Best Incense – August 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – The question du jour: When is Essence going to restock this? Yes, I know I haven’t come close to finishing up the box yet. Yes, it’s probably a waste to burn 50 sticks of this at once, but I won’t know for sure until I try. Anyway, while the answer is certainly ASAP, I hope my (mild) anxiety over this reflects just how totally and completely crushed over Holy Land I am. It’s quite likely to be my favorite incense for quite a while as only…
  2. Highland Incense – …is anywhere close to how I feel about it. In fact Highland here comes pretty darn close as a #2 and as the product of a retired Tibetan Medical College doctor, it’s not difficult to think about these two in the same breath. But where Holy Land gets the step due to its unbelieavable floral middle, which comes out the most when you’re not looking for it, Highland has such a balanced muskiness with a nice sweetness that it also constantly compels me to return to the box.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – Every premium series seems to have its own character and style and the kokohs aren’t any different. In fact the defining aspect, at least of the Byukaden and Jinko Kokohs, is more so the ingredients other than the woods. Particularly the borneol and spices which seem to be at about the highest, natural level available in these incenses. They help to make these among the most penetrating incenses available. Would love to see these in long stick form.
  4. Baieido / Kunsho – I think it dawns on anyone using any one of the five Baieido aloeswoods (in Pawlonia boxes) that the series is strong from top to bottom, but it really takes a good half a box to realize just how great they really are. I’d been a little late grabbing a Kunsho box, but so glad I did as every stick is an exercise in reflection. Sweet, deep, classy, refined, this one may be just as good as the next step up Koh En. Or at least I think so this week.
  5. Shunkodo / Kyara Aioi no Matsu – I’m so enamored with Kyara Seikan that it occludes my view on the Aioi no Matsu. The other issue is the AnM suffers pretty hard with aromatic fatigue, given that so much of its majesty is in the very top spice notes. But when you get everything, it’s truly extraordinary with a dozen or so different aspects going on. A tremendously complicated blend.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – I just can never get enough of this one, an easy all-time top 5 pick and my favorite Shoyeido premium. It’s dry and spicy/heavily resinated wood one-two attack gets me every time. The day I buy 135 sticks is the day it becomes a #1 pick for a few months.
  8. Encens du Monde / Meditation / Guiding Light – Probably because it’s fairly essential oil heavy, this incense does a fantastic job scenting a larger area over time. I really adore the smell of this one, especially after about half a long stick has burned. Even with all the oils this is at essence a very complex, very woody incense. Just one or two sticks a month tends to push it into my monthly best.
  9. Tennendo / Karafune Kahin-Gold – It took me a while to come around to this series, in fact had I written the review today I’d have compared them to the above-mentioned Baieido aloeswood series as they’re really that difficult to parse. Over time I’ve been noticing just how quality the aloeswood is in this and (in lesser quantity) the Silver. But now these are starting to really grow on me and I’m starting to notice more of the woody qualities. Sleeper hits for sure.
  10. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar – This one has fallen due to the Holy Land, which seems in comparison to be more of a B grade, but this is a B grade better than most A grades. The intensity of the spices isn’t as high and I suspect that’s due to juniper berry. But it’s still one of those incenses you can smell the musk straight off the stick and it only suffers in comparison to Holy Land

Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra

I’ve written about this venerable monastery’s amazing incense in the past, but never really tried for a more descriptive review as my relationship with this incense has really developed since I tried my first sample 6 months ago or so. It was really my first encounter with a high end Tibetan incense and my first reaction was how strange and unusual it was, with an aromatic strength that was perhaps a little unsettling. But since then it’s grown on me to the point where I see it as one of the three Tibetan supernals, along with Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and Highland Incense.

Unlike these others incense, the musk content of Samathabadra is a little more muted and more like an instrumentalist in a symphony than the conductor. In fact the entire incense is a blend of various ingredients that all show their faces during various sessions. My first encounter accentuated the rich nature of any incense blended with nagi/pangolin scales, a certain ineffable spice characteristic. While I’ve noticed its presence in any nagi-infused incense, I probably couldn’t describe it too easily as I’ve never smelled the pure aroma.

Over time, the variety of spices really comes out and with further use the combination becomes more and more addictive. Now I notice spices and aromas like cinnamon and clove, orange, chocolate, coffee and gingerbread. Anyone who has tried the estimable English barleywine, Young’s Old Nick, will also recognize a sort of banana-tinged, hoppy scent (and ironically in finding that link, the second review down says that Old Nick reminds the writer of burning incense :D) in Samanthabadra. The combination of all these scents is kaleidoscopic, each new stick turning up variations that are often surprising, sometimes arresting.

I pulled Samanthabadra out at a dinner party last weekend, along with a number of higher-end Shoyeido and Shunkodo sticks, just as the sun was going down. It’s reflective of how good Samanthabadra is that it inspired as many or more positive comments than Sho-kaku or Ga-Ho. For an incense made in very cool weather it seems remarkably adaptable to a California summer, filling the surrounding area with spices similar to those found in cider and spiced tea. Undoubtedly one of the great Tibetan works of art.

Best Incense – July 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Baieido / 350th Anniversary Sandalwood – This is arguably not even the best of the three incenses in this magnificent (and now deleted) anniversary set, but it was the most revelationary one to my nose, in that this is possibly the best sandalwood I’ve ever tried, with a quality of wood so high it’s like it becomes something else. It’s as if the aromatics and/or wood resins are so fine that they’re like an aged liquor. Given the incenses similarities to Baieido’s Kokoh series (at least the Jinko anyway), I wanted the Byukaden Koko right away. Without this entry I might have given the slot (if a bit lower on the list) to Kyukyodo Yumemachi, not quite as deluxe but still an amazing sandalwood.
  2. Baieido / Koh En – An incense I’ve returned to over and over in the last couple months, there’s something just at the edge of comprehension on this one. For one thing I believe this uses the Hakusui Vietnamese incense, a really gentle yet startling aloeswood, but the spices that accentuate the wood really bring it out. It’s like orbiting a new planet, no matter what spot you’re over there’s something new to look at. This line of aloeswoods might be the most sublime out there.
  3. Highland Incense – I’m over the moon with some of the higher end Tibetan sticks these days, and you really have to credit Essence of the Ages whose archaeological skills are unparalleled at bringing us these really legitimate and otherwordly monastery incenses. Highland’s one of the muskiest, most ever-present incenses you can imagine and will set off subconscious impressions for ages even based on the burn of an inch of stick. It’s about as deep and intense as a Japanese incense even if the aloeswood content is mostly a side note. But the musk here will redefine your experience. I hope they were gentle.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar (TPN) – If Highland really hit me the most the second or third time around, this Nectar hit between the eyes right in the middle of the third one. It’s an electric, intuition-triggering polyherbal blend like you wouldn’t believe. It reminds me a little of the Tashi Lhunpo Shing Kham Kun Khyab with a massive helping of lama juju. It’s clear, red and has a weird kind of kundalini playfulness to it. It made me want to order the entire college’s catalog.
  5. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – A three-way hit of animal depth, spikenard sweetness and aloeswood infinity, it’s the most inexpensive of the Premiums to have this much higher mind impact. Everything above this level refines this sort of sweet musk, but here it’s wild and uninhibited. Starting to become an all-time favorite.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra – Soon to be corrected, this is the only high end Tibetan incense I have in stock right now, so the samples of the other high enders have had me returning to this all month. It was my first incense of this level, and found the depth of scent and purity of ingredients to be startling and over time almost addictive. I’m not even sure I could describe this one, except that it’s highly likely the pangolin scales have a real distinct and dimension-adding effect to the overall aroma. Definitely 5x the aroma of most lowest end Tibetans, humming with the essence of the inner planes.
  7. Dzongsar Incense – You get the impression with most Tibetan incense sticks are mostly wood, at least in base and while that’s still true for Dzongsar it’s such a thick and heavy stick one wonders if it’s not made from clay. Aromatically it has similarities to a lot of Tibetan incenses that have difficult (for the Westerner anyway) ingredients (think White Pigeon, the side notes to Mandala Trading Tibetan Monastery, Essence’s Ayurvedic ropes), but in this case they’re refined to the point that it’s a lot easier to see their brilliance. Tangy, rich and definitely multi-dimensional, I think I’ve only barely begun seeing how good this one is.
  8. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – I would feel weird leaving Shunkohdo off of a top 10 list given how much I use their products, many of them are virtual regulars around my place (Yae No Hana in particular nearly makes every monthly list). This kyara blend is always amazing to me due to how penetrating, sharp and sweet the aroma is. Like Baieido, no matter what Shunkohdo do, they never drown out the central wood notes. And I’m finding this one is complex enough to notice different things about it than I did when I first got a box.
  9. Tennendo / Enkuu – If newness wasn’t such a variable factor for these top 10 lists, Enkuu would likely make it every month, it’s quite simply one of my favorite incenses. I’m finding with some of the intense high enders like this that a little goes a very long way and have been finding myself taking out a stick and putting it in a burner and then burning it by thirds. Usually a third of the way down it’s scented the room like most incenses after a full stick. Shoyeido Sho-kaku is also perfect for this and could have interchanged with this selection easily. No doubt that one will be on next month’s again just based on one stick over the last few days.
  10. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – Ever proving the same rule that any incense this complex isn’t revealed in full until at least the fourth stick, I wanted to slip this fantastic, affordable Tibetan (or maybe Brazilian-Tibetan) in here due to its ever-revealing complexity. And it’s the most simple in the line!