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.

Shroff Channabasappa / Wet Masala / Darshan, Drona, Little Woods, Nag Champa

Shroff Channabasappa Part 1
Shroff Channabasappa Part 2
Shroff Channabasappa Part 3
Shroff Channabasappa Part 4
Shroff Channabasappa Part 5
Shroff Channabasappa Part 6
Shroff Channabasappa Part 7
Shroff Channabasappa Part 8
Shroff Channabasappa Part 9
Shroff Channabasappa Part 10
Shroff Channabasappa Part 11

There are probably enough comments on Shroff’s last batch of wet masala incenses in various threads on ORS that reviews at this point are near redundant. This is partially because this batch is easily one of the best to be imported to the United States in years (perhaps only the batch with Pearl, Jungle Prince et al was more celebrated). In terms of quality to cost ratio, you may not find better incense out there.

Previously there were only two wet masalas, French Musk and Saffron. I think the French Musk probably fits better in style with the group represented by Pearl, Jungle Prince et al, which leaves Saffron as the best comparison for the new batch. However these don’t strike me as wet masalas in the same way the old halmaddi-rich champas did, they’re not particularly gooey or easy to pull apart. But they’re all very rich, powerful and high quality scents based on some combinations that you might not have come across before.

Fresh on the stick, Darshan is redolent of candy green spearmint and you’ll need to like that to like this incense. The other ingredient here listed is musk with citrus, but there aren’t any really overt citrus elements that come to my mind, such as lemon or orange. What happens is that the mint and musk end up combining with the sugar and spice base to give off an aroma not far off from baking Christmas cookies. There’s even an unusual caramel note in the mix that helps to increase its sweetness. If you’ve familiar with past spice champas (the one that comes to mind is the long, sadly deleted Blue Pearl Spice Champa) you’ll have the general idea, but the spearmint really makes this a one of a kind stick. I find it particularly impressive because mint oils are often powerful enough to overpower most other notes in an aroma, so the balance struck here is clearly the work of a very impressive recipe. I fell in love with this one instantly and never grow tired of it. I’m likely approaching 100g already burned already.

Drona could be the weakest of this new group of eight, but relatively speaking that still puts it way above the incenses in recent reviews like Nitiraj or Sarathi. The ingredients here are musk, sandalwood and vetivert, however only the musk strikes me as particularly obvious and you can definitely compare this incense in part to Shroff’s French Musk. It ends up being a little on the generic champa side and shares the caramel notes of the Darshan, but other than the slight vetivert teases along the outside, no other element in the incense is any louder. The aroma ends up being kind of light and fluffy, with slight touches of vanilla and cocoa powder, but unfortuantely it doesn’t really have much of a hook or personality to sell itself. One might think of a mild nougat scent, slightly creamy, even certain latte types are reminiscent.

Little Woods is quite simply one of those incenses ORS was created to tell people about, it’s a triumph on every level, simply one of the very best incenses you can buy at its price level. The ingredients here, perhaps confusingly, are listed as fouger, oriental, rose and ambery sandal. The former element appears to be particularly important, and rather than describe it myself, I’ll just send you here. Of course any really classic incense is going to have a blend so perfectly balanced that to break it down would be difficult, and that couldn’t be more true for Little Woods. I find some similarity between this and N Ranga Rao’s woods, particularly the way certain wood subnotes merge with almost citrus-like evergreen touches on the top, but that’s as far as the comparison goes, because the perfume on Little Woods is much richer. But part of why such a strong perfume works is because it’s grounded in a superior base, with a mix of floral notes, leather and spice tea. In fact even well in excess of 100g burned, I still notice new elements of the incense, in fact I’m sitting here now going, yeah I think I get some of that ambery sandal too. Anyway, essential. In caps and boldface.

Shroff’s Nag Champa is interesting because it came out so close to the Dhuni version with so many similarities that they’re worth comparing, however Dhuni’s own brand has actually improved and changed enough that newer versions probably aren’t so comparable. Anyway Shroff’s entry is very traditional, almost definitive in some ways, although like Dhuni it’s a bit thicker than what you’ll find from Satya, Shantimalai etc. In fact the red box is probably a good comparison, but Shroff’s Nag Champa  is not as close to that as Happy Hari’s Gold Nag Champa because it’s so much drier. Shroff’s version also, unsurprisingly, bears the hallmarks of their brilliant perfuming skills, but it’s to the point that you end up thinking most of the aroma is carried by it, and let’s face it, a nag champa entirely succeeds or fails on its base. I do have to admit, I’m actually starting to get worn out by nag champas, largely because outside of Dhuni, I’ve yet to see any that haven’t managed to disguise off base notes or even sometimes the bamboo stick and while Shroff’s version manages to be really clever with the gentle plumeria-like scent on top, you need a much more resonant base to make me forget the formula is still missing something it used to have. On the other hand, I do think the Shroff version gets the scent to affordability ratio down perhaps better than any other version, so if you’re a fan looking to get away from Satya, this will be a good choice.

Next up: Ruby, Shanti, Shran, Super Star…

March 2011 Top 10

  1. Shroff Channabasappa/Wet Masala/Little Woods – Quite  simply this is one of the best Indian incenses you can buy. I think I’ve lost count how many sticks I’ve gone through at this point, there have been times where I’ll just burn one after the other. In fact I’ve been meaning to get to this latest and finest batch from Shroff, but haven’t found the time yet, but this one is described as containing fouger, rose, ambery sandal and oriental scents. It strikes a balance I can barely describe, but has an oil mix that’s extremely addictive.
  2. Shroff Channabasappa/Wet Masala/Darshan – This spearmint fronted work of magic could be interchangeable with Little Woods, as I’ve burned nearly as many sticks of this. This is an Indian incense I think almost everyone will like, it’s redolent of minty, spice cookies and very friendly.
  3. Kyukyodo/Musashino – Kyukyodo have a kyara and it’s a lot different from the dark and resinous kyaras you’ll find in, say, Shoyeido’s stable. In fact the first time I tried a stick it was difficult to describe because it has a lot of similarities with other Kyukyodo green sticks (Denpo for example) in that it’s kind of light and foresty. But once you get used to it and the green kyara note comes through, it becomes breathtaking. Like most kyaras it’s an expensive buy (given other Kyukyodo prices, my guess this would run $350 or so at 20 sticks if it was imported here) but in this case there’s really no other kyara like it.
  4. Meena Supreme – There’s an up and coming new company in Britain who’s set forth trying to import some incenses not generally seen outside of India and Meena Supreme was the first one (a more indepth review is forthcoming) I received. This was described to me with a hail of superlatives and has managed to live up to most of them. It’s a fluxo style incense, very thick and smokey with some earthiness in the background making it somewhat akin to Sai Flora. Quite frankly I’d have trouble describing the aroma even after going through two boxes of it, except to say it’s extremely addictive.
  5. Dhuni/Kashi (new version) – I’m not sure what’s going on in the Dhuni labs of late, but their latest care package was absolutely astounding despite there only being one true new scent. What else arrived was improved versions of three of their incenses. The new Kashi seems to increase the thickness and richness of the sticks. If you’ve ever tried Honey Dust or Vanilla or Satya Natural then you’ll know this scent, but I guarantee you’ve never smelled it at this level of luxuriousness. For me, it rejuvenated a scent I think I’d grown rather tired of.
  6. Dhuni/Special Amber (new) – The one stick sample of this I received is possibly the largest stick of Indian incense I’ve ever encountered, in fact I wondered if I could use it to defend myself. And bigger is better is definitely the case with this new version which seems to increase the content of the fine amber resins being used because at times this stick is like burning a fine resin mix, very sublime and much more balanced and measured than the original version (which was pretty great in its own right as it was). This is definitely one I’ll want to restock.
  7. Kyukyodo/Murasakino – It’s difficult to tell for sure, but other than the Musashino above, I’d probably put Murasakino at the top of the premium Kyukyodo aloeswood list. It comes in a variety of different boxes and packages but the silk roll in pawlonia box is probably the standard version. This is a potent, green aloeswood with that wonderful sharp acridity good wood always brings. And unlike Haru-no-yama, this is different enough from the Sho-Ran-Ko to make it feel not too duplicative.
  8. Dhuni/Khus – Much thanks to the Dhuni group for stocking me up on this utterly fine and fantastic vetivert champa. I had left a stick of this burning upstairs last night and remember just how incredible the aroma it left. Vetivert is often described as cooling, which isn’t something I always pick up in incenses it contains, but this one has absolutely nailed that vibe. This one’s an essential.
  9. Shroff Channabasappa/Ruby – I’m a little slower burning this one because I haven’t nabbed a 100g box yet and it took me a few sticks, but when it comes to the red colored, floral/rose type of champa, this one is the supreme version by a long way with a perfume intensity that’s unusual for this style. Very well rounded and gorgeous.
  10. Tibetan Medical College/Holy Land – What can I say that I already haven’t on this one. Still a staple around here and just polished off another box (third maybe?). In a class of its own.

Nippon Kodo / Café Time / Cassia, Mocha; Sakura (Cherry), Green Tea; Lime, Mint Tea; Lotus, Wine

As a creator of a number of different modern lines, it could be said that Nippon Kodo, at least in its American front, leads the market when it comes to user friendly, accessible and modern scents, and as such it’s a company that doesn’t really make a lot of incense that appeals to my personal taste. But even beyond this disclaimer, a lot of modern incenses I have tried in the Nippon Kodo stable have gone beyond just having a different aesthetic into what I find to be unpleasantly perfumed incenses. That is, there’s a difference between not being a big fan of fruity or floral incenses while recognizing that there are times when they are well done and just dismissing anything of the sort. Having reviewed (and not altogether positively) incenses in lines like Free Pure Spirit, East Meets West, Elemense and New Morning Star, it’s time to turn to some incenses that, while not being my thing, are sometimes well done for what they do.

Café Time is a series of cone incenses that come in pairs in cylindrical cardboard containers with five cones for each of two flavors per container, with a theme to tie them together. Café Times are rather small cones and even if they’re quite affordable between $5 and $6 a container, you’re still paying at least 50 cents a cone. Given these cones are done in 15 to 20 minutes, you’re not getting a lot of value for the money, but at least in most of these incenses you’re getting a decent scent, with very few of them showing the off notes and cheap perfume aromatics of some of other NK’s lines. Read the rest of this entry »

Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Agarwood, Forest, Peppermint, Frankincense, Sandalwood, (Fresh) Green Tea (Sencha), Tea, Coffee

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

The eight incenses in question here are part of Shoyeido’s pressed Xiang-Do line, a series of short incenses using a patented technology to create aromas that are much more intensified than one finds in traditional and even most modern or perfumed lines. In this group are what I consider perhaps the best of the line, 16 incenses of which are currently exported to the United States. More details on the line can be found in the first Xiang-Do article which can be accessed by clicking on the above link.

For a company well-known for deep and deluxe aloeswood incenses, the Agarwood version of Xiang-Do actually evinces as much the woody scents of aloeswood as the resin scents and as such this incense reminds me of more inexpensive aloeswood sticks, where the actual bitterness of the wood peaks through. Xiang-Do does manage to balance these aspects of the scent so they’re not as harsh as they would be in a traditional incense, the results of which give this incense a very unusual scent. It’s the least sweetest incense in the line and as such may be slightly unfriendly to the casual user, but appreciators of aloeswood may end up liking this one the most.

I have an extreme fondness for Xiang-Do Forest, possibly due to the way it hits some notes of a pine incense I used to like as a teenager, in fact that might have been one of the first incenses to really grab my attention. Almost every time I burn this it’s somewhat evocative of these years, with an extremely fresh, concentrated, multi-evergreen blend that smells of pine, fir and other conifers. It’s perfectly made for the style, with all these fresh evergreen-like resins working well under such concentrations. I’m on my second if not third box of this aroma and really wish this was one they brough 60/80 stick packages over for. It may be one of my favorite incenses for breaking up a string of traditionals.

I warmed up to Peppermint immediately. It probably should be said that Xiang-Do incenses that are very close to one another in the rainbow of colors are quite close in scent at times, and this subrange of greener Xiang-Dos tends to appeal to me a little more than the others. In fact that the Peppermint is colored greenish gives way to the idea that it’s actually more of a peppermint/spearmint sort of combination, the latter quality being part of its richness with the peppermint notes on top. It’s as cooling as you’d want, with a bit of that green freshness that Forest also has.

Frankincense I like in most incenses, but I found this version to be slightly disappointing, perhaps because sticks from Tennendo, Minorien et al tend to capture some of the high quality resin’s more profound notes. The Xiang-Do version is somewhat muted, icy white and overall a bit on the standard side. I’ve used the white coil in the Sakaki set as a comparison ever since a reader pointed it out, they both have a sweet and candy-like nature to them that capture the center of the resin pretty well. But for such a concentrated series, I actually expected this to be closer to the resin than it was.

Like the Agarwood, the Sandalwood seems a bit closer to standard or lower quality wood without a lot of quality resin notes. It does manage to come off rather woody for the style, without the sort of spicy breadth to it you tend to expect in pressed incenses. Overall it’s a bit airy and powdery, surprisingly light for the style and scent. I’m always amazed at the restraint of these incenses, when stylistically they could be a lot more off. That it actually seems woody still in this sort of base is rather clever.

The last three Xiang-Do incenses here have been marketed in a sampler subtitled “Fresh,” but I believe this may be just a way to promote them in the United States, as like the others in the line all have a number, implying a much larger range to be found in Japan. All three of these follow the wave of popularity of tea and coffee incenses, a passion I only partially share.

The Green Tea (or Sencha) incense is roughly in the Forest and Peppermint vein, and like many Green Teas I’m always struck by their sweet patchouli-sort of aromas. Fortunately the central green tea oil does bring out the leaf quite a bit, I’m always reminded of sage family plants when I smell this, almost as if there’s a slightly psychoactive side to it. It does have the range’s rich base to it and I was actually a little surprised this one didn’t grab me as much as I’d expected, although I’m definitely warming to it with every stick.

It was actually the Tea incense itself that really impressed, a reddish, pungent blend that combined tea with spices in a way that reminds me of Chai without the milk. There’s both jasmine and cinnamon/clove hints that really give this a richness beyond just the leaf itself and I fell for this in a way that puts this on my next Shoyeido shopping trip. Tea, spice and floral all at once, there’s a definitely exotic bent to this that’s as far away from Earl Grey or Darjeeling as you can get.

Readers will know I don’t go for Coffee incenses in general (and I should mention that I do love coffee itself) and while this Xiang-Do moved a little closer to the bullseye for me, due to the way the overall aroma smells more like vats of crushed beans than a café after a long day, it still doesn’t strike me as something I’d particularly want to fragrance a room with. But overall if you are a fan I think this is one you might prefer as it has an intensity that helps to mitigate the funkier aspects found with charcoal coffees.

I noticed by looking at the numbers on the Xiang-Do boxes that there has to be a good four or five dozen more aromas we don’t even see in the United States, similar to the LISN lines. It’s hard to imagine how successful more aromas would be given the short stick and expensive (14.75 for 20 sticks) price. When I think of these incenses, I think of them as game changers, that is a pleasant way to mix up my traditional incenses without the funkier perfumes. One can find samplers of the line in order to check these out on your own, as the style is similar enough in most cases that everyone’s going to find their favorites. For me, the Forest is the huge favorite, although I’m finding Peppermint and Tea to be both on the ascendance in terms of use. And as a great example of a modern style, these are incenses likely to be friendly to the visitor who is casual about these things.

Nippon Kodo / Free Pure Spirit / Pure, Spirit

I’m about to go brutal here, so look away if you’re squeamish. Quite simply, this Nippon Kodo line might be the very template for what can go wrong with mainstream Japanese incense targetted to a modern audience. It’s a line of three incenses that confuse the line name and each incense name by having the latter come from the former, all of which have strange (and somewhat uneven) white boxes that have you trying to figure out which one you’re looking at for a few seconds. But that’s by far the least of the incenses’ problems.

I occasionally walk by people wearing synthetic perfumes. A lot of the times the memory this evokes for me are the strong chemical smells I experienced in organic chemistry labs in UC Davis. In general I find synthetic aromas to flatline very quickly, in general they are rarely incenses that will grow on you, at least positively. With both Pure and Spirit, it wasn’t long before both scents were literally becoming unpleasant to my nose. It’s true, all three scents in the line are meant to be fruity and I’m no appreciator of fruity incenses. However, I don’t think these incenses are even successful with what they’re trying to do. Like the Fragrance Memories line, this is Nippon Kodo working with a combination of three scents for a composite fragrance. In both Pure and Spirit’s case these elements clash miserably.

Pure goes for a red berry, grapefruit and pine needle combination. Even the idea itself doesn’t sound all that great to me. The outcome is basically a bitter,  astringent mess, where the harsh notes of the grapefruit citrus are actually unbalanced even more by the pine needle element. The red berry is almost overwhelmed by both and the whole thing smells like artificially scented soap bars. It’s like a caricature of a good incense and even over several sticks, the experience just got worse and worse. The last stick for this review I ended up putting out, swearing I’d never light one again.

Spirit is better, but not by much. This one goes for green tea, lemon and peppermint and, like in Pure, the former element is drowned out quite a bit with quite a bit of clashing going on. Green Tea itself often has a very subtle quality to it, so pepping it up with lemon and peppermint is like adding fruit syrup to beer, it just ruins a good thing. Even comparing this to, say, the Green Tea cone in the Cafe Time series is unfavorable for this incense. All I get is harsh, synthetic lemon and mint smells that batter the senses into submission. The lemon, at times, seems more like orange or tangerine with a citrus imbalance. It all comes off kind of like diet soda, affected negatively by the aftertaste.

I tend to like to complete series before I review them here, but in this case you couldn’t get me within 100 feet of Free, based on these two incenses. Quite frankly even some of the cheaper lines in the Nippon Kodo catalog are more pleasant than these, including some of the basis Morningstar incenses. And with those you’re paying only a fraction of the price on this line. Overall, I just don’t see the point to incenses such as these when you can get a $12 roll of Baieido Special Kokonoe or Kobunboku for nearly half that.

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.

Nippon Kodo / Kohden (brief thoughts)

This isn’t going to be a review of the Kohden line exactly, but there are quite a few people who hit this blog searching on this new incense line so I thought I’d briefly go over the six aromas. This is particularly important in that this appears to be a somewhat overpriced line – not that the incenses aren’t good, they are, but because they all strike me as being sandalwood based incenses in an aloeswood price range.

Before that gets too confusing, I’ll bring up the first two aromas, Sweet Aloeswood and Spicy Aloeswood. Both these bring to mind Baieido’s Ensei line that also have similar incenses, but in that line, they both still strike me as aloeswood sticks and are priced accordingly. The two Kohden aloeswoods seem to be to be sandalwood incenses with aloeswood oils and thus don’t strike me as having the depth and richness of most aloeswood incenses. The Sweet Aloeswood is pretty smooth and does have a bit of spice but the sandalwood base is strong and gives it the aroma of a blend. The Spicy Aloeswood has a rich, spicy oil in front but has the same issues.

When moving to the other four incenses, the price is a little cheaper and the fact that aloeswood is not a concern makes it a little more comfortable to talk about them on their own merits. The Kohden Sandalwood is quite nice, very dry and smooth with a bit of a weird aromatic contour I can’t place with just a sampler. I do like the Kohden sandalwood base on most of these sticks, although it would not surprise me if the wood was intensified by essential oil.

Kohden Musk Note starts with the same base but adds a very alluring, sweltery musk and a bit of sweet and spice to the mix. I like my musks to be a little dangerous and dense and this comes only about half way there, but seems like it would be very user friendly to those who like the style.

Kohden’s most impressive incenses are probably the last two. The Japanese Mint really benefits from the smooth sandalwood base and seems a rather broadreaching mint in aroma with a cool peppermint background that the wood brings out. This may be the one I’d pick up first. The Kohden Star Anise shows equal balance, which is good because Anise always strikes me best as part of a blend and can be overwhelming at times.

In summary this seems like quite the user friendly line. The incenses may not be totally natural but at least there are no off hints like in some of NK’s cheaper lines. There’s kind of a smooth mellowness to all of them that I credit the base for, but one would have to be a sandalwood appreciator to get fully behind them. However, at prices like $16.50 and $18.50 (for 40 sticks) I find it hard to justify their purchase over other wood incenses in the same price range, so I’m not sure when I’ll visit these again.