Mermade Magickal Arts / Dionysos, Icaro +

One of the things I’ve been noticing of late is that I can often have a Mermade incense in queue to review (the latest two are the fantastic Heart of the Sun and Honey (Amber Champa) incenses) and then they’re already gone by the time I make a move to writing about them. So it should be said that in general Mermade vintages are going out to higher demand, so it behooves oneself to move quick on these things, perhaps even quicker than waiting for our reviews as unfortunately we can’t get to everything in time as much as we’d like to. Olfactory Rescue Service is of course well pleased that more and more people are experiencing Mermade and Katlyn’s bountiful creations as I can’t imagine a time where we wouldn’t have good things to say about them. The latest creations could be gone by the time I get this posted and it would be a shame as both of these are comparatively unique to the roster and well worth checking out.

Another thing I’ve been noticing is how Mermade’s linking of myth and magick to the incenses give them a sort of power in their own right. Dionysos is one of these and the label immediately puts in mind the feral Greek wine God and his intoxicated entourage. When the first notes of the incense arise from the heater, the scent is grape, berry and wine all of some mysterious vintage. But woven through this central note is the wildness you’d associate with this God, an evergreen, balsamic and grassy mélange that speaks of remote pagan locations. Two of the incense’s notes are Greek Aleppo pine resin and Bay laurel leaves, both of which work with frankincense, myrrh and labdanum to give this scent a noticeably different feel to it. It’s a brave creation and has that touch of the weird to it that helps to get these images rolling.

Icaro moves across an ocean from frankincense and pine to copal blanco, elemi and Breu Claro, from European forests to the rainforests of Brazil. The comparison between these two incenses shows how different scents can be. It is something of a hot, dry incense especially in comparison to the liquid resin-like qualities of Dionysos but it’s also defined by an intense cactus-green scent that likely comes from the ground ayahuasca that is buried in the copal-heavy mix of ingredients. This combination speaks to the shamanic myths of the area and strangely enough I’m also reminded of how close to the word Icaro (defined at the Mermade link), the Greek figure Icaros sounds, and how both speak of long voyages and journeys. Once again, we’re seeing new directions being assayed by Mermade and this is a heady combination that has an impact similar to the Dream Snake of many years ago.

I was sent other current samples of Mermade works, including two variations of a stick version of Pan’s Earth, one an aloeswood version thereof. I had enough to know these were beautiful and heady blends that speak of how strong Mermade’s stick incense has been getting with new variations (and this goes for the Honey/Amber champa sticks to which I’m looking forward to more of after I rocketed through my tube of the amazing things). Mermade is also selling Styrax Benzoin, which comes looking like a fragile geode of dark crystals sparkling in part due to the added tincture/essential oils. This nurturing of the natural brings out a very gentle amber-benzoin scent on a heater, mild and unassuming and avoiding some of the harsher qualities of cheaper benzoin.

I also received a sample of small disc-like lozenges of Deep Earth, but when I opened the little package, I lost one of them as it shot out of the package into that same dimension lost socks go. The other landed on my heater where its familiar but variant scent reminded me of how much I love the lineage of this incense, I believe I still have samples going back at least five vintages.

In summary, it’s just always a joy to go through Katlyn’s latest work and share it, but don’t forget these incenses are getting more and more fleeting as people learn about this venerable company, so it doesn’t hurt to grab a vial or two right away. Also, next review I should have some incenses from a new entry into the nicely growing US field of incense artists, a “newer” company I have really been looking forward to talking about…

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A note to Ross: Floral Hearted Night

Hi, Ross,
A friend was kind enough to send me a sample of Floral Hearted Night. It seems like a different direction for you to have gone and, to me, it’s a very successful one 🙂 Although this incense smells unmistakably floral, it doesn’t accost me with out-of-control indoles, as some “big white flower” essential oils do, or suffer from boring flatness, a problem with some mass-produced sticks. I do love the scents of plumeria and tuberose, which share a similar thick and sweet headiness and can sometimes be overwhelming. You manage to imbue them with a delicacy and demureness that I never would have associated with either flower. Honey Abs. adds a subtle, very slightly booze-y twist, and agarwood and sandalwood add creaminess and weight to this true-to-life blend. Civet rounds out and augments the floral notes, and ambergris, though not obvious as stand alone “star”, contributes to the delicacy and intricacy of the scent, while adding its unique, mineral sparkle to the composition. Every once in a while I catch an animalic, musky drift that adds a provocative and slightly carnal twist to the incense. The overall effect is of young, white flowers just beginning to open their translucent petals, set against a backdrop of somewhat woozy woods that are doing their best to hide their more wild, Faun-like natures.

So, now there is a floral incense I can say I unequivocally like and, at last, I can smell summer blooms in winter without lifting a shovel! Your incense may be called Floral Hearted Night, but I know it’s going to brighten many of the cold and gray winter days that lie ahead. Thank you, Ross!

Mermade Magical / Classical Kyphi by Nathaniel, Deep Earth Premium

Howdy! Its been a while since I have written a review, but I managed to scrape some funds together to snag an order of Mermade Magical Arts’ Classical Kyphi by Nathaniel Musselman.
The wonderful people over at Mermade Magical also were kind enough to throw in a few samples with my order, including Deep Earth Premium 2013, so I will be doing a double review today!

Classical Kyphi has a scent that upon first whiff ,smells reminiscent of fresh raisin bread and frankincense. After a bit the cinnamon starts to come through, with a touch of anise. Heated gently on charcoal or an electric heater, this will surely please anyone who enjoys sweet, spicy scents.

The Deep Earth 2013 is hands down a new favorite of mine. I will most definitely be keeping a supply of this on hand, once I have the means to. As stated in the previous article by Ross, it comes across very thick, resiny and woody. Upon placing it on my charcoal censer, I was immediately hit with a strong aroma of labdanum, although curiously it does not list labdanum in the ingredients. Alongside the top not of labdanum, I noticed myrrh,  with a scent resembling honey and agar wood in the background. Anyone who is a fan of deep resin and wood scents will definitely love this blend.

Sarathi Perfumery Works / Sri Govinda / Gopala, Keshava, Krishna, Madhava, Mukunda

NOTE: This line has been discontinued

Sarathi Perfumery Works is responsible for Tulasi incense as well as this small, five incense Sri Govinda range. These five incenses all pair two different aromas in a champa style. While the link will take you to a page where you can purchase all five incenses, the incenses also come in larger boxes, although in my experience you’ll find each store varies in terms of what size and aromas they stock. Quality wise I’d say these are probably right above the Satya and Nitiraj ranges while still significantly below today’s premiums.

Gopala combines patchouli and vanilla, two ingredients fairly common in champa variants. In this case I’m far more reminded of Mystic Temple’s Vanilla Amber Champa than I am any patchouli champas, it’s almost as if the patchouli is something of a faint note in the incense. Overall the Gopala is quite dry as a result with the combination accentuating the sandalwood notes. It’s a bit one dimensional in the end but it does it nicely.

Keshava combines Rose and Geranium but as most incense veterans might guess, this is a lot more geranium than rose, although I’d even go as far to say that the geranium is actually kind of fuzzy, leaving the stick with a generic floral scent that doesn’t work particularly well with the sweet base. Overall it seems a bit too bitter or coarsely perfumed. It’s as if you’re burning two clashing incenses at once.

Sarathi’s Krishna mixes up honey and jasmine, two aromas that seem natural together, however like in the previous two incenses, one ingredient dominates and in this case it’s a jasmine scent somewhat reminiscent of Triloka’s. You can detect the honey but it sits below the jasmine as a subnote, probably as it marries with the base more. The combination doesn’t clash like the Keshava, but it’s not perfect, with a scent that strikes me as a little cloying due to a slight touch of soapiness.

Madhava is probably the most balanced of the three floral mixes in this group, combining violet and amber, which is a mix you don’t see very often if at all. At least in this case the oils don’t clash with the base like the Keshava did, and the violet sits on top of a gentle and sweet base. The amber merges into this, gently powdery and the combination gels, even if not in a particularly memorable way.

Mukunda definitely starts in the benzoin department with a decent quality scent (minus the rough and gravelly qualities associated with cheaper benzoin. The myrrh is difficult to pick out (an issue pretty common to myrrh incenses given how widely it can vary in scent) because it doesn’t have the individual qualities of good resin, but it does prevent this from being purely benzoin.In fact I detect a little more on the honey side in this one than I do with the Krishna.

I think in terms of whether you’d want any of these totally depends upon how deep you want your incense collection, as there’s a lot better and a lot worse. I think maybe these are a cut above Satya and Nitiraj because the base is better, in fact I often wondered going through these if some of the oils actually detracted from the base. But perhaps only the Madhava is memorable and even it’s not a perfect incense. The line has since been discontinued, but most of these incenses should still be locatable.

Dhuni / Extra Special Amber, Kashi, Nag Champa (thick versions), Bhakti

I’m encouraged by the efforts of the Dhuni company to tinker with their incense formulas, especially when the results are as spectacular as they are here. It seems possible that they’re in the process of creating a true connoisseur line of Indian incense here as this group of scents is easily top tier.

I’m hoping maybe Piers or someone from the company might drop by and explain if these are actually the new versions of these scents or alternates as it’s difficult to tell from the catalog what’s going on here. All I know is I was already quite impressed with Dhuni’s initial grouping of incenses, but what we’re seeing in the new reformulations is a level of quality that closes in on the decadent.

Take the new version of Extra Special Amber. This is possibly the thickest stick of Indian incense I’ve ever come across, so heavy in weight that if you use an ash holder you’ll need to make sure it’s sunk deep. What seems to have happened is that the larger stick gives the opportunity to use more in the way of the resinous materials. The original Extra Special Amber is quite excellent but it’s also highly perfumed, this new version seems like the perfume or oil contents have either been reduced or spread out among the new materials. The result is tangy, brassy and rich, but largely so because the quality natural ingredients are now carrying more of the bouquet. It makes it so the overall aroma is slightly less intense and more diffuse, letting the amber waves ride out in an airier fashion. In the end both versions are still largely in their own category amberwise and it should also be mentioned that despite the size of the stick, the smoke content is still about normal. This is a stick I’m definitely looking forward to stocking deeply, it’s an incredible work of art.

While Extra Special Amber has made the most visible change, the further refinement of Kashi is possibly this batch’s most impressive move. The sticks are slightly thicker in size and are now thick enough that they don’t resemble at all the style of incense Kashi is in the same family of, the one including Incense from India Honey Dust, Mystic Temple Vanilla, Satya Natural etc. From just eyeing it I would say that the new version has a touch more halmaddi resin in it if not more honey, because it’s even sweeter and more deluxe than it ever was. Now sometimes, this isn’t a good thing but it’s been done in a way where the results aren’t cloying and the sweetness is perfectly balanced by the quality ingredients in the mix. I mentioned it in last month’s top 10, but this is a style I’d grown quite tired of until Dhuni managed to rejuvenate it in the most perfect way here, making it by far the best version of this scent to hit the market.

Dhuni’s newly formulated Nag Champa is probably the mildest adjustment, although the changes are enough to make the new version less traditional than the original, but don’t take that to mean it’s less quality. Like the Kashi the new version is a bit gummier, with a massive halmaddi presence. I like the fact that this increase in sweetness tends to balance out the dryness of the scent, which is an issue I have with a lot of modern Nag Champas, they’ve often lost their finish. While with ESA and Kashi the replacements are definitely final, in terms of the Nag Champa I think both versions have a lot to like about them.

Dhuni also has one new scent, Bhakti. It’s described as a floral spice blend and has some slight similarities to Shroff’s Little Woods in the base. However all of the perfume and oil notes in the incense take the base in a completely different direction. This is a perfume mix that is very difficult to describe because it manages to be both light and complex at the same time. I get everything from unidentifiable florals to a spice content and even a touch of orange tea in the mix, not to mention a strain of wood scent that is less identifiable as a note than an ingredient of depth. Unsurprisingly it’s a triumph in the end and if it’s any indication we’re only seeing the beginning of a powerful run by Dhuni.

Keep tinkering, we’re noticing!

Dhuni / Citronella, Hari Om, Kashi, Khus, Lotus Flower, Moksha, Nag Champa, Special Amber

New incense company Dhuni came to our attention a while back thanks to our friend Hamid and then not long after the owner Piers dropped by Olfactory Rescue Service and kindly sent some samples along. What was immediately clear is that this series of incenses is one of the few lines in Indian incense one might consider connoisseur or gourmet. Like with the Mother’s India Fragrances line we recently covered, most of the Dhuni incenses have a distinct halmaddi presence, although I don’t detect so much the honey pairing as not all of these scents are sweet.

The sticks are generally a bit larger than your usual champa or durbar style and both Kashi and especially the Special Amber are almost what I’d call flora style and even evince some of the wonderful aromatic attributes of those incenses. These are all extremely rich and quality scents and I have the distinct wish, like I did when Mother’s used to only have five fragrances, that there are plans to expand this line. Like that venerable company, Dhuni’s incenses are virtually at the apex of quality Indian incenses and are essential for those who love good champas.

Citronella could almost be classified as a lemongrass champa, with the citronella oil content combining about equally with the halmaddi and base. It’s a very cooling incense with few surprises, after all citronella oil tends to have a very linear profile. What’s immediately noticeable is there’s enough halmaddi in the mix to feature a very strong balsamic back note. I’ll admit, I’m not personally huge for citronella incenses, but my experiences have almost all been with oil based charcoals and Dhuni’s version is far superior to any of these with a much better balance of base and oils. In the end it might be the finest citronella incense you can buy.

Hari Om is the first of Dhuni’s classics and the first of several here that remind me of the glory days of halmaddi champa incense. Like several of the blends here there are usually so many ingredients involved that it’s really difficult to get a sense of the single elements involved. With Hari Om the halmaddi and sandalwood are particularly noticeable here and there’s also a nice tough of vanilla in the mix reminiscent of Mystic Temple’s Vanilla Amber Champa. But this vanilla element takes a much different direction due to so many of the herbal elements coming from the oil mix, including what seems like a light touch of patchouli in the mix. In the end this has a scent profile much more complex than a few sticks might be able to imply meaning this should have a long and interesting learning curve.

Kashi is very much a thick stick version of a scent you may be familiar with as Honey Dust (Incense from India), Vanilla (Mystic Temple), Satya Natural or Shanti (Purelands), but this is much more like what the aroma used to smell like before Indian incense went through so many ingredient changes. It’s quite a bit more complex and now it’s pretty easy to see how the halmaddi lifts the whole thing, most likely because the balsamic elements help to make sure this doesn’t get overly cloying. This evergreenish quality, like in the Citronella, helps to make this a cooling sort of incense. It still has the honey and vanilla characteristics typical of the scent but the whole profile feels much more balanced and friendly. If you’ve never tried any of the incenses mentioned as similar, be sure to start with this one and don’t look back.

Vetivert isn’t generally a scent you’ll find in an incense range this small, but Dhuni’s Khus embeds this wonderful scent in a champa for startling effect, in fact this could be my favorite of the whole group. I’ve already mentioned that both Citronella and Kashi are cooling, but the Khus brings that element to an almost arctic level. Naturally this has a green, leafy and calming vetivert note on top that’s really beautiful and it melds absolutely perfectly here with the ubiquitous balsamic halmaddi content. It’s a very grounding incense and truly one of the market’s finest vetiverts, although I suppose half of the battle is won with such a great base. There’s even a very slight note that is reminiscent of forest resin blends.

Lotus Flower is a very different incense and like almost every Lotus incense you can name, this is completely unique. It’s a soft floral-fronted champa incense whose base seems to be fairly similar to the Kashi. In general it’s soft, sweet and friendly and if there’s any criticism to be had it’s that over the burn there’s perhaps too much linearity which leads me to believe it’s a stick best taken in smaller doses. This is a fairly common issue with floral champas, although again, the ingredients here are so quality that it’s probably only an issue of taste.

Moksha isn’t terribly different from the Lotus Flower in that it also has a floral top note that’s simialr, but this incense isn’t quite so linear and is a little more intricate. There’s a touch of citrus in the mix as well as some herbal qualities that are difficult to identify but which help to ensure this has something of a wilder streak in it. The sandalwood content also seems to be a bit stronger here than in the other line’s incenses. It’s perhaps a little too close to Lotus Flower to be in such a small line, but I’d have to pick this one between the two as it’s a lot more interesting.

If I was to recommend one of the many “vanilla” nag champas on the market, it would have to be this one as it’s easily the most authentic Nag Champa I’ve come across in the modern age, even more so than Shantimalai’s red box version, which is perhaps this scent’s closest equivalent. No doubt this is due to the halmaddi content in the mix, which if it isn’t high enough to make this gooey like in the old days is certainly high enough to give the scent the balsalmic backdrop it needs. Overall this is a nag champa that tends to a much drier and less overtly sweet bouquet with a distinct sandalwood strength to help bring out its richness. This one’s essential.

Special Amber is Dhuni’s thickest stick and it packs an incredibly scent wallop like most sticks of its sizes. This is really unlike any amber you’ll ever try and even though a lot of the incense is apparently created from ground up amber resin, the scent also seems to have a powerful perfume oil on top to give it some similar qualities to incenses I used to see referred to as Triple Amber, in that these qualities tend to come from three different angles for something exquisitely deluxe. In fact of all of Dhuni’s scents this could be the most intricate, even after several samples I only felt like I was surveying the surface of what is obviously an incredibly deluxe amber.

The verdict is more or less simple, this is a company that Indian incense shoppers will need to add right next to their Mothers, Shroff, and Pure Incense lists. I really can’t wait to see this company expand the line to more scents as this is an audacious start. And for US customers, you can also now find these at Essence of the Ages.

Mother’s India Fragrances / Nagchampas / Agni, Amrita, Atma, Bhakti, Jyoti, Lila, Moksha

After being introduced to and living with Mother’s India Fragrances’ original five Nagchampas, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t have asked the question “How come there aren’t more of them?” After all the originals are a phenomenal quintet of nagchampas in an era where the form has mostly degenerated. Where so many companies have either eliminated or reduced the content of halmaddi in their products, often creating inferior recipes that only resemble the incenses they used to create, Mother’s have managed to continue a line that not only still contains the ingredient (also called mattipal) but considerably expands the art form.

That is, when nagchampas were made 15 years ago or earlier, the incenses were so full of the gum that the sticks remained so wet you could easily pull them apart. The Mother’s Nagchampas don’t aim for a similar effect and while the incenses are still quite damp, often visibly through the inner packagaing, they all have a uniform consistency that follows the original five scents to what is an incredible 14 new scents. And for those of you already well familiar with the original five, these are going to surprise and elate you as in most cases they have brought the form up to a new level of complexity. Almost all of these incenses have as many as five or six different oil or material sources not even counting the halmaddi/mattipal and honey base. The results are so impressive that it’s difficult to feel that even after sampling several sticks of them that the full story has been told.

I’d like to thank both the home company of Mother’s India Fragrances and their Dutch distribution company Wierook for not only making Olfactory Rescue Service aware of them, but by providing a bounty of gifts and samples in time for me to get some reviews out just before the products come to the United States (not to mention one of the most informative and descriptive English language documents I’ve ever seen for a line of incenses, something that strongly assisted my reviews). Where it was difficult to label only five incenses as the finest Nagchampa line available, now that the total is up to 19, there’s really no question that this is the top line of its format, with a fascinating and aromatically superior range that doesn’t stop to recreate any old recipes and instead uses superior essential oils and absolutes to create a wide range of impressive and intricate scents. This installment will cover the first half of these 14 new incenses with the second half to follow shortly.

The first of these incenses is Agni Nagchampa. Perhaps the most simple description is that this is more or less a musk nagchampa, but it’s far more complex than that. It’s essentially a French Musk sort of scent, which bears some comparison to Shroff’s incense of that name or even the old Blue Pearl Musk Champa, however we know from the description that the central musk scent is created from ambrette seeds. My experience with musks created this way is that they usually aren’t quite this sweet, so one has to look to the other ingredients to see how the bouquet is formed. Obviously the halmaddi and honey anchor this quite nicely at the base as they do for all of the incenses here, so it’s really the middle of the aroma where the magic is. The pivotal ingredient here is neroli or orange blossom oil, an aspect which is the first of many through these incenses that show an incredibly clever perfumery at work because it’s a scent that is mellow and doesn’t overpower while anchoring the musk to the base. The cedar seems to bring out the balsamic aspects to the scent more which both balances the neroli and ensures the fragrance doesn’t go over the top on its way out. Make no mistake, this is still a decadently rich and sweet incenses as any sweet musk would be, but you can almost feel the restraint nonetheless.

As rich and sweet as the Agni is, the cinnamon-laden Amrita Nagchampa is almost a study in contrasts. Even with the amazing halmaddi and honey base, the results are very dry and of this seven, this could be the most direct incense. The cinnamon is very beautifully drawn, in fact the description the company uses is “edible,” something easily understood with a sample. However the cinnamon does have its supporting actors, including patchouli, cedar and some unnamed woods and resins. There are some elements in this that remind me of Nippon Kodo’s Silk Road incense except with a much more genuine feel) but the comparison hints at an exotic subnote that really helps to transmute the base to support the overall dryness.

The Atma Nagchampa is also a restrained piece of work, but in this case it doesn’t transmit a single essence like the previous scent did, instead it portrays a balancing act with a number of different notes at work. What’s amazing about it is that even with so many players the composite aroma remains gentle and subtle. On top we have the dominant floral oils at work, some lavender and what seems like a closer mix of geranium and kewra (pandanus or screwpine) notes. But like several incenses among the new aromas, Mother’s have chosen to contrast these floral elements with a spicy backdrop (including clove), something the company is clearly adept at. The results are actually akin to a standard (if exceptional in quality) nag champa with a soft floral in touch. What it loses without a particularly aggressive bouquet, it gains with a gentle aura and since everything seems to work on such a subtle level, it’s one of the most difficult in this group to get a hang on. But by the last stick I had out it was really starting to get under my skin.

Bhakti Nagchampa is something of an instant classic. As mentioned with the previous incense, Bhakti goes for a floral spice mix that is extraordinary in that it seems possible to pick out the individual elements as they interact with each other. The rose/tuberose/geranium mix on the top could be the best among a number of incredible floral elements across all these incenses and this is perhaps because they not only have strong definition but they’re contrasted perfectly with the patchouli and cedar base. In fact the only question I have is whether a scent like this might lose some of this fantastic definition with aging, because the balance here is like a highwire act with all the base elements a stage for the florals to dance lightly over.

Jyoti Nagchampa has some similarities to the cinnamon heavy Amrita, but here the scent is less monochromatic and more of a tangier multi-spice blend. In fact, it seems likely some of its spicier attributes come from the mix of myrrh, vertivert and patchouli, a group of ingredients that all have great transmutational qualities in different blends. In fact any time Mother’s uses a larger amount of resins in its incenses, it seems to trigger the more balsamic and sometimes evergreen qualities of the base. The mix definitely leaves me very curious about the quality of benzoin used in the ingredients as I recognize none of the usual subnotes and a quality that is truly exquisite. Again this mosaic (which also pulls in kewra to a slight degree) really hits a great balance with a vanilla and spice presence that is just perfect.

Lila Nagchampa is a patchouli heavy incense whose other ingredients really shift the whole tonal balance you normally associate with the herb in new and fascinating ways. For one, this is an incense as sweet as the Agni or Moksha blends, something particularly unusual for something so prevalent with patchouli. Sharing the stage with the patchouli on the top is tuberose, which has already shown its effectiveness in the Bhakti, but where that incense contrasted the floral and spicy, the Lila goes for the composite approach, like a rainbow color chart changing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Undoubtedly the vetivert changes the patchouli element some, always a great partnering, but perhaps where the benzoin and oakmoss lies is where the true transmutation occurs as it falls into the sweet base. The informational material also calls chocolate as a note as a result of the benzoin and you indeed find a powdery cocoa-like subnote in the mix of all this interaction. Like so many of these beautiful scents this seems like one that will have a learning curve as long as the best incenses because it’s not at all what you’d expect in the long run. It’s better.

Moksha Nagchampa …. well if you think it couldn’t get any better than what I’ve already run through then we’d have to at least call this a gamechanger. Champa users may be familiar with a lot of the intersections between style and addition, but the incredibly lily of the valley scent (muguet) that crowns the Moksha is positively ecstatic. And Mother’s doesn’t shy from the contrasts here either, setting off on a trail of oriental woods and saffron notes that end up creating a very rich depth before giving one a floral shock that starts with the rose notes, part of which are described as “citrusy rose petals” which seem to be what I’m picking up as a slight melon-like fruitiness. It all results in the most incredible, kaleidoscopic aroma that has the feminine, floral notes of so many modern perfumes but with the depth of the traditional. I’ve had a few incenses with lily of the valley in them, but none quite so stunning as this one.

One thing you’d expect from a great company is that in expanding what was a really impressive quintet, Mother’s haven’t sat on their laurels and tried to spin similar variations off of an already established success, they’ve possibly surpassed them, or if not, they’ve added such an incredible amount of variation to their line that it breathes new life into the whole line and makes you want to go back to the original quintet for reevaluation. With each stick I became far more deeply involved with each one to the point that picking a favorite is very difficult, there’s really not a blend here I wouldn’t want consistent stock on. There’s just no question that this is the crowning line of the modern nagchampa and I’m fortunate to be able to bring seven more to your attention in the next installment.

Nippon Kodo / Morning Star / Fig, Lotus + East Meets West / Thai Memory

This write-up is an odds and ends sort of thing and likely to be one of the last Nippon Kodo modern reviews I make here. Most of these incenses come from my early days (which really wasn’t all that long ago) exploring Japanese incense, when I didn’t know quite what I liked yet and it has since dawned on me that I’m just not a Nippon Kodo type of person, at least when it comes to moderns (the jury is still out on their high end aloeswoods). The issue, as I’ve mentioned before, is that most if not all of their moderns are created with what I’d call inexpensive and offputting perfumes, the type of scents that always remind me of what digital technology sounded in the early 80s, bad snapshots better captured in a more authentic setting. An NK modern often starts out OK but like a diet soda (particularly the old saccharine ones), it becomes quickly apparent you’re dealing with a subsitute.

I also haven’t reviewed the very popular Morning Star line before, not only because that line and my pocketbook aren’t intersecting anywhere, but because they’re also inexpensive enough that virtually anyone could try them on their own. And I’d have avoided them entirely except for a trip to a local store where on a whim I decided to give the Fig and Lotus brands a try. That a different trip had me purchasing another East Meets West coil set may have been the last straw for this sort of on the spot purchasing. It’s one thing paying that extra retail price for something you like, another when you get something you don’t. Most if not all these sailed off in the “trading circle” box with the hope someone things my opinions on these are crazy.

To be honest, based on the Fig and Lotus, at least with Morning Star incenses they’re properly priced. One will not be expecting kyara at $2.50 a box. What one will get is a very inexpensive, partially sandalwood based and rather heavy perfume oil on top. This basically means you match your taste to the scent on most of these Morning Star incenses. In both of these cases, the scent captures the most perfume-like and floral natures of the relative scents. Where fig can also be pulpy, damp and, err, Fig Newton-like, here it’s brightly floral and somewhat reminiscent of grape Kool-aid, a memory scent that came welling up from my seven year old head. It’s not initially harsh, but like many synthetic florals the aroma really starts to cloy around a third of the way down the stick.

The Lotus is similar. It’s a scent that varies with just about every permutation, but one aspect that makes a Lotus incense successful is the sultry, shimmering mirage-like quality of the flower, something undeniably exotic and even a little erotic when it’s done right. I’d never had that much of an expectation for this incense, but given the sort of depths the lotus can muster, the results are certainly pale even with low expectations. It’s like a black and white photograph of a flower garden, we can indeed see the Lotus but it’s hard to be affected any more than that.

The problem with some of the more expensive NK moderns is they don’t really improve on the Morning Star formulas, giving the impression they’re quite overpriced. Take the East Meets West line. I covered a different scent from this line a while back (and for more info on the line itself I’d refer you to this same link) and if I’d ever made a mistake going twice to the same dried up well, it was with this line. Like Scandinavian Memory, Thai Memory is fraught with bitter and soapy aromatics. Even in its description we get “sharp citrus,” which even if this was considered a selling point comes off extremely offputting. The key notes are bougainvillea, bamboo, and honey, but like most NK incenses with unusual combinations of three, the result is quite clashing. The honey doesn’t seem to survive the combination too well, dominated by the sharp citrus, which, combined with ginger, is just too much top note for this mellow of a base. Overall it’s not quite as extreme as Scandinavian Memory, but too far into the unpleasant category for me to hang onto.

It’s unlikely I’ll be back to visit these lines any time soon, at least not with my pocketbook. Morning Star incenses aren’t much of a risk for any incense budget, but the East Meets West line, despite the striking presentation, is too highly priced in coil or stick format. At a price of $21.50 you could be diving into Tibetan high enders and quality aloeswoods rather than letting harsh perfumes etch unpleasant memories into your head.

Baieido / Black Coffee, Coffee, Green Tea, Honey, Hinoki, Izumi

Baieido are well known and highly praised for their traditional Japanese incense blends; however, they also have a number of incenses that aim at the modern end of the market. In most, if not all of these cases, Baieido use a special charcoal for the stick and oils for the scents, the type of incenses that are more likely to appeal to the casual user or those not interested in the tradirionals. In this group are a number of scents growing in popularity, such as Coffee, Green Tea, and a fresh cleansing floral called Izumi. All of these scents, except the Izumi, are smokeless. You can find the Hinoki here.

Even though Baieido appear to use a very user friendly charcoal base for these incenses, it’s a delievery method I’ll never be fond of because even in the best cases charcoal imparts certain qualities to the incense that detract from the actual scent. This is true for most of the incenses in this article as well, although I find in both the Hinoki and Izumi cases that it gets in the way the least. All of these are quite affordable incenses and now that Baieido are starting to break down some of the larger $20 packages (Honey, Green Tea and Coffee) into smaller 40 stick packages they should be even more accessible.

Both Black Coffee and Coffee are very similar yet slightly different incenses. I read something to the effect that the former’s more about the bean where the latter’s more like coffee with creamer. Perhaps due to the charcoal presence I only noticed a slight difference between them. The Black Coffee is very earthy with hints of clay, wet slate and soil among the coffee bean. At first this seems to be offputting but the smell does grow on you a little bit. The Coffee is still almost as penetrating and earthy, but reminds me more of a cup of coffee than the bean. Unfortunately I’ve never tried a coffee type incense that doesn’t remind me of the smell of a cafe rather than a fresh cup, so I’ve never found one that I find successful, but to my nose there’s lots of subtle differences between different kinds of gourmet coffee, while both of these seem to be going more for something like Folger’s. But it should be said that both of these seem to be fairly popular incenses and my reaction is definitely from a traditionally minded perspective.

The Green Tea I found to be a bit less sweet than those by other companies, almost as if it accentuates the slight floral nature of the aroma rather than the tea leaf aspects. Like most Green Teas this is an aroma that actually reduces or absorbs off odors, leaving a lingering freshness. My short experience with this actually seemed like it reduced the aroma of whatever traditional incense I was burning before it. You could compare this to the Shorindo Chabana I wrote about a few weeks ago, except this is a bit warmer and even has a summery vibe to it.

Baieido’s Honey appears to be kind of unusual for this style, or at least I can’t think of a comparable incense in another company off the top of my head. Those familiar with the durbar/champa blends Satya Natural or Honey Dust will have a rough idea of the type of scent here, except in this case the pesky charcoal base interferes with the aroma more than most in this line. The oil/aroma itself is quite pleasant and mildly sweet and it sort of split my experience, when I got more oil and less charcoal in the scent, I enjoyed it, when the charcoal was dominant I didn’t.

Baieido’s Hinoki isn’t a traditional stick, even if it’s definitely a traditional scent. I’ve tried woodier cypress incenses and have not really been fond of any, but this incense has a real clarity to the essential oil one that comes very close to the natural scent of Japanese cypress. At times this is quite sublime, very delicate and is quite reminiscent of higher end oils with a very distinct definition. Perhaps the charcoal works better with this oil as it didn’t interfere with my experience so much, in fact I found this to be one of the best smokeless incenses I’ve tried. Even traditional-minded users should give this one a sample.

However, I think my favorite in this group is the Izumi. While I believe I got the essentials of the previous five with just samples, I’ve had a little more experience with the Izumi. Like the Green Tea it seems to have freshening and perhaps odor reducing qualities. The aroma is described as “the essence of many flowers, mixing in the spring winds” and it has a fresh, cleansing and uplifting vibe about it. Like many multiflorals, this will be reminiscent of home fresheners or even suntan lotion and some perfumes, but there’s never a moment I think of Izumi as synthetic or offputting. It almost has a meadow-like aroma, and works nicely as a contrast to traditionals.

Overall this is a group of incenses that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of potential appreciators as it covers a wide spectrum of scents. I can imagine with many of these that leaving a stick burning in a corner somewhere will mitigate the effects of the otherwise decent quality charcoal format and a couple of them will help freshen up the home too. Indeed, both Hinoki and Izumi I’d have no problems recommending.