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.

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Best Incense – September 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. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The price on Shoyeido premiums necessitates some discipline in terms of frequency of burning, but despite all attempts at restraint, I’m closing in on the halfway point of my “silk box” and eyeing the bigger roll and wondering how I can afford one in this sinking economy. I just can’t get enough of what may be my very favorite incense. This one’s dry, unlike any other incense, heavy with high quality aloeswood, and the oil/perfume is stupendous. Just can’t get enough of this one. Extremely exotic and not nearly as immediate as the rest of the line.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – And almost for a different reason, Nan-Kun is nearly as addictive. I think my appreciation for musk is higher of late due to all the Tibetans and while Nan-Kun gets its muskiness likely from the very high quality and heavy use of spikenard, it still itches that same spot while hitting the aloeswood and spice buttons at the same time. This one is very animal and rich, with an almost poignant sweetness to it. Possibly the best buy for money in the Shoyeido Premium line. To my nose, I enjoy Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun as much as the expensive kyaras in the line.
  3. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Seikan sticks are thin enough to look like they’d break in a strong wind, but their aromatic power for such a size is always startling, even if one does have to quiet down to “hear” it. In many ways this is the kyara incense that really focuses on the wood and while there are obvious ingredients that bolster the aroma, the sweet, sultry smell of the wood is central. A superlatively brilliant incense that I can barely get enough of.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – Down to about 15 sticks left in my box and I practically need disciplined meditation to stay away from it given the wait for a restock (when I go nuts). The very apex of Tibetan incense, a stick that rivals any country’s best work.
  5. Highland Incense – Highland’s the trusty #2 Tibetan brand for me as I wait for more Holy Land, a combination of animal (musk, civet?) and herbal spice that is incredibly comforting and relaxing right before sleep (I often burn about 2 inches of a stick as I drift off). Becoming a standard around here, don’t let this one go out of stock before you try it!
  6. Baieido / Kunsho – My recent musing is wondering whether Kunsho, the third most premium of five in Baieido’s Pawlonia box line, might be equal or better than the fourth, Koh En. As I get to know Baieido incense, more and more do I think you’re getting your best value for money from their products. I could see Kunsho at almost twice the price and still be worth it. Slightly cherry-esque with a very balanced and noble wood to it, this is truly impressive incense.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles.
  8. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – I am returning to this Tibetan stick fairly often even though in doing so I keep sampling the rest of the line and wonder why I like this one so much more. I think it must be the curry-ish spice to it which seems missing in the others, a green-ish , exotic tinge that brings out the ingredient complexity.
  9. Minorien / Aloeswood – As I cycle through various incenses I often come across this one and am impressed all over again, particularly surprising as the two above it in the Minorien line are more refined and impressive. But there’s something so ancient and hoary about this aloeswood that it tends to scratch that itch I have with aloeswoods that aren’t too sweet. Like Baieido, Minorien’s products have a way of continuing to impress long after one’s initial purchase.
  10. The Direct Help Foundation / The Druid – I’m not sure this incense is still available, it was originally part of the Magic Tantra set and maybe one other, but perhaps it will show up again in the future. It’s actually somewhat similar in its salty herbalness to the Tibetan Medical College incenses, although not at all musky or dense like those. I’m not sure what the active ingredients is here, the mosses or something else, but the results are a very pleasant blend I hope comes back in the future. Because when TDHF get it right like they do here, they’re among the best.

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

Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land, Nectar

I’m so used to seeing Tibetan incense packages from $5 to $10 that when I started coming across packages more in the $15-20 range and even higher, I was very curious. Perhaps in the incense world more than anywhere else, the cost of an incense is quite reflective of its (rare, precious) contents and although there are a few exceptions, I’ve rarely been disappointed with high end Japanese incenses, so I wondered if the same theme would carry over with high end Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese incenses.

I’ve noticed that with some of the lower end Tibetan incenses that seem to have a large content of inexpensive wood, the ash is almost a dark, bluish gray. Many of these incenses smell like wood with flavoring in a manner that implies that the percentage of original aromatic ingredients is actually fairly low. While this type of ash isn’t particularly common overall (the Paljor incenses, Sonam and the Drepul Loseling incenses are three brands that do leave this sort of ash), it does seem to indicate what I’m calling a “leavened” incense and if it doesn’t imply a low quality base, it does imply a small portion of quality ingredients.

Moving to high-end Tibetan incenses is as shocking and revelationary as moving to high-end Japanese incenses, although the effects on the pocket book will fortunately be less severe. Even if you’re familiar with Mandala Trading, Dhoop Factory, Himalayan Herbal Company and other excellent and affordable Tibetan incense companies, moving to some of the more independent monastery incenses with price tags well into the $15-$40 range, will be a big surprise. Not only are the contents relatively unleavened, but you’re also dealing with ingredients that are likely to be considered transgressive from a Western green-minded perspective. It’s perhaps fortunate that these ingredients, generally real musk and real nagi/pangolin scales, are left obscure. For example if you list nagi, most Westerners are likely to consider it one of a number of unidentified, transliterated ingredients that are basically unknown. And if you list musk, the reader’s likely going to be trained to assume it’s vegetable musk. In many of these high end Tibetan blends, at the very least your nose is going to be telling you quite a bit more. There’s an unparalleled intensity in incenses from Tibetan Medical College, Highland Monastery, Samye Monastery and others that likely can be both accounted for by these ingredients as well as concentration.

As discussed here, there’s an intuitive aspect to burning incense. As with anything intuitive, approaching the subject with words is somewhat counterproductive as words can really never broach this area with any ease. From a personal perspective, the first time I lit a stick of Tibetan Medical College Nectar, the effect was like electricity, a charge of energy similar to the first time one experiences a quality aloeswood. The aroma penetrates like a knife, a combination of woods, herbs and spices that’s almost difficult to discuss due to the aromatic power and consistency. And like any great intuitive experiences, it was followed by a passionate response, an almost disbelief that a scent like this exists. It was as if the coils of smoke totally arrested me. I’ve since started calling this effect Tibetan or incense juju (a creative license) and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying these incenses have medical efficacy in the way Westerners consider it, there’s no question that these scents have an intuitive power that really sets them apart from 95% of the available imported Tibetan incenses.

Holy Land is Tibetan Medical College’s top grade incense and it very well might be the finest Tibetan-style incense available. Having started with the Nectar and moved to this one, I found this to be a step up and I was already over the moon with the Nectar. The central scent to this incense (and very close to the central scent for Nectar) is one of a big bowl of salted pistachio nuts, particularly the ones that used to be more frequently available that were red-dyed. But this is only the beginning. This intensity is mixed through out with a plethora of woods, florals, herbs and spices, not to mention a distinct musk that while not a central aspect to the overall scent, creates a give and take in the aroma that affords it greater complexity. The floral thread is like lily or jasmine, very subtle, but it manifests in the most incredible ways. Outside of aloeswood, I’ve experienced no other incense other than the Highland to continue to invoke scent memories no matter where I am. An experience like no other, this is a hall of fame incense whose relative affordability compared to Japanese sticks makes it an excellent buy.

One session I decided to light a stick of Nectar after the Holy Land and realized I could actually barely smell it. But that’s an observation more on the strength of Holy Land, as Nectar’s as likely to do the same to other Tibetan incenses even if the central pistachio-like center has been leavened with even more floral notes. The reddish color does imply this may be Tibetan Medical College’s “B” grade in some way, with the addition of juniper berries being fairly obvious. But like with the Mindroling Grade B this move doesn’t create a B grade so much as a different incense, with the berries and floral notes imparting rose-like scents to the mix. The ingredients noted in the Holy Land do seem to be here in smaller quantities but that mix was so powerful that it’s still heavily aromatic even here and thus I’d suggest starting here with the College incenses as Holy Land will only seem like another step up in comparison.

Overall these two blends are at the apex of Tibetan incense art. The ingredients are top class, the blends totally original and unlike no other company’s incenses and the intuitive impact, possibly as a result, is heavily subconscious. There be magic here…

Sampler Notes: Daihatsu Tanka Range

Daihatsu are a Japanese company marrying the art of incense with French perfumery. Very few of their incenses currently imported into the US could be considered traditional. The incenses in question here, more so than the line represented by the black boxes, represent a modern vision that while working with some common ingredients, end up creating entirely new bouquets. These are rather unlikely to appeal to traditionalists or ingredient purists, but in most cases Daihatsu manage to create partially synthetic incenses that don’t usually have harsh or offputting notes and could be considered superior to lower quality incenses that do the same thing. The following are notes on this range based on partial sticks.

Young Leaves is an incense with a sweet, autumnal aroma. It has hints of musk, new carpet and mint and is overall a bit on the sharp side. Like most of these aromas the scent is pretty powerful and perfumed. At times it reminded me of the mintier Shoyeido 12 months incenses, except not quite as refined. Overall, quite nice.

Plum Tanka isn’t all that similar to your traditional plum blossom incense, it’s more of a floral bouquet. Due to the perfume the scent is much more up front and distinct, but you actually get more fruit than blossom, with what reminds me of rose on top. I liked the fact the overall scent tended to the dry side rather than sweet.

Violet Tanka is a rather picture perfect inexpensive violet perfume, well rounded, but a bit on the soapy side at times, which I think is more of an indicator of my relationship to floral incenses than anything else. Like the whole range it has an unsual aromatic strength and in many ways it feels like an alternate version of the Plum Tanka.

Daihatsu’s Sandalwood is so close to a traditional sandalwood that it either is or they’ve downplayed the perfumey elements on this one and as such it stands out like a sore thumb in the line. It has a very contoured sandalwood aroma, definitely aiming for the heartwood sort of scent, but with a bit of spice giving it a bit of richness. Perhaps as this is closer to my tastes than the florals, I found it fairly impressive for hitting the right notes, although overall it doesn’t differ that much from most heartwood sandalwoods.

The best of the line, unsurprisingly, is the Tokusen Tanka. We’re definitely flat into perfume ranges here, there’s almost nothing about this incense that will remind you of the traditional, rather it smells like someone’s fantastic, sultry perfume and as such may be a bit too much for an incense. It’s by far the boldest scent in the line, minty, sultry and modern like some of Shoyeido’s LISN line. Roughly it falls into a green tea/patchouli sort of area, without really being too strong on either note.

Lilac Tanka is by far the most synthetic smelling in this range, but that’s an opinion I almost always get with florals such as this, there’s a real soapy feel to this that reminds me of Indian incenses at times. Overall it’s about what you’d expect, lilac perfume, something not really all that attuned to my tastes.

There’s also another four boxes, mentioned above, that Daihatsu create that still work with perfume but end up in much more traditional areas. Of these I liked the Myo-jyou and Kaizan enough to buy boxes, but found over time that the perfumy nature made it so that I wasn’t reaching for them quite so much. I do wonder if I’d take a similar track with any of the Tankas, but I’d take that as a more traditionalist opinion. If you like modern scents, a sampler might be worth a look as I definitely think this line is more superior to, say, similar Nippon Kodo incenses.