It has an immense presence in this mix and the results end up being quite a bit different from Dia de Los Muertos as a result. The copals here really share the scent rather than dominate and strangely enough, I’d say that this actually seems more resinous and less woody than the previous incense, with a really impressive amount of complexity given the short list. Pachamama whispers of shamanic ceremonies in deep rainforests, rays of sunlight through leaves and the rich fertilized earth of an unspoiled nature.

Sweet Earth seems to touch on a lot of the same aspects of Pachamama but with a totally different palette. While Palo Santo remains in the ingredients list, we’re back in the more familiar territory and base of a (honey) frankincense and myrrh mix. The incense is a marvel in terms of how the incense reflects the name, how the whole scent profile comes from such an earthy base, that sort of freshly tilled, post-harvest scent of leavened soil, loam and clay. There aren’t really the notes of more citrusy frankincenses which allows the mellower honey scent to merge with the liquidambar storax and create the sweetness of the name. The poplar buds/Balm of Gilead is a scent I’m not particularly aware of on its own, so there was a complexity in the incense I found to be quite evocative and fresh. In some ways this incense is about half familiar (I was reminded of the previous Dionysos in part) and half completely new and unique, yet it’s overall quite inventive and original, and most importantly quite addictive.

Moving across the Pacific, we have Mermade’s latest Japanese-Oud hybrid incense Sandalwood Oud Antique, perhaps a follow up to the previous Ensense Antique. These incenses fall in the premium category due to the list of rare and high level ingredients being used, in fact there seems to be quite a high level of agarwood going on here from several sources, always a treat. This underlies the high quality sandalwood in the mix which is mostly dominant but the real twist here is the use of two oud oils. These oils as a mix strike me as being rich, spicy yet not overpowering, a merger that is aimed to create an equality with the finer wood qualities. Like with previous styles, there’s a really nice Japanese, almost candy-like mix that reminds me of certain work from, say, Shoyeido. Towards the end of the heat, things get quite spicy. Overall it’s a very classy blend, very stately.

We’re also seeing vintages of old classics come through, which is always heartening. One of these classics is Gregg King’s Ali’s Rare Incense Powder. I have reviewed this venerable scent once or twice in the past (I seem to remember the first batch of it being a mix of “lozenges” and powder) and have never seen it as anything less than a mandatory incense treat. Be sure to look at the list of ingredients in the link to see just how many fine ingredients are here, what’s always been extraordinary is that not only do they all mix well, but none of them are buried in the overall scent. It makes it once of the deepest and most complex incenses on the market. The sandalwood is perhaps the most noticeable link among all the ingredients in its luxuriant and most resonant guise, but for me I really love the way the vanilla works in this incense. Vanilla in so many cheap incenses is just a headache waiting to happen, in Ali’s Rare Incense Powder it is a delectable treat. Anyway for further impressions on this blend, it might be worth digging for previous reviews as there’s never been a batch of this that didn’t impress and I’ve never felt the quality to waver in any way.

And as it’s the beginning of the year, it is also Kyphi time and the 2016 vintage is as good as you could possibly expect. In fact I think I would need a time machine back to ancient Egypt to find a market kyphi that’s better than this one. The problem on my end is as these vintages improve with every year I’m running out of superlatives to describe it (sifting back through previous Kyphi reviews is also recommended here, I would think all of them still apply). You would need the equivalent of a Wine Spectator expert who could sift through the many subtleties of such a complex incense to really describe this Kyphi, as in many ways it is the fine, aged wine of incense and actually shares the qualities of really good spirits in terms of power and quality. In fact this is an incense where so many ingredients come together and end up merging into one totality where it can be actually difficult to make any differentiation from one ingredient to another. What’s even more impressive is there’s a second blend called Oud Kyphi which is a form of the original with added oud and agarwood before the incense becomes cured. It’s just like when you don’t think the Kyphi could get any more stunning, along comes this upgrade. Surely this could be one of the finest boutique incenses ever devised, it’s certainly not the kind of scent you’d double task to even if you’re able to. It’s a virtual whirlwind of complexity and astonishment, the kind of scent that could only truly be approached by fine poetry.

As I finish this up I also want to mention I’ve really been enjoying the Labdanum resin from Crete. When you think of how many great incenses from Mermade are made from such excellent quality material, it behooves one to occasionally check out some of the material on its own. I’ve tried labdanum before, but some of it can come with some nasty off notes. No worry, there are none of those here, quite to the contrary. So don’t forget to check this out as well as the palo santo wood and some of the many fine frankincenses and copals Mermade carry. There are many treasures to uncover here.

Runcato / Copal, Palo Santo

Runcato is a small Peruvian company who provide ethnic/multicultural arts and crafts, essential oils and a couple of incenses from the Amazonian rainforest and the Andean highlands of Peru. The company radiates with the spirit of ecological sustainability and the holistic earth-based spirituality that gave birth to it. In the United States this tends to be represented under shamanism and sold by companies with such an affinity, in fact you can not only purchase these incenses through Runcato’s main site, but also through sellers in the Amazon marketplace.

The Copal and Palo Santo incenses come in two forms, sticks and cones, these reviews are for the stick versions that the company provided samples of. These could be considered premium incenses of a sort, they’re created with a clean and natural mix of ingredients, with very thick sticks that burn for quite a while. Runcato’s Copal is actually one of the few stick Copal incenses you will find on the market. Copal varies widely in scent and style, so it must be stated that the copal in this incense is from the Amazonian rain forest and will differ slightly in scent from copal found in different geographic regions. Those who have sampled Fred Soll’s Copal incenses will know that there can be problems with using this resin in stick form, as the sheer stickiness of the resin can cause it to stick fast to its packaging. Runcato have sidestepped this problem by grounding the resin in a wood base, a style similar to a particular Shroff line (such as their Patchouli) where the main ingredient is mixed with a wood scent similar to the aftermath in a wood shop. The balance between base and the resin is nicely achieved, although obviously this will not be the same thing as copal resin on charcoal. The mix of the two main scents creates a cooling scent that isn’t overtly complex, but the combination does have a slight creamy note, not to mention a strong forest scent with a clarity and power that would make this good for clearing space. If you love the resin, this incense is well worth checking out.

The Palo Santo incense is similarly constructed, however this time the main ingredient is a wood itself rather than a resin and as such the combination of the two pushes this over into a much drier space. The wood base seems to be very similar to the one grounding the copal incense, with a wood powder scent that reminds me of a woodshop after a saw has been active for a while. Given that the Palo Santo is so much closer to the scent of the base, the individuality of the wood’s scent is a little more buried, but having sampled Palo Santo in other incenses, the main scent, which is unique and spicy in a way that’s difficult to capture in words, can definitely be sensed with little difficulty, which tells me that the main ingredient hasn’t been overdiluted by the base. And really if you’ve never tried Palo Santo at all, it’s worth checking out as it has a character and uniqueness that can’t really be compared to anything else.

Given that so much world incense comes from very familiar corners of the world, it’s good to have a couple entries from South America that bring forth the aura and sense of place in a way that is so respectful of its indigenous cultures and I can imagine anyone trying both of these will find them to come with a strong sense of personality and clarity.

November Top Ten

Welcome to the November Top Ten. As is usually the case for me these are not necessarily laid out in any kind of  “order of wonderfulness”! I like to use many different styles and types of incense so getting it down to ten is an interesting endeavor and something of a difficult task. I would also like to mention we try and hold these to ten selections so if you current favorite is not listed, remain calm and perhaps light another stick 🙂

Next months Top Ten will turn into our “end of the year, completely over the top, blow out list” which we hope to get up by mid December. We are holed up in the secret ORS testing lab wildly waving sticks at each other to back up our various favorites. It’s getting a little smoky in here and I hope the extra fire extinguishers show up soon.

You can find all the incenses listed below in past reviews at ORS unless I have added a link as they are too new to have a review. Enjoy  -Ross

Baieido’s: Rikkoku Aloeswood Set: Quite simply put this is a work of natural art. It comes in a wonderful presentation box that is stunning all by itself. All the woods are great and at the same time very different. The Kyara is mind bending, but then again, in their own way, so are the others. There is a lot of study potential here. Used in the recommended manner this set will last one for quite awhile. You can also sometimes find this in the “mini” size.

Baieido’s Kokonoe: This is one of my “go to” wood scents. I find it very enjoyable and the cost makes it pretty easy to use. It has a clean aloeswood scent and does a great job of showcasing the Indonesian wood. Its also a good place to start looking at specific examples of regional scents within aloeswood as any extra spices or resins in these sticks is there to highlight the wood.

Nippon Kodo’s: Gokuhin Kyara Taikan: This is the second rung up in NK’s high end Kyara ladder. It features a more distinct wood note as well as more refinement in the top notes then Tokusen Kyara Taikan. It is a very elegant incense and quite potent at the same time. There is a sort of resin/floral/powder feel in the overall scent that is a wonderful counterpart to the wood notes. It’s only draw back is that it makes you start wondering how you can afford to get the next one up, which is much more money.

Kyukyodo’s: Sho ran Koh: This one is on our Top Tens a lot and with good reason. It is a very beautiful scent, an elegant floral that is not overdone and has some quality Aloeswoods backing it all up. Not to mention the roll is very large, just opening the box is a huge treat. Koh Shi in San Francisco tries to have this in stock.

Seijudo’s: Kyara Horen: Seijudo decided to create the best Kyara blends that they could for as long as they can get the materials to do so. The top three in the line up actually use Kyara in their blends while the other 4 have very similar notes but use aloeswood. Sometimes the differences seem very subtle. This one is the third from the top. I find it the easiest to get along with, it has tons of Kyara notes mixed in with spices and maybe a hint of musk. It is refined and elegant, but still friendly. It’s also something to be burned first and savored. There is quite a lot going on here and you will get the most out of it this way.  Not inexpensive but a real treasure as well as a treat for the soul.

Mermade’s Scared Grove: Lighting this will almost instantly surround you in the scent of a very large forest. It is very clean and for this time of the year I find it a great way to sort of “open up” the room it’s burning in. High quality and natural ingredients play a big part in Mermade’s success. I notice that there is a bunch of new offerings listed on their site right now.

Daihatsu’s Kaizan: Not only does this has a very nice amber note but the story I was told is that it was formulated by Daihatsu’s Ko Shi ( Fragrance Master) to mimic the scent that geishas used in their hair. Nice scent and a great price. A strong and long lasting aroma that can easily fill a room. Just the thing for all us amber fans.

Shunkohdo’s Houshou: A quality aloeswood at a very reasonable price. It has subtle top notes of chocolate that play with the aloeswood. Quite a beautiful combination and at the price($20) is a great deal not to be missed. Great gift for the incense people in you life.

Incensio’s Palo Santo Wand: If you like Palo Santo then you will be in heaven. The incense look’s sort of like thin cigars on a stick. They are packed with a wonderful and very woody scent that is particular to Palo Santo. These are available at Mermade and a full review of the line is in the works. By the way, using just a portion of a stick will do the trick; these people did not mess around when they put the woods in! Very interesting and at a good price.

Blue Star’s: Lavender: This is from a small producer in Canada (I can hear Anne getting excited). He uses all natural ingredients and the sticks are done in a sort of Tibetan Japanese fusion style, so they are thick and go for around 30-40 minutes. This one stands out for me as it has a nice light wood base note overlaid with a very clean and clear Lavender scent. Just a tiny bit sweet and really beautiful. Lavender Essential Oil is used and then the stick is rolled in Lavender flowers. This one is a winner and a review of the lineup is coming soon. Not to be missed and you get 10 sticks for around $4.00

Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Rose, Palo Santo, Vanilla, Mixed Fruits, Citrus, Marine, Lavender, Violet

Shoyeido’s Xiang-Do series is created by what the company calls their exclusive pressed incense process, a process that for most of us on the outside will be somewhat obscure. What we can tell from the product is that these incenses concentrate the aromatics to a degree rarely found in the natural world and, most importantly, do so very successfully. To my nose, Shoyeido is responsible for many of the best modern incense styles on the planet and their pressed incense is generally extraordinary.

Like Shoyeido’s LISN series, one is aware by the numbers on the boxes that we only see a small part of this line here, what would amount to 16 incenses, with three of them labelled as Xiang-Do Fresh (Green Tea, Tea, Coffee). Xiang-Do not only provides a small sampler for the Fresh trio, but a 12 stick/12 aroma sampler as well. It looks like the larger 30 stick/10 aroma sampler has been deleted at the Shoyeido site, but may be available for a little while longer if you look around. The price of the 20 stick boxes is rather close to $15 and with the short 2 3/4 inch length, these incenses can generally be considered pricy, as is all of the incenses that use the pressed incense process (I know I’d like to see bigger (60 stick) boxes). I’ll be covering half of the line in this article, the other half will be forthcoming (including my two favorites in the entire line – Forest and Peppermint).

Xiang Do’s Rose is easily one of the better Rose incenses I’ve been able to sample, perhaps not quite at the level of the Floral World/Royal Rose, but certainly more affordable. Like all of the line’s incenses the floral oil is very concentrated, starting with a sweet garden-like rose aroma and ending in a surprisingly dry finish. Rose incenses aren’t generally my favorite, but the style and rich base make this quite attractive.

Palo Santo comes from an Andean tree and while it’s a rather extraordinary scent whether natural or in this pressed style, it’s one you rarely see in Japanese incense, which makes this somewhat unusual. I think of it as a somewhat orangey aromatic wood, with hints of mango and apricot and a bit of talcum. Quite pleasant and definitely unique, it’s likely to be friendly to most noses.

Vanilla is about what you’d expect, although the intensity of the aroma brings out sides to the scent rather uncommon to most vanilla incenses. It’s both slightly sweet and spicy, but not at all like vanilla in the ice cream or confectionary sense, a little closer to the tonka bean sort of aroma, almost as if it had fruitlike qualities. This is one I’ve slowly grown to over time and I’d probably put it in the second tier after Forest and Peppermint.

Mixed Fruits never strikes me as a good idea for incense, and while this is decent the overall mix of apple, citrus, banana and grape kind of renders the overall aroma somewhat banal. I can imagine specific fruits would probably work better under such a style and can imagine the Japanese line must have them. Here there’s a surprising lack of aromatic concentration and distinction. However fruit incense lovers might see this a bit different.

Citrus has similar issues, although in many ways this is fairly close to Forest and Peppermint in style. The previously mentioned 30 stick sampler was displayed sort of like a rainbow of colors and while it does help to make it look like a pretty box, there may also be some similarities in style with scents similar in color. The end note on this one has a grapefruit-like citrus aroma that for my nose doesn’t finish quite so well.

Marine is another one that may seem bizarre to the western nose. It’s that attempt to capture the aromas of being at sea or on a beach. Nippon Kodo have an incense called Aqua that captures that sort of wet/watery sort of scent. Marine itself is more of a saltwater vibe, a bit of brine that doesn’t seem to work so well with the general base of this incense. Fortunately it’s dry, but this will be one you’d want to try in a sampler first.

The last two are probably my favorite in this specific group. Lavender surprised me in not being very typical of incenses with French lavender oil, which is a good thing given their prevalence. The aromatics are intense enough to give the incense an almost liquor-like lavender scent, dense, perfumed and sweltery. It does have similarities to the lavender you might find in hair products, however the Xiang-Do base helps to balance this proclivity and keep it a little on the sweeter side.

Violet‘s my favorite of the Xiang-Do floral scents, not terribly far from the natural aroma, although the base adds sweetness and balance to the oil. I got a little purple valentine candy in there as well, it’s a really delightful scent, one of the few florals I can really get behind.

Other than the Fresh trio I mentioned earlier, the remaining Xiang Do incenses (exported to the US) are Forest, Peppermint, Sandalwood, Frankincense and Agarwood, all of which I hope to cover in the future once I managed to “complete the series.” Despite that I’ve been fairly critical on this first eight, I’d still recommend giving the sampler a try as depending on one’s personal tastes you might well find that you enjoy certain blends more than I do. I tend to find Shoyeido pressed incenses to be among the finest treats in incense and very complimentary to woody, spicy and more natural styles.