Shroff Channabasappa / Jaji, Kasturi, Kewada, Lilac, Lily 1938, Monica, Night Rose

This batch of Shroff Channabasappa‘s Masala Base incenses, which happens to be in a completely different style to the others in the same grouping, is particularly problematic from a review standpoint. All are different florals in a style that isn’t quite pure charcoal given they all have various flecks of other materials in them, but are definitely pretty close given the scents seem to be almost entirely oil based. Second, a couple of these florals are given in their regional name which makes them particularly difficult to research, so I have to admit crossing my fingers a little and hoping I got the general aromas correct.

This type of incense is among the most intense out there and despite that many of these are gentle florals, they all burn pretty loud like most charcoals, although the slightly hybrid like nature means they’re a little more restrained than most. They’re very difficult to discuss because the name is pretty indicative of the scent you’re going to get, it’s almost as if you could just indicate the original flower and say this is a charcoal and perfume based version of that scent. But with that said there really is some nice definition on these and while there are definitely times I have trouble with charcoals (sometimes even with the company’s high enders), I’ve found these to be quite good when the mood hits.

Jaji is an incense of a specific class of jasmine flowers, in this case possibly Jasminium Grandiflorium, and while this is sometimes called Jaji, the scent will still be familiar to most as a jasmine incense. Like all jasmine incenses, they’re often overkill in a charcoal format, so one should probably use this stick in larger rooms where the scent can dissipate to the sweltery, exotic floral aroma one may be familiar with. When the scent is light, the scent is lilting and very pretty. It’s difficult with my nose to say if this departs radically from any other general jasmine incenses, as it’s always been my experience that jasmine incenses can be wildly different (even check out the other jasmine incenses in the Shroff line for an example of this), but it’s quite possible this will still end up being new enough for those who love this type of scent.

Kasturi is a word used in some area of India to refer to musk and in particular it tends to be part of the species names of several aromatic plants in the turmeric family, often used in incense as an herbal musk. Certainly this is the sort of aroma you get with Shroff’s Kasturi stick, a sweet and dry musk scent that seems to capture the scent quite nicely. In fact I’d suggest this wouldn’t be a bad incense to consider an almost ground zero herbal musk oil scent. As a musk this is basically the least floral incense of these seven, but don’t take that to mean there aren’t floral-like elements in the bouquet as this actually fits quite nicely with the others.

Kewada is yet another English transliteration of a name for screwpine which you’ll see as Kewda, Kewra and Pandanus elsewhere. This is a scent widely used in Indian incenses, such as in many of the Mother’s Nagchampas I recently reviewed. The reason why is it has an unusual rose-like scent to it, along with its foresty lower notes, so I can imagine it’s an effective and relatively inexpensive way to create rose-like subscents in incense. Here I would suspect you’re mostly getting the real deal, so there’s also notes of mint, fruitiness (like raisins perhaps), and molasses in the mix. The results sort of put this on the fence in terms of its floral nature, and given the girth of the entire bouquet it’s quite loud on the charcoal stick.

Kewada is quite difficult to describe in a way, but when you get to an incense like Lilac it’s very hard to do anything but call the Lilac a Lilac as that’s what you’re getting on this stick. I’d put the scent among the softest and most feminine of floral aromas, a gentle and distinct perfume that evokes pink and white for me, very pretty and not terribly intricate, but on the other hand it’s not a floral one will mistake for a rose or jasmine incense. I’ve found that this incense has matured quite a bit since I first bought it and I’m surprised that the charcoal hasn’t quite overwhelmed the oils here, but make no mistake the base plays a part here.

The Lily 1938 scent is also quite distinctive from other florals and it comes off as a wilder, more fecund sort of perfume. Perhaps due to the order in which I sampled these, I saw some similarities to both the Kewada and the Lilac as well it having a musky middle. Perhaps its almost sickly-sweet characteristics make it a bit tough to bear in a charcoal format, or at least I don’t always find a stick to my taste, but at the same time I’m still fairly convinced they’re getting the scent close to correct. But this is another I’d probably suggest applying to a larger room as there’s no doubt the scent here is very perfumey.

I couldn’t find a lot on Monica as the commonality of the name and place (Santa Monica) make searching a bit problematic for any sort of taxonomic connection. Incense-wise it’s a very fruity floral, although the fruitiness comes out more in the way it would in an alcohol drink or wine. And it’s an incredibly sweet scent which manages to actually make the overall scent a bit less floral than you might imagine, in fact I’d say this might fall just ahead of Kasturi on that scale. It’s perhaps closest to the Lilac in its beauty and it might even be just a bit more accessible.

Night Rose is the last of this group and obviously not your common rose scent, even if they share some characteristics. For one thing the oils here are very intense, even cloying. I’ve personally got to have a rose pretty close to the real thing to enjoy it and having not personally experienced the true night blooming rose this appears to be portraying, my only comparison is the usual and it’s just not a very gentle scent due to the combination of loud perfume and charcoal base.

The next group, which also falls under this Masala Base category, seem to be completely different incenses that remind me far more of the original and larger dry masala group. For the seven in this review, you’ll want to be sure you’re at least tolerant of charcoal incenses before sampling as these can be very loud and overwhelming at times. However, to my surprise I’ve also come to appreciate them more, if not for helping to vary up the usual floral scents.

Mother’s India Fragrances / Arjava, Hansa, Lavanya, Om, Purusha, Sattwa, Yajna

Since the last installment on the newly released Mother’s Fragrances Nagchampa incenses, the company kindly sent me what I’m dubbing the “Nag Champa Construction Set,” which is a series of ingredients that go into making their fantastic bases. One thing I learned fairly early about incense is that information from the east on these treasures has actually been remarkably sparse and so I’m extremely thankful to have received a further education from the creators. Not only has the set helped to show me where the sandalwood works into the base, but in particular having a sample of halmaddi resin has really helped to narrow down just where this works into these incenses. And overall my already high respect for the creator of these incenses has grown when I consider what the base smells like compared to the finished product. These are just works of art on every level.

So I wanted to say a few words about halmaddi resin before getting to the “back seven” nagchampas. This ingredient is particularly interesting in that the actually fresh smell of the resin itself (almost like a combination of chocolate and turpentine elements) is completely different from the smell while it’s burning, which is floral (likely that element similar to the champaka flower), slightly bitter and very balsamic. Not only is this obvious from the resin, but also from the base stick. Even on its own this a pleasant scent but what struck me is how much of a chameleon halmaddi must be since the oils that go into the incense change the nature of the relationship. Also, the Mother’s bases, while soft, aren’t gooey like the resin or many of the incenses I used to burn 15 years ago and as I intuit from the oils, there’s a really impressive level of balance and restraint here.

I wouldn’t have even recognized the base stick in the Arjava Nagchampa, which is the first of four incenses in this group that was not part of the original 12 incense sampler I received months ago. If there is a slight wildness to the halmaddi, you wouldn’t find it in this incense, which has a level of gentleness that is quite surprising. Where the descriptions of many of the other incenses list as many as 5 or 6 ingredients, there is only one specific listed here: rose. It’s interesting in that this is one of the new 14 that really stands out as being quite different, there’s an unusual herbal note at the top that is quite exotic and unique. The central scent is almost akin to some of the herbal-rose combinations found elsewhere and this all lies on a wood level that has been turned up a notch, while remaining pillowy soft. While it could be said that this is another wonderful contrast of spice and floral elements, the results aren’t quite so piquant as they are in the other scents, leading to a very sublime finish. Particularly because when I burn this I feel like I’m always trying to reach a description of the end, one that’s essentially elusive and mysterious. Like all great incenses the final notes end up as part of one’s memories.

Hansa Nagchampa is similar to the Arjava only in that it also has a fairly noticeable woodiness in the mix, but essentially this is a scent that returns to the floral/spice mix of many of these incenses. A lot of the main players in the whole line are in this one, including kewra, vetivert and lavender, but as always the addition of other ingredients modify the aromatic contour substantially. In fact, of the entire line this is perhaps the incense I find the most difficult to describe as the ingredient combos seem familiar, but the overall scent has been changed enough to be completely unique. Perhaps part of this is the golden champa scent in what I’d describe as the fourth fifth from top to bottom.  The amber here isn’t as strong as it is in the Om Nagchampa but it definitely flirts with the attention around all the floral notes and in many ways actually accentuates these notes so one feels that the florals are dominant to the spice mix in the background. And overall it’s the Kewra and Lavender that make, incrementally, the boldest statements in the mix. But in the end it’s puzzling because perhaps the best word to describe this incense is kaleidoscopic, because at any different time it’s possible to see new interactions among the ingredients. Which means in the end any static description won’t do this justice, as the base and the vetivert that tie it all together are really the only constants.

Lavanya Nagchampa really clicked with me after a couple sticks when it became obvious that the central part of the incense is very evergreen and spicy. I’ve discussed some of the incenses that contrast florals with a spice that could be roughly described in the cinnamon/clove/hot area, but this seems to get part of its spice from the use of resins as well as cedar, so that the spice note feels more green than red. Users of resin blends may have come across those that are resonantly foresty and that would be the comparison here. But it’s only a beginning and a platform because what dances on top is the jasmine and ylang ylang, and like the Arjava the results are just so delicate. It constantly strikes me that among Indian incenses, many of which can be incredibly strong and aromatic, that these are among the most refined and gentle, something only a master perfumer could gauge so perfectly. In the end it’s almost as if your aromatic senses try to convince you of its floral nature as the bewitching, rich evergreen and liqueur like background bubbles underneath, creating an almost yin/yang like paradox.

In fact as you use these incenses it’s really hard to separate one masterpiece from another, but there’s something in the Om Nagchampa that has made it my fastest used incense in the whole line, I literally have trouble trying to keep from burning my stock up in a couple days. It basically presents a triangle of amber, vanilla and cassia that is simply breathtaking and close to my sense of aromatic nirvana. My idea of the perfect incense is something that manages to be dry and rich at the same time, hinting at sweetness without being cloying. The cassia in this incense is just so perfectly placed that it’s a sheer delight and the amber notes are virtually flawless. As this scent burns it becomes so sublime by the end of the stick that it manages to represent the concept of Om in a way that might evoke ain ineffable response in the user. In fact it’s even difficult to want to burn another incense after this as it leaves such a powerful energy in the air after the last elements go up in smoke. By a long shot my top incense of August and it could be a reigning favorite for a while now.

Purusha Nagchampa is another of the dominantly lavender incenses in the line, which follows the absolute success of the Ganesh Nagchampa. Mother’s uses a number of different lavenders, however, and in this case we’re seeing an English lavender at the front, a note that is probably the most dominant lavender scent in any of these incenses. But while sitting on the top, the ingredients from the base up do a lot to modify the scent. For one thing this is one of the few, if not the only incense that has a sage note, an ingredient that seems to be far more common in American incenses (specifically southeast or Native American blends). Here it’s used to modify the lavender, and the results seem to bring out some of the wilder, herbier elements the two ingredients have in common. I’m not as familiar with orris, but I suspect this has a great deal to do with the more unfamiliar middle subscents that help to give this incense its individual personality. Closer to the base, the patchouli blends with the balsamic nature of the halmaddi to help make sure the top notes don’t go overboard. In the end this is definitely on the sweeter side of the Mother’s range, but it’s got just that touch of wildness to rein it all in.

Sandalwood is a main ingredient in all these incenses but it perhaps makes its presence most known in the Sattwa Nagchampa. With kewra, lavender tuberose and vetivert in the mix, this is definitely something of a cousin to the Atma and Hansa blends, if you can imagine the biggest change to be an increase in the amount of woodiness used. The vetivert here also seems to be turned up enough to give the scent a pleasant and sharp subnote and adding this to the woods and halmaddi base helps to balance the florals without reducing the richness of the scent. Overall this is a very pretty incense with a lot of activity in the mix and it’s among the bolder scents in the line. And like its cousins, the mix seems gauged to reveal its complexity slowly over time, something a review really can’t account for without an excessively lengthy preparation period.

Continuing a number of incenses with a strong lavender element is the spicy Yajna Nagchampa. However, if some of the Mother’s scents tilt more to a floral side, this is a decidedly spicy incense with woody notes, nagarmotha oil, patchouli and oakmoss all combining to imply a spice that also reminds me of cinnamon toast. This is also a very woody incense, however the type of wood scent it reminds me most of is akin (but far superior to) Satya’s Patchouli Forest scent, with that sense of crystalline, green resin that that incense evokes. Not only is the Yajna spicy, but it’s also devilishly complex in that there seems to be a lot of elements that make up this level of the incense. The oak moss is particularly noticeable here, almost more than a subnote at times, and with the patchouli it grounds the scent as something far more earthy the fire-like. In the end as you notice all this spicy, grounded activity it makes the presence of the lavender on top such a surprise and delight.

I’ll have to admit nearly every incense in this line is at a level of intricacy that they’re very hard to do justice to in words. So many of them are like a puzzle, because I feel that in a lot of other incense lines you wouldn’t expect some of these ingredients to work together like they do and in the end appraising them is like looking at a beautiful painting and switching between the singular elements and the composite final work. I may have mentioned strongly how much I love the Om, but over time I have no doubt that I’ll switch from favorite to favorite because in the case of complex aromas like found in the Hansa or Yajna, you get the feeling that it will take at least 10 sticks to feel that you’ve got a full grip on what’s going on here. And in the end I think this is the real joy in the use of incense, that what you have has the potential to continue to surprise and elate you as changing circumstances provide the varying viewpoints to smell new facets of complex bouquets. Because in the end with this line of Mother’s Nagchampas, all 19 exquisite treasures, you have some of the finest incenses available, particularly at an affordability that is quite astonishing. And please do check out the previous article for buying options, as I suspect in less than a month’s time they should be widely available to most of our readers.

Nu Essence Resin Mixes Part 1 (Neptune, Pluto, Moon, Uranus)

The Nu Essence Resin Mixes are completely unlike the Japanese loose mixtures I reviewed last week. They are based on a combination of ancient magical formulas as well as great scent combination’s.  I have a feeling many of our readers (not to mention Mike 🙂 ) might know much more then I about the esoteric aspects involved here. It is obvious that a lot of testing and study have gone into these blends. The musk, ambergris and civet are based on high quality synthetics that, unlike most synthetics seem to work well when heated. This could be because they are also pretty much surrounded in essential oils!
These mixes come in small metal tines. About an ounce’s worth of some very powerful scent. I used, at most, 1/8 teaspoons worth in a foil square on my heaters to try them out. Actually the first time I used one I piled it on and was pretty much overwhelmed. Really, these are very potent blends using natural herbs, resins and essential oils. Some of them use so much oil that they seem moist when opening the tin. One tin will last quite a while; it is a very good deal.There are over twenty (at the moment) different blends from this company. For this review I picked four of the planetary mixes. They use a great many different components, many of which I have not experienced before this. This, for me, makes it even more fun and interesting. I will be doing at least two more reviews on this line.
They seem to work best being gently heated, plus they will last longer that way also 🙂

Neptune:
Tonquin musk, benzoin, sandalwood, and rose.
Very deep, sultry rose and musk scent. Everything about this is powerful, almost overpowering. The sandalwood is like a low frequency carrier note way in the back round, the benzoin’s sweetness drifting through to catch your attention and then, once again, you are surrounded by the rose infused musk hues. This is not a light scent; there is almost, at times, a bite to it. This would, to me, be something to scent or flavor a room, as opposed to say taking a deep, close in, breath. It is very potent and takes the rose floral thyme into very sultry depths.

Pluto:
Sandalwood, benzoin, ambergris, amber, and bitter almond.
Upon heating gently one is immediately greeted with the sandalwood, closely followed by the bitter almond. The benzoin/amber/ambergris combination present themselves as a sort of soft yet potent ambery wave to my nose. There is a certain “stone” quality at work here (perhaps the amber is the actual crushed mineral rather then the resin spice blend usually found).
Again, not a light scent, a bit less forceful then the Neptune, but still for doing up an environment, not a Koh ceremony. The bitter almond adds many interesting, and to me, new scent qualities to the mix. The “bitter” aspect playing off the ambers and sandalwood/benzoin mixes. Great fun. I find myself more drawn to this one just because it is a bit more playful.

Moon:
Karaya gum, frankincense, wormwood, sandalwood, camphor, jasmine, and artemisia.
Spicy, camphorus, yet with a light floral (the jasmine) note. I guess uplifting or vibrant would be a good overall description. Not as strong scented as the two above but at the same time it holds its own in a very different manner.. As you heat it up and experience all the camphor tones the jasmine and frankincense keep drifting in. This would be great to set a very uplifting and at the same time, mellow vibe in a room. There almost seem to be many contradictions at play here as it shifts from an almost bitter( but not harsh) to sweet scent with the camphor tones playing through the middle. I am sure the other components play some subtle parts in this but I do not know them and the mix is so well combined that it is hard to separate things out. I could feel my head clearing up when this is going and at the same time a certain inner clearing going on also, which, given the wormwood and Artemisia, makes sense.

Uranus:
Jasmine, juniper, sandalwood, cinnamon, and benzoin.
At first heat the jasmine and cinnamon immediately start to drift up. This is a very interesting combination that somehow works really well. Alchemy in action! Think jasmine with a kick. The woods seem fairly muted at first, while the benzoin adds a little sweetness as a base note. As the upper notes fade into the back round the woods and benzoin come more into play and stay for quite awhile lending a certain grounded quality to the overall mix. I find myself very attracted to this one, probably because the jasmine and cinnamon blend really works for me. This is great to scent a room with just for the upbeat ambiance it gives. Very nice.

These are available at many of the Incense Suppliers we have listed in the side bar to the left.

Enjoy and Happy heating…Ross

Shoyeido / Floral World / Royal

I wrote about the highest end of the four sets of Shoyeido Floral incenses a while back, a set that contains some of the most beautiful and refined floral incenses available, with oils that are so well defined that the incenses are among the most complex florals available. Moving down from this box is difficult because you have that general idea that the next item down won’t be quite as impressive, but at least in the case of Shoyeido’s Royal box, the drop off is fairly insignificant. The incenses here do lose a part of their definition, but to speak of them as less enjoyable is something of an exercise in splitting hairs.

The comparison between the Star set and the Royal set, however, are somewhat appropriate as both sets share Jasmine and Sandalwood incenses, even if the styles of both are quite different. The Sandalwood incense in both sets is about the same green color, but the Jasmine in the Star is red, while here it’s blue. Rather than Violet, Royal has the line’s highest end Rose incense. And there’s a $20 difference between boxes, with Royal retailing at $39.95. This keeps Royal well within the highest end of all floral incense ranges.

Like with Star, Royal leads off with a Jasmine incense, in this case a dark, powdery blue type of scent, rather than the lilting and subtle aroma of the Star Jasmine. While one immediately notices that the jasmine oil used in the Royal doesn’t have as much complexity (which is not a criticism really, it’s a characteristic common of most florals), it’s still high quality, but it’s not like one can attend to the intricacy like one can with the Star version. While the Royal Jasmine does lose this sense of mirage-like movement and the decorous, delicate nature of the oil, it’s very difference as an almost night-time and mysterious sort of Jasmine, helps to contrast the two as two very different scents, both of them extremely worthy in their own way. That it really doesn’t suffer much in comparison is quite impressive.

I’ve mentioned often enough as a disclaimer that I’m not much for Rose incenses. Prior to the Royal version I might have picked Shoyeido’s Xiang-Do Rose as my favorite due to its concentration and base, but this version is definitely a step up. For one thing its rose aroma seems quite authentic and of the three incenses in this set it definitely has the most oil definition. Where in many other rose incenses I could point out bitter, astringent or even sour qualities around the edges, the creators have managed to balance those out nicely here. But above all the main reason why this succeeds for me is that it also reflects the rose as an esoteric symbol, its aroma continually unfolding, sweet, uplifting and multidimensional.

Royal’s Sandalwood strikes me both as very similar and quite a bit different to the Star Sandalwood, probably because they’re both sandalwood florals that have quite a bit of complexity to them. Both of these sandalwoods aren’t sandalwoods in the most common sense in that neither are particularly woody, it’s more that the aspects of sandalwood that most closely conform to floral highlights are accentuated in these incenses. In this Royal version the incense is fresh and spicy as well as floral. It strikes me as similar to a hybrid between a 12 Month and a LISN incense with its perfume, the rich base of the former style with the sultry perfumes of the latter. Here the scents bring out cinnamon, pear, spearmint, green tea and sweet patchouli.

I’ve actually made this set the centerpiece for a floral starter kit, because it covers three important elements, an excellent jasmine, an excellent rose and an excellent floral sandalwood, all of which free up the rest of the set to concentrate on other floral aromas. Even with the Star hanging overhead with promise, this set is indeed Royal and well worth the price for its fine representations of these perfumes.

SAMPLER NOTES: Kunmeido / Tsukinowa / Blue Rose, Green Lily, Yellow Jasmine, Red Violet

If you scroll down just over half way here, you’ll see the four packages of Kunmeido Tsukinowa coils that come in four varieties, eight coils for $21.00. It should be said up front that like many traditionally minded incense appreciators, I don’t tend to go for floral aromas as much as woods or spices, so the four coils here aren’t really aimed at my tastes, except that I’m very fond of coils.

In terms of quality, I’d say these are definitely better than most under $10 floral incenses, but not quite up to, say, the Shoyeido Floral World Star line. Floral World Royal’s closer, but I’d say these are just under those in terms of quality. In the Shoyeido Floral World line, the better quality of aromatic oils seem to distinguish price and at the Star level you’re probably getting something very close to essential oil in the aroma, there’s actual specific definition of the aromas involved. When you move down to Royal the definition loses its specficity some while still being of very high quality. I imagine the Tsukinowas as another step down, where the aromatics aren’t quite up to Royal but have about the same amount of definition.

It’s fairly difficult to really describe these four coils outside of their base aromas, like many florals, it’s a matter of the top oils that set the tone for the scent. The Yellow Jasmine for example will be of little surprised to those familiar with Japanese Jasmine incenses. There’s definitely sandalwood in the base, but the overall aroma is driven by the powerful Jasmine oil. Like all the Tsukinowa coils, these almost have Indian incense-like strength and will have a room smelling like Jasmine in a matter of seconds. Perhaps, a little too strong at times, at least these are high quality enough not to have any noticeable off notes.

The Green Lily is also pretty definitive and while I prefer something like Encense du Monde’s Blissful Mountain, which combines a traditional Japanese sandalwood with Lily of the Valley essential oil, this comes pretty close in a more modern, perfumed sort of way. I’m not a huge fan of Lily to be honest, there’s a bit of bitterness or sharpness in the smell that I may just not be built to appreciate, but there are some sweeter notes in the base of this coil that help to make it somewhat user friendly.

The Blue Rose isn’t generally the most friendly of Roses, after all blue colored roses don’t appear in nature and as such a symbol around it has grown to mean an impossibility (think of the Red Rose symbol and the heart). I thought it was actually impossible I’d find a rose I’d like until I bought the Shoyeido Floral World Royal pack, but even then there’s an aspect of very red rose incense that’s a bit bitter or sharp for me, so I found this Blue Rose to be a bit mellower and more to my liking. It may not make a rose convert out of me, but I found the harsher notes to be muted here, so that you get the rose aroma but not in an overwhelming base. I found it to be the best of the four coils here, not something I would have bet on before sampling.

In fact I thought Red Violet would have been my #1 before checking the Tsukinowas out, but I’ve probably been ruined on the Shoyeido Floral World Star Violet, which is still my favorite floral. Very little compares favorably to it, but at least with the Tsukinowa you get a fairly definitive violet aroma. Here the aroma seems to be quite a bit different, at times reminiscent of violets, at others more like a general floral incense. I thought there was maybe a bit of tartness to this scent that didn’t make it work as well as I would have liked, but without a full box I’m not sure if that was an anomaly for this coil. Overall it may have been the most strongly perfumed of the four and as such approaching, if not getting to an off note.

Overall these four are a little above standard florals and those already prone to floral incenses are likely to enjoy at least one or two of these quite a bit. For me, so many florals have harsh or off notes, so it’s easy to celebrate incenses that don’t have those notes. And between $3 and $4 a coil isn’t too bad for this sort of quality. (Thanks to Ross for the samples) – Mike

Holy Transfiguration Monastery / Imperial Jasmine, Anatolian Rose, Damascus Rose, Mount Horeb, Sinai

This is what is known as Eastern Orthodox style resin incense or cakes. They come from Holy Transfiguration Monastery, It is based on ( at least in this case) high grade frankincense, with essential oils, spices or perfumes added in . It comes packed in unfired clay, probably to keep it from sticking together in its container, so when you first open the various containers you see these very small, square bricks somewhere between 1/8 to 3/16 inches across surrounded in powder. I must tell you that each one of these little guys pack quite a punch. Some are more potent then others but on the whole three to four in your heater or on a piece of charcoal or incense trail is plenty. A one ounce sampler is probably going to be more then enough for many months of use.

There are four price ranges to choice from, the difference, I believe being the cost of the raw materials (oils and spices). One thing that stands out right away is the quality of materials used in the blends.

They have a large number of blends to chose from of many different types and mixes.

I recommend starting with their one ounce samplers, they go a long way.

Imperial Jasmine

Very soon after turning on the heater you start to notice a very floral scent that has a subtle jasmine/flowery/ almost sweet note. As the cakes heat up more of the oil is released and at that point the “Imperial” part of the name makes sense. It is a very distinct jasmine smell, very much like putting your face into a large hedge of jasmine and taking a deep breath. To my mind it is one of the nicest florals I have yet experienced. The frankincense in the back round helps to even out the notes and it is here that you can get a sense of the quality of the resin. What more can I say other then it’s a really nice and clean smell.

Anatolian Rose:
A light, clean and very beautiful rose smell. Not at all heavy, yet still very floral and uplifting in nature. More white rose then red, far less demanding then the Damascus style.
This is something you could end up using a lot of and not being overwhelmed. I found myself classifying it as the rose of the garden rather then the bedroom.

Damascus Rose:
This is the really deep, rich and complex rose smell that makes me think of “A Thousand And One Nights”. It’s the classic red rose scent with a slight lemon-ish note in the back round, possibly helped along by the same qualities in the frankincense. It smells pretty much like a full blown red rose. Again, the scent grows the longer it is on the heater and also the scent tends to linger in the room for quite awhile. It’s a classic.

Mount Horeb:
Biblically this is where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, it also means Mountain of the Sun, so I was not to sure what to expect. It is quite different from the three florals above. There seem to be quite a lot of different spices in this mix, many of them I am not recognizing. Either because of the way the blend is put together (in other words, a very even mix) or because they are very particular to the Middle East. Ok, there might be a touch of cinnamon/cassis in there, but really a part of its charm is the learning curve on this one. It will take quite awhile to understand what is going on here. In the mean time it is very pleasant and refreshing, much like a cool breeze at sunset after the heat of the day. This is becoming one of my favorite things to burn.

Sinai:
This is their high end mix which they characterize as “A rich and heady fragrance developed by the monastery, compounded of essential oils imported from the deserts of northern Africa”. Like the Mount Horeb above there is a lot going on in this mix, much of which is not familiar to my nose. It brings to mind the idea of Kyara, not the scent, but the concept or ranking of Kyara in the Aloes. It smells great but at the same time you would not want to use this all the time because it would lose its special quality. They say it is “A pure and lingering fragrance suitable for important feast days.” It’s deep, sort of floral, yet dry at the same time and then all these other scents come drifting by. To say complex would be just the tip of it. It is also really hard to describe in a western mind set, nailed down manner. If you use a heater or even coals, then start at a very low setting and gently work your way up because there are different things going on at different temperatures. Fascinating.

One last little thing. They sell the frankincense they use for their blends. They have three kinds. I got a pound of the “Eden Frankincense”, I do not think it is made there :). But they will not say where it is from. It is very small, translucent tears that burn with a very clean, light lemony/citrus scent. Really, really nice. I plan on trying the other two kinds soon. All of them are a great price, especially since high grade frankincense is not always easy to find.

There are many monastery’s that make incense and I can see that there is going to be quite a lot of sampling going on for me, I find this to be a nice side trip from my love of Japanese incense. Gives me a little perspective and I also find it interesting how so many different scents can be put together from many of the same building blocks

-Ross

Mermade Magickal Arts / Serpent Flame, Pan’s Earth, Wings of Air, Mermade Moon, Sacred Spirit, Salome, Wilderness

[Note: several of these incenses were limited editions and have been since discontinued. Check with Mermade Magickal Arts for availability]

I will always be fond of Mermade Magickal Arts as one of the companys that really showed me how amazing incense could be. While the company does not make them anymore, at one point loose incenses like Shamanic Circle and Dragon Fire were among my staples, blended incenses with fantastic ingredients that had a similar effect like aloeswood on my subconscious. When these were first available, several of the blends had unusual and possibly psychoactive ingredients like datura in them. I noticed the last time I bought these blends before their discontinuation that the ingredients had changed a little and while the new versions were similar, by then either they weren’t having the same effects on me or they were truly different. I originally tried Shamanic Circle in the practice room of a band I was working with and it had a pretty major impact on everyone. I remember thinking hours after the experience that I could smell the incense floating around my memory. In fact the very existence of this site may be partially because of this blend and its company, so in a way I feel I’m coming full circle in being able to talk about them.

I wanted to set this up to demonstrate that to some extent because of these experiences, I’ll always be fond of this company, one that appears to base their products (from incense to music and beyond) on Wiccan/magickal concepts. Immediately I thought of the Scott Cunningham Llewellyn books on incense and my own experiences in making blends from those recipes over a decade ago. This relatively new line of incense “cones” that I’ll be covering here sticks fairly closely to these spiritually minded methods of making incense allied with an experienced hand in incense creation. Every cone here feels like the recipe was experimented with and slightly changed to reach a balance between the woods, resins, herbs and oils in them. And not only that but those familiar with experimenting with these ingredients on their own will realize that there is a rather high quality of ingredients in these “cones.”

I use the term cones in quotes because these are not your typical cones, rather they’re shaped more like flat triangles. The first five incenses (part of the Nature Spirits series) here follow western magickal elemental correspondances and in most cases the element corresponding with the incense can be guessed from the name. And better yet, the elemental quality of each cone comes out quite obviously upon burning. One thing is for sure, most of these incenses have very high quantities of resin in them and if you’re coming over from the Japanese incense side and known Minorien’s Frankincense, you’ll already have your foot in the door in terms of the spicy resin like quality of the cones.

Appropriately the series starts off with Serpent Flame, the incense corresponding with the fire element. Expectations that this would be spicy and hot were met. The base appears to be benzoin, dragons blood and balsam tolu, but particularly I was thinking of the hotter Benzoin Siam when burning this, except that Mermade have managed to balance some of the more difficult sides of this resin. The quality of (Madagascar) cinnamon in this appears to be high and it gives the incense a sort of cinnamon bun like scent, except with hints of shoe polish (in a good way of course) that I’d chalk up to the dragon’s blood. It’s a very friendly incense that really got the whole series off to a nice start.

Pan’s Earth reminded me quite a bit of some of the Cunningham earth-related recipes. I was pretty surprised not to see patchouli on the list of ingredients as it seems by far the strongest note in this incense. This sort of patchouli oil is similar to the types that tend to put some westerners off, except that this is definitely higher quality than what I walked by this morning, a little sweeter and closer to the Himalayan patchouli that I’m fond of. I’m left wondering if part of this might be the vetivert. The other ingredients in the incense are aloeswood, Hougary frankincense and juniper and I particularly get the juniper which gives it a bit of evergreen spice. I thought I got benzoin and lemon from this as well which undoubtedly was the frankincense ingredient.

Lavender is almost always associated with the air element, so its presence in Wings of Air was not surprising. Adding sweetgrass and Himalayan juniper to the mix intensifies this feeling and in terms of hitting the element on the nose, this is almost close to perfect. Using lighter resins like elemi and mastic seems like a very intelligent choice, you get the depth of aroma from the resin without the more definitive notes that come with frankincense, myrrh, benzoin and the like. If the oil note in Pan’s Earth was somewhat overwhelmed by the patchouli (or vetivert) notes, in Wings of Air it’s almost picture perfect. While every single one of these incenses really gets the elemental correspondances right, this might be the classic example in the group.

Mermade Moon is the line’s water incense and as of today looks like the company’s number one bestseller. It’s basically a spicy myrrh incense with quite a bit of play in the oil, which, given the ingredient list, I’d probably chalk up to the Jasmine Sambac. In fact it’s hard to imagine many watery incenses without jasmine as its perfume tends to really capture the changeable nature of a body of water. Apparently the base was white sandalwood, which was a note I didn’t notice so much probably due to the stronger aromatics. Or better yet, this incense uses the fixative onycha, an ingredient from a certain seashells that was apparently used in the original Hebrew temple incense. It all adds up to a rather sultry and slightly Scorpio-like musky blend that could rank as one of Mermade’s best cones.

The Nature Spirits series final “elemental” incense is Sacred Spirit. This is the series woodiest incense by far with liberal amounts of aloeswood and sandalwood. While both of these ingredients do show up in some of the other cones, this was the first where I really noticed them as part of my notes. The woods give this scent a bit more of a sublime scent than the other four, which strikes me as perfect for the “akasha” element in that it’s the one that triggered the most subconscious impressions for me. Like Pan’s Earth, this also has a bit of frankincense to it that gives the scent some more depth.

Mermade’s line Scents of the Sensuous includes Salome. This appears to be a much thicker cone than usual, possibly due to the high number of ingredients in the blend. It’s slightly reminiscent of the above-mentioned Serpent Flame, although not as spicy (and certainly not firey). I’d assume the Tolu Balsam is the ingredient that connects the two. It seems with this incense that it’s a little less about a concept and more about the aroma itself and as such this seems a bit more complex than the elemental line, with varying notes of frankincense and labdanum. It’s very rich and sultry and it strikes me that you actually need very little of the cone to fragrance a space. I was reminded at this point just how important resins are to Mermade incense and there were times this reminded me of a catholic or orthodox resin blend.

I couldn’t find Wilderness on the Mermade site (and it also took me a while to track down Salome), which makes it a little more difficult to describe. But like Salome, Wilderness is very similar to loose resin blends, in this case usually close to forest/celtic type blends with overtones of greenery and trees. I found this a really nice, evocative scent, with the base resin blend spiced up by various herbs. Some of these were spicy, roughly in the nutmeg, mace, clove and cinnamon territories except I wouldn’t swear to any of these being part of it per se. Of the incenses here, this was the one that took the longest to absorb as there seems to be a lot going on with it.

Mermade Magickal Arts have been around since 1984, a family operation whose long years of experience really shows in the creation of these incenses. All of their cones show a great deal of thought in terms of combining base notes, oils and resins and as so many of their incenses are based on various resins, it’s almost as if these cones are a new class or style of incense and as such are a welcome element of one’s diverse collection of scents. It’s great to see this outfit still in operation over the years, still combining art, music, spirituality and craft into a distinctive name brand that continues to be one of the best creative enterprises for scent in the US market.

A second installment of Mermade incenses is forthcoming, covering a few of the company’s loose blends, all of which take me quite a bit longer to go through.

Kyukyodo / Daitenko, Hatsuhana, Miyagino, Matsukaze, Gyokuranko, Hikari, Kinbato, Seigetsu

I’ve heard rumors that the US should be seeing more Kyukyodo incenses exported here in the near future, but it’s a rumor I heard more around January and so far it doesn’t seem like anything new has shown up in shops. It’s particularly unfortunate as Kyukyodo has a much bigger profile in Japan than it does here. It’s not that that isn’t true for all the companies, but you would think Kyukyodo ought to have a profile at least on par with Shoyeido or Nippon Kodo here.

What this means is you won’t be able to find any of the incenses in this article in US shops at least yet. Most of them may be locatable at certain European outlets, but given the poor state of the US dollar, importing them yourselves may be cost prohibitive. I will say up front, however, that in certain cases I can see why certain scents have not been imported yet, as a few of these seem to be closely related to (currently imported) Kyukyodo favorites such as Ryunhinko and Asuza. On the other hand there are a couple I only wish were currently imported, as they represent higher end blends that are different enough from Sho-Ran-Ko and the like. I’d like to thank Bernd Sandner, who graciously provided me generous samples of the incenses being reviewed here (as well as comments that influenced my impressions). Thanks also to Kotaro Sugimoto at Japan Incense for translating the unknown, unexported and quite fantastic blend Seigetsu. You can also see some of these incenses at a German supplier here.

I’ll be guessing in terms of ingredients for most of these so my ordering of the incenses in question are assumed to go from the inexpensive, every day blends to the higher end ones. I may very well get some of these wrong (for example I think I’d have moved Gyokuranko up a notch), so comments and impressions are welcomed as always.

The first one up is the very thick stick, every day blend called Daitenko. In many ways this could be considered an every day sandalwood or even less. It’s almost entirely wood and seems to have as much binder presence as sandalwood. It’s possibly one of the thickest sticks I’ve seen come out of Japan and seems tailor made, like coils, for outside and larger spaces. Bernd mentioned to me that the subtler notes come out as you get used to the blend, which is something I think is safe to say about most Kyukyodo incenses. I’d also agree that this has a sort of campfire feel to it, but there are some very subtle notes that I haven’t quite absorbed yet. It’s strength is that it’s not all that reminiscent of generic sandalwood incenses.

Hatsuhana is not far off and seems to be the company’s equivalent to the traditional or “byakudan” green sandalwoods. I think of the Nippon Kodo blend, the style’s most popular form, as the standard here and really Hatsuhana isn’t too far off, a little more natural and woody. For those who are familiar with Ikaruga and Shirohato, you could almost think of Hatsuhana as similar, but missing those overt top oil notes. It’s really no surprise we don’t see this in the US as it’s not a distinctive blend like the aforementioned incenses, but as with Daitenko, I’m holding out that I may have missed something a bit subtler about it.

Miyagino starts to move in the Ikaruga and Shirohato direction by enhancing the typical sandalwood base with oil and spice notes. While it’s not as intense as the currently imported blends, it has a slighter, more evergreen/citrusy sort of note on top that I found to be rather unique. With such a notable spice presence, it’s easier to evince more subtleties in play, and I found with this one that it has a really nice bright energy to it, almost happy and playful. Which means, of course, that it’s one I’d like to see imported here as it would be quite inexpensive and would sit rather prominently in a group of low end spiced sandalwood sticks.

I’ve been working on a review of the Sakaki coils by Shoyeido, which has been interesting because it features unnamed coils that are part of a concept related to The Tale of Genjii. In researching the linked Wikipedia page, I noticed as one of Genjii’s chapters, Matsukaze, which means “Wind in the Pines.” As the name of a Kyukyodo incense, it captures the scent rather nicely. It’s a scent not far off in style from Miyagino, except the top notes are definitely Japanese pine, a scent quite a bit milder and refined than your typical west coast pitch. Even with this sort of mild top note, the pine overwhelms the wood a bit, but to be honest I don’t think I could name a better, more balanced pine incense as with use I see the wood peaking through a little more.

Gyokuranko takees us, if not out of the sandalwood category, at least to a scent bordering on that area where slight and (perhaps) low quality aloeswood is used to give depth to higher end sandalwood scents. I’m not sure that’s quite the case here, but Gyokuranko’s similarity to Ryuhinko in terms of its stately dryness makes me wonder a little. I detect more of a sandalwood base to this one, but the dry, oil note on top is very reminiscent of Ryuhinko’s own and considering this one of Kyukyodo’s real strengths, I can’t help but hope to see this one imported. I think we can assume by the incense’s picture in a fine wood box (see above link), that this is likely considered a premium.

Hikari moves the scent into a similar realm with the well-known floral incense Asuza. Hikari is very close in style and as such, it’s somewhat understandable it hasn’t been imported yet. But its similarity to Azusa also accentuates the differences between the two. Where Azusa is quite sweet, Hikari is definitely drier, with some slight and exotic Pacific floral notes (I was thinking tropical, but not fruit). It’s a lovely and gentle blend that furthers my opinion that this is one of the better companies when it comes to florals. I couldn’t say that this has much of an aloeswood presence to it, but I feel the same way about Azusa in that the oil sublimates the wood to a note rather than a background presence.

However, Kinbato definitively takes Kyukyodo into noticeable aloeswood-laced incense blends and while so much could be said about how great Kyukyodo is in working on very affordable, high quality incenses, only Sho-Ran-Ko and Ryuhinko give much of the western world a hint at how great the company is at the high enders. Kinbato has all the Kyukyodo strengths, sublimity, gentleness and dryness. It’s a slightly floral blend with what seems like a play between sandalwood and aloeswood. In a way it’s almost like a minor form of Sho-Ran-Ko as it approaches that complexity without quite moving into that type of mutable brilliance (even as recent as last night, I was impressed how many new impressions I still get from Sho-Ran-ko).

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last, a incense that appears only to be available in Japan and one Kotaro helped Bernd and I translate: Seigetsu (Clear Moon). This seems to be quite the high end aloeswood blend, an extaordinarily incense with a great deal of complexity. It has Ryuhinko’s dryness, a slight floral characteristic and the type of sweet and caramel-like wood play you see in Enkuu or Muro-machi. In fact this is actually one of the more complex incenses available and in no way have I come close to really getting underneath the depth of this one. Like all the best incenses, its complexity will always be stimulating.

Kyukuyodo incense is highly valued among enthusiasts for both its high end and affordable incenses and it can be seen here that there are some other parts of the scent spectrum that are not as widely available but in many cases should be. Like many US incense users, I keep up the hope we’ll see many of these in the near future.

Surya / Five Darbari

I don’t see Surya incense very often but Surya Trading is another company that specializes in both masala and darbari/durbar style incense. I rarely ever touch dry masalas and my interest in durbar or champa style incense has waned considerably since I started delving into japanese incense, so it’s worth keeping that in mind in terms of my opinions.

Second, my running theory is that it’s possible for American companies to link up with Indian companies to have incense made for them, to be packaged over here and in these cases you tend to find lots of crossovers and similar scents. I will say, however, that the base formula for the five Surya incenses is a little different than I normally expect, a little gummier and sweeter and it does set a couple of the aromas apart from those with similar names.

Undoubtely the best of the five durbaris in question is Surya’s Forest Champa. I’m reminded not only by name of various “forest” resin blends that have a certain sweetness to them. The gums are very nice and spicy and the resulting blend feels rich, although like most champa incenses I notice more and more some occasional smoky, off notes minimal though they are on this one.

Royal Champa may evoke Satya Royal by name and scent in that it’s a very busy, overwhelming sort of blend. Perhaps overperfumed to extent, there are some musky notes to this one that are perhaps way too much. Again, I think japanese incense tends to attune you to a far less volume of smoke, so I found this blend to be a bit cloying.

Like most Indian incense ranges, Surya has a Nag Champa and like most blends of this style, it’s close to indistinguishable from others. Maybe a little on the muted style, like the whole range, the base of the incense is a little sweeter compared to other companies. I find nag champa to be generally a bit dull these days so this one didn’t really register much.

Maharaja is another very common Indian blend that tends to be a more of a spicier and robust champa blend. I fell in love with the Mystic Temple version when I first tried it only to find that subsequent purchases never lived up to the initial experience and now the blend doesn’t strike me as special as it once did. Surya’s version has the green stick like every version I’ve seen, but this is case where the sweet base doesn’t compliment the spice so well, leaving it a bit of a mess.

Jasmine is probably the only other incense in this range other than Forest Champa that I’d recommend. Jasmine added to a champa blend is nearly always pretty distinctive and while this has that obvious note, there’s a bit of spice to this blend that gives it a little more kick. Of course, like the whole range it’s a bit too smoky and overwhelming, but I can imagine champa lovers going for it.

Overall I’d probably recommend the new champa sampler to try out the original Satya Nag Champa or the more high quality Ramakrishnanda or Mystic Temple blends before trying Surya product, but if you’re familiar with the style and looking for more, I’d suggest giving the Forest Champa a try. Besides, this is very inexpensive incense and at the link above, you can order two packages (including a sampler that includes all five of these blends) for $5 and get free shipping, making purchase a very low risk.

Shoyeido / Floral World / Star

Ever tried to figure out the Shoyeido catalog when it comes to their Floral World line? There are a few things one ascertains immediately, that the series has various grades, ranging from the low end “Gold,” through “Echo” and “Royal” to the high end “Star.” Each 60 stick (or 36 cone) package comes with three aromas, while there’s also single aroma cone packages (Gold/Violet, Echo/Sandalwood, Royal/Rose, Star/Jasmine)that we can only assume represent one aroma from the combo packages. We can also assume due to the fact that certain aromas have different color sticks depending on how deluxe the box is that what is Violet in the Gold set differs in quality from the Violet in the Star set.

As someone more drawn to woody and spicy incenses, I was initially hesitant to try out the line, which is why I started with the deluxe Star rather than working my way up the line. And it’s a good thing I did because these are three of the finest floral incenses I’ve ever encountered, light years away from most Japanese floral incense, let alone the many bitter and offputting Indian rose and jasmine masalas. They’d likely make a convert out of anyone.

All the 60 stick/36 cone combos are packaged like the Incense Road sampler and resemble the Horin line in size and very slightly in base. I’m definitely an enthusiast of this style of incense which often strikes me as midway between traditional and the modern “pressed” varieties of incense. That is, the aromas are very rich and often seem concentrated.

The two “obviously” floral incenses in the box are both the finest I’ve ever experienced in either the jasmine or violet categories. The Star jasmine combines that Horin richness with very high quality jasmine oil for a rich and slightly spicy experience that leaves most jasmine sticks far behind. The violet is beyond belief, the oil creating the aroma is so finely detailed that one can imagine being buried in a mountain of violet flowers, almost like one is smelling a pure essential oil except with that same rich base. While the other two incenses in the box took me a couple to get used to them, the violet knocked me out right the start.

The final incense, the sandalwood, as you might guess isn’t really anything like most sandalwoods. It’s a slightly different shade of green from the sandalwood found in the Incense Road line, and far different in aroma being something like a floral bouquet with only the barest hint of wood.

I’m now willing to check out the Royal box next time, especially since it includes the most deluxe rose incense in the line. Having not met a rose incense I’ve liked, I’m now hoping to become a convert there too.

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