Mentsi Khang Bhutanese Incense (Mih)

You’ll need to scroll past the Red Crystals to see this rather obscure incense. It’s fairly unclear from the box exactly what the name is, as “Mih” only shows up on the ends of the box. The box itself carries around 40 sticks, all of which, at least in my box, are kind of bent banana style. With the sort of airy feel to the stick (similar if not airier than the Nado Poizokhang lines, also Bhutanese), it makes the incense seem a little unusual or exotic even.

The ingredients listed are nagi, sandalwood, cardamom, clove, saffron, musk, leaves of spruce and hemlock, butterworth, benth, and other Himalayan aromatic herbs. However while that listing might give one the impression of a complex, multi-spice sort of blend, the results are a lot more consonant than you might expect. It’s actually not particularly unwelcome sorting under the Red Crystal incenses as it has that very woody sort of base, although in this case the woodiness gives way to quite a bit of aromatic depth, implying many of the other ingredients while not highlighting any one in particular. The scent has a peppery sort of vibe with the typical campfire aroma you get from heavy high-altitude, evergreen woods and a fleeting hint of resin or amber.

Overall it’s a rather unusual incense, with an aspect of it managing to trigger subconscious impressions at times, possibly due to what seems like a “fire” element to it with the pepper, heavy woods and strongly consonant finish. At times it seems like a simple incense, until one backs up a little and sees it for the mosaic it is, a picture created from little pictures. And it’s those little pictures that gnaw at you, well beyond the scent’s overall impact as if there’s much more to be found here.

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.

Kuenzang Chodtin Tibetan Incense

[This incense has either been discontinued or repackaged.]

Having had so much success with various high end Tibetans costing anywhere from the teens to the 40s, I thought, like Japanese incense, that you’d generally be safe with anything relatively expensive. While price is still often a good indicator of an incense worth buying, Kuenzang Chodtin (scroll down, second from bottom) incense appears to be one of those land mines worth detouring around.

There are a number of Tibetan incenses that use aromatics that Westerners are likely going to identify with tire rubber or other acrid and/or bitter offnotes. Despite a number of herbs and ingredients that give the impression that Kuenzang Chodtin incense is likely to be superb and an initially positive first two or three seconds for the light, my experience was blindsided when after relighting the stick later, a strange black bubbling tar erupted from part of the incense leaving a strange, ashy foamy deposit on the incense. The smell at this point was so chemical that it evoked for me those incense urban legends of companies who say a particular incense is made of natural ingredients, but aren’t actually giving full disclosure. It’s as if the the resins were switched out with asphalt.

Stickwise, Kuenzang Chodtin is pink in a similar manner to the higher grade Nado Poizokhang sticks. I didn’t have quite the same experience with subsequent KC sticks, but the incense has a number of ingredients that will largely be unpleasant to the Western nose, and I don’t mean that in an acquired taste sense. It’s possible the incense was meant to be a more floral Tibetan derivative in that some of the incense’s top notes seem to have a very harsh, almost Indian masala-like rose scent, which when mixed with the incense’s noxious base gives off very harsh notes.

It’s strange because there seem to be some pleasant elements. That richness when nagi is involved seems to be there in the top, but the base overwhelms this quickly. Sometimes the bitterness is so penetrating it’s like the aroma from a bottle of cheap, charcoal filtered vodka. I did some labwork in an organic chemistry lab a decade ago or so, and that’s always the smell chemicals like this evoke for me. There are incenses that are dull and average, not worth picking up because they have little to offer. Kuenzang Chodtin goes past this to where burning a stick is actually fairly unpleasant at times. Less a pleasant aroma than a chemistry experiment.

Mandala Trading / Ribo Sangtsheo, The Earth, Tibetan Peace

Nepalese company Mandala Trading are the creators of two of the finest and most accessible Tibetan incenses on the market, their long stick Tibetan Monastery and Himalayan Herbal blends, the former an unparalleled spice blend, the latter a minty evergreen breeze. If you haven’t had a chance to check these excellent and affordable incenses out I highly recommend doing so before tackling the three, shorter incenses (all five MT incenses are on this page mixed in with others, the three in review are down the page a ways) in question here. While they’re certainly nice incenses, the three in this review aren’t quite in the same league.

As with the two previously mentioned incenses, these three under consideration also have their ingredients lists listed on the inner wrapper. Ribo Sangtsheo is comprised of Spike Nard (Jattamansi) 20%, Other Medicinal Herbs 20%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Sandal Wood 10%, Agarwood 10%, Spices (Clove, Cinamon, Cardamon) 10%, Beddelium (Gokul Dhoop) 5%, and Ambergriss (Sal Dhoop) 5%. Of the three incenses in question here, Ribo Sangtsheo is the most similar incense to the Tibetan Monastery and Himalayan Herbal blends, although not quite as complex. Ribo Sangtsheo has a very unusual, coppery vibe for an incense. For one thing, it’s one of the few blends that is comprised of this much spikenard and it’s a fairly noticeable element overall, although unlike Japanese incenses that accentuate the sweetness, Ribo Sangtsheo also brings out more of the herbal and muskier notes. The agarwood, while not at the Japanese levels, actually does add something of a contour to the scent, preventing the incense from becoming too sweet or spicy by its obvious woody note. The entire blend has a slight fruitiness to it reminiscent of wine, but overall it’s that sort of dry, coppery vibe that sets it apart from the rest of the incenses in the line. If you’re over the moon with the HH and TM blends, this one is probably worth checking out even if it’s not quite up to those aromatic heights.

The Earth is comprised of Beddelium (Gokul Dhoop) 20%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Holy Basil (Tulsi) 15%, Other Medicinal Herbs 15%, Juniper (Dhupi) 10%, Valeriana (Suganhaval) 10%, Spices (Cinamon, Safron) 10%, and Mugwort (Tittepati) 5%. Strangely this and the next incense actually add up to 105%, which implies some rounding up. The Earth absolutely does what it says on the package, it’s one of the most rough, gravelly and earthy incenses imaginable and not only earth in the soil sense, but this one reminds me of granite and the like. As such it’s not a friendly incense by Western standards, with the juniper being accentuated. Strangely enough for an incense that lists its first ingredient as a resin, it’s not a big feature of this aroma, which is often very “campfire” like with off woody hints of rubber, tire and such. With each stick, I do tend to get a little closer to liking this one mostly because it really is earthy in all of its characteristics and it’s quite grounding.

Tibetan Peace (note: this is the first of two on the above linked page) is created from Sandalwood 25%, Other Medicinal Herbs 20%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Anthopogon (Soonpati) 15%, Roopkeshar 5%, Kusum Flower 5%, Spices (Cloves, Safron) 5%, Holy Basil (Tulsi) 5%, and Calmus (Bojho) 5%. Overall it strikes a fairly common blend in Tibetan incenses, a slightly sweet and very thick sandalwood-based stick that’s colored green with some variation. It’s very similar to the Green Tara on this page, if not quite as thick or refined, and as such it’s an incense that’s pleasant, inoffensive and maybe a little boring at times, not terribly far from the Himalayan Herbal incense without all the potent spices. If you can think of something like Dzongsar or White Pigeon being at the more difficult end of an axis, Tibetan Peace lies at the other.

Unlike Tibetan Monastery and Himalayan Herbal incenses, none of these three are likely to make you stock deeply, but those who do like them may get some mileage, particularly out of the unusual Ribo Sangtsheo, which is different enough from the usuals to be worth a sample. At the same time, all are affordable enough to make the risk a low one. However you’re likely to find similar but friendlier incenses than The Earth in the Dhoop Factory line and I’d recommend the above Green Tara before Tibetan Peace.

Lucky Tibetan Incense Co. / Green Tara, Kailash, Kalachakra, Mila, Paljor Healing

In the last couple weeks I’ve covered some of the best Tibetan incenses available, now it’s time to move over to the other end of the spectrum. In fact and in part, the incenses here had a delaying effect on my exploration into Tibetan incense as a group of several incenses I bought at a nearby store that did little to impress. All five of these incenses come in a “gift pack” which is basically a cardboard box that packages the five boxes. This article was updated on September 22, 2008 to amend the company name to Lucky Tibetan Incense Co.

The main issue with all five of these incenses is that there’s too great a commonality among them. It gives the, perhaps incorrect, impression that all five incenses share the same base and vary in terms of essential oils or some other ingredient that strikes me as “flavoring” of a sort. While I do get the impression that it’s possible I might have picked up a box that has aged to its detriment, the fact that several of these leave a grey-bluish ash gives me the impression these incenses are comprised mostly of cheaper woods with small fractions of other ingredients to distinguish them. Some of the incenses are colored as well, Kailash blue, Kalachakra red and Green Tara being self evident. In fact the incenses that give off the blueish ash happen to be these three colored sticks and they all happen to be the incenses in the “gift pack” that are the most inferior.

Green Tara, where the gift pack gets its name, is one of the incenses that seems to be a wood base with slight flavoring and perhaps even essential oils. The base seems heavily cedarwood and not particularly high quality, with light sandalwood or sandalwood oil content. The main difference between this and the other incenses other than the green color are hints of patchouli in the front. Overall, it lacks character and has a bit of unwelcome bitterness to the burn.

Kailash is blue and presents many of the same issues with the least amount of post-wood aromatics in the group. It also has a cedarwood or similar base and presents a very dull aroma. It’s possible the oils or other aromatics had volatized from this incense during the aging, to give it the benefit of the doubt, but even were that true it should leave more of a trace than my stick has. I can’t remember seeing a Tibetan stick that had a natural color like this, so I would think there would have to be additives of a kind. There may be a bit of resin in there somewhere, but overall I had the impression that this wasn’t much more than a cedarwood “blank.” To be honest I found the almost dozen-item long ingredients list to be surprising and difficult to believe (for instance there’s not even a hint of saffron that I can tell).

Kalachakra, while similar to the previous sticks, seems to have a slight bit of character to it. There’s, perhaps, some red sandalwood involved here that makes the the wood base differ slightly. But like Green Tara, it’s a bit bitter on the edges and seems to have very little aromatic impact over the central wood.

Mila is the first of the two tan sticks in the gift package and I believe the ash was a closer to the white/light grey you tend to get with most sticks. This is probably because the base seems to be more of a combination of sandalwood and benzoin and as such it’s slightly improved over the others. Unfortunately (and perhaps due to age) Mila’s an incredibly brittle stick, my box ended up being a container of various inch-long pieces. But at least in this case there’s some spice to liven up the aroma. And strangely enough, this appears to be the most expensive, singly, of the five incenses here.

Paljor Healing is probably the line’s incense the most akin to the typical Agar 31 blends, although I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking there’s too much agar here (aquilaria does seem to be an ingredient). It’s a bit too similar to Mila overall, but with a slight tangy background reminiscent of the general “healing incense” style which helps to make it marginally the most interest here. And it doesn’t appear to be quite as brittle.

Overall, the Paljor incenses easily fall into the 5% of Tibetan incenses at the bottom of the heap. They lack distinction and seem to go for cheaper materials, all of which make their incenses at worst a chore to burn and at best a generic experience.

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

Highland Incense

Incense enthusiasts will undoubtedly have come across Tibetan Musk incenses, however if you’re like me most of them don’t really come up to snuff, particularly given how variant musk can be. With today’s ecological concerns, most musky incenses are created by the use of plants or even synthetic materials, and they vary widely in scent, but one aspect they don’t vary all that widely on is depth. And that’s really the major aspect of real musk that can not be imitated, an organic scent that is much a stamp on the nearby environment as it is an aroma. Moving from incenses with herbal musk to those with the real thing means you really don’t even need an ingredient list to tell. That is, when it comes to the description, you’re rarely if ever going to be told your incense has animal-derived musk, but an incense like Highland, even without the word musk brought up, will make the issue really clear.

Ecological issues aside, musk is the dominant aroma of Highland incense stick and it’s an astonishing musk, with the staying power of a skunk spray but with the aroma of paradise. From the ingredients list you also get white sandalwood, purple sandalwood, agarwood, saffron and pangolin scales along with 20 other medicinal ingredients. All of these ingredients are among the most pricy in incense and they make Highland one of the most richest, indulgent incense experiences available. Fragments of sticks will not only scent your living space but your memory as well, and I’ve carried this deep, musky, aroma in my mind to places far away from an incense burner.

As much as I can talk about this being a prime example of a great Tibetan musk incense, part of the reason is the richness of materials being used, a spicy and multi-faceted base that plays behind the initial aromatic impact and adds character and definition. It’s a great incense from top to bottom, the musk hitting you first, the spices through much of the middle (the musk lingering along; possibly some benzoin or amber) and then slight woody hints that lift it even more. Like the Tibetan Medical College scents (apparently Highland is created by a retired doctor from this college) and Samye Monastery Samathabadra, Highland sits in the very top echelon of world incenses. If you ever wondered why companys go to such ends to imitate this sort of musk, this is the incense to try. I can’t say if it will eliminate bacteria or cure the flu, but based on my mood after a burn, there probably won’t be any evil spirits left when you’re done.

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…

Best Incense – July 2008

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

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

SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo / Elemense

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that at least 75% of Nippon Kodo’s US catalog isn’t really marketed at my sort of nose. But it’s interesting that the most recent two lines they’ve released, including Elemense, have been roughly traditional incenses, or at least both this and the Kohden line are sandalwood-based incenses that stay fairly close to traditional ingredients, even if it seems clear that perfume art is used in most of these cases to get the aromas. Elemense incenses are actually quite a bit more inexpensive than the Kohden lines and perhaps maybe not as clear in their aromas. They all seem to retail around $5.95 a box.

The Elemense line seeks to embody the five classical elements in five different incense blends, using Space as the fifth point (rather than, say, Spirit or Akasha). In doing so they tie down each element to a geographic location, or as some of the spiritually inclined might say, a mundane chakra. Having reviewed Mermade cones that followed a very similar pattern recently, I was constantly reminded of the similarities and differences between these two lines as the sorts of blends they come up with are similar. However, as mentioned before, Mermade cones are definitely all natural while there are synthetic aromas used in the Elemense incenses.

We start with Earth which is described as having bountiful hints of vetiver, cypress and patchouli and is tied to El Mirador, Guatemala. Where Mermade’s Earth cone was very strong in the patchouli era, it seems to be very mellow or blended in this one, in fact I didn’t pick it up at all. Like many of NK’s incenses that use three ingredients, the result is more of a blend that comes off like one ingredient, and in this case the more citrusy/evergreen qualities of the cypress came out the strongest. If I see patchouli and vetiver in ingredients I do tend to expect a certain earthiness not apparent here, instead they just seem to give off milder spice hints to give background to what’s a very strong, and mildly cloying perfume oil.

Water doesn’t have an ingredients list unless you count green mist, ice water and musk. Personally I don’t really have much of a line on the ice water or green mist aromas, but let’s assume this is roughly the fragrance around the Detifoss waterfall in Iceland. I found this to be pretty loudly aromatic, the sandalwood base front a very intense floral perfume that reminded me of the Free Pure Spirit line, with a scent that dissolves into soapy, synthetic-ish back notes. It evinces the trouble I have with a lot of this company’s incenses, a desire to combine so many fruit and floral elements that the result is something indistinctive and washy. In fact I assume the fruity qualities are supposed to come close to water, but as with the Earth incense, I didn’t find this particularly elemental.

Fire was the most successful of the five incenses in terms of nailing the element itself. This stick burns hot, with a lot of spice and sweet benzoin notes (I was thinking amber, so this is likely more a Siam Benzoin). Along with benzoin are Philippine Mango and clove, supposedly evoking the Mayon Volcano in the Phillipines. The overall effect is dry and crispy, but like all the incenses in this line the oil is pretty strong and synthetic-like and thus more intense than some of the Kohden incenses I might compare this with.

Air introduces a combination of anise, tomato leaf and galbanum, the middle ingredient evocative of the Fragrance Memory incense Siesta Siesta. This is quite different of course, and I found myself picking up more a watermelon vibe than tomato leaf. Usually with air incenses you tend to get a strong lavender note, but there’s no such thing here, perhaps none grows on Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo. I got quite a bit of spice on this one, in the thyme or rosemary vein (perhaps the anise), which did give it some very airy qualities. It made me feel a bit edgy overall, which I’d also attribute to the company getting pretty close to the element on this one.

Space would be the most difficult one to nail of course, and the idea is embodied here by Erg Chebbi’s “transformative mysteries.” In reading the ingredients list I was quite surprised, the saffron, cinnamon and amber implying something much spicier than the heavy floral notes at work in this incense. I was getting rose, carnation, gardenia and/or daffodil similar in ways to arabic ouds, except no oud of course. Unfortunately any sort of floral incense at this price is likely to have a lot of off notes and this one is no different, with a very strong soapy, alkalline vibe to it. While the idea of something so intensely floral should work for the element in question, I found the overall stick to be fairly unpleasant and unbalanced.

At least in the case of Elemense, one’s not going to be putting out a lot of money on a risk, but I’d suggest sampling them first if you’re not familiar with the company’s incenses. As they’re probably the most visibly marketed Japanese incenses in the country, they’re subsequently not the sort of scents those looking for wood and spice are going to go for. Unfortunately for the most part the scents are fairly shallow and often strike aromas without a lot of intricacy. Compare a $6 box of this to a $6 roll of Baieido Kobunboku if you don’t believe there can be a big difference even at very low prices.

{Afternote: It seems that the 5 incense Elemense series seems to match up in both name and number of incenses with NK’s Naturense line. Having tried only one incense from that line, I’m not sure how much more they do match up, but thought it was worth noting.]

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