Mermade Magickal Arts – Dia de Los Muertos, Pachamama, Sweet Earth, Sandalwood Oud Antique, Ali’s Rare Incense Powder 2015, Kyphi 2016, Oud Kyphi

As mentioned in my New Year’s post, Mermade Magickal Arts incense goes fast these days, although many of their incenses come back as vintages. This, of course, is a credit to the venerable Nevada institution who never fail to keep improving their art form. In recent years we have seen all sorts of new directions from them, including a line of central/southern/meso-American incenses, forays into Japanese style oud and sandalwood mixes, hybrids of these with resin and oud ingredients, and even a successful jump into Tibetan incense. Personally this continual high level of excellence and creativity has me watching the site fairly often, which means that the reviews here can come from samples or purchases. Sometimes I can’t get to reviews fast enough before certain scents rocket out of the inventory. So it’s worth keeping an eye out whether at the site or especially on Facebook for the next creation. Anyway I hope to tackle some recent new incenses here. The last time I looked all of these were available for purchase but it’s worth acting fast these days. The two new Kyphi vintages just went up after the New Year!

The first two incenses on this list fall roughly in the central/southern/meso-American category and are somewhat superficially similar in that both are blends of white copal, black copal and palo santo. In Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the emphasis is on the two copals with the palo santo wood being a slight, although noticeable touch. Copal has been called the frankincense of the west for good reason, but when it comes to the really quality forms of it, copal really has a strong and powerful personality all of its own, a much denser, earthy undertone to it that only the darkest frankincense resins and myrrhs touch on. Mixing the white (blanco) and black (negro) copals tends to be a perfect match, just like frankincense and myrrh, chocolate and peanut butter, salt and pepper etc. It gives the overall aroma the bright, lemony-piney notes of the white copal with the more subdued and mysterious elements of the black copal. I really love how in the middle it’s all so foresty but in such a different, more temperate way than how we describe it when we think of something green. It’s worth noting that lower temperatures on a heater won’t volatize the copal quite so quickly and allows the scent to dreamily work its way to your attention.

Pachamama incense uses a similar list of ingredients but I believe the locations from where the copals come may be different and there is a much higher ratio of Palo Santo in the mix. The ingredients list Palo Santo resin and wood from a recent shipment of really extraordinary Palo Santo which almost revolutionized my opinion of the wood. This is a really powerful and aromatic, with some minty overtones I had never noticed from previous samples, and is certainly worth grabbing on its own. It has an immense presence in this mix and the results end up being quite a bit different from Dia de Los Muertos as a result. The copals here really share the scent rather than dominate and strangely enough, I’d say that this actually seems more resinous and less woody than the previous incense, with a really impressive amount of complexity given the short list. Pachamama whispers of shamanic ceremonies in deep rainforests, rays of sunlight through leaves and the rich fertilized earth of an unspoiled nature.

Sweet Earth seems to touch on a lot of the same aspects of Pachamama but with a totally different palette. While Palo Santo remains in the ingredients list, we’re back in the more familiar territory and base of a (honey) frankincense and myrrh mix. The incense is a marvel in terms of how the incense reflects the name, how the whole scent profile comes from such an earthy base, that sort of freshly tilled, post-harvest scent of leavened soil, loam and clay. There aren’t really the notes of more citrusy frankincenses which allows the mellower honey scent to merge with the liquidambar storax and create the sweetness of the name. The poplar buds/Balm of Gilead is a scent I’m not particularly aware of on its own, so there was a complexity in the incense I found to be quite evocative and fresh. In some ways this incense is about half familiar (I was reminded of the previous Dionysos in part) and half completely new and unique, yet it’s overall quite inventive and original, and most importantly quite addictive.

Moving across the Pacific, we have Mermade’s latest Japanese-Oud hybrid incense Sandalwood Oud Antique, perhaps a follow up to the previous Ensense Antique. These incenses fall in the premium category due to the list of rare and high level ingredients being used, in fact there seems to be quite a high level of agarwood going on here from several sources, always a treat. This underlies the high quality sandalwood in the mix which is mostly dominant but the real twist here is the use of two oud oils. These oils as a mix strike me as being rich, spicy yet not overpowering, a merger that is aimed to create an equality with the finer wood qualities. Like with previous styles, there’s a really nice Japanese, almost candy-like mix that reminds me of certain work from, say, Shoyeido. Towards the end of the heat, things get quite spicy. Overall it’s a very classy blend, very stately.

We’re also seeing vintages of old classics come through, which is always heartening. One of these classics is Gregg King’s Ali’s Rare Incense Powder. I have reviewed this venerable scent once or twice in the past (I seem to remember the first batch of it being a mix of “lozenges” and powder) and have never seen it as anything less than a mandatory incense treat. Be sure to look at the list of ingredients in the link to see just how many fine ingredients are here, what’s always been extraordinary is that not only do they all mix well, but none of them are buried in the overall scent. It makes it once of the deepest and most complex incenses on the market. The sandalwood is perhaps the most noticeable link among all the ingredients in its luxuriant and most resonant guise, but for me I really love the way the vanilla works in this incense. Vanilla in so many cheap incenses is just a headache waiting to happen, in Ali’s Rare Incense Powder it is a delectable treat. Anyway for further impressions on this blend, it might be worth digging for previous reviews as there’s never been a batch of this that didn’t impress and I’ve never felt the quality to waver in any way.

And as it’s the beginning of the year, it is also Kyphi time and the 2016 vintage is as good as you could possibly expect. In fact I think I would need a time machine back to ancient Egypt to find a market kyphi that’s better than this one. The problem on my end is as these vintages improve with every year I’m running out of superlatives to describe it (sifting back through previous Kyphi reviews is also recommended here, I would think all of them still apply). You would need the equivalent of a Wine Spectator expert who could sift through the many subtleties of such a complex incense to really describe this Kyphi, as in many ways it is the fine, aged wine of incense and actually shares the qualities of really good spirits in terms of power and quality. In fact this is an incense where so many ingredients come together and end up merging into one totality where it can be actually difficult to make any differentiation from one ingredient to another. What’s even more impressive is there’s a second blend called Oud Kyphi which is a form of the original with added oud and agarwood before the incense becomes cured. It’s just like when you don’t think the Kyphi could get any more stunning, along comes this upgrade. Surely this could be one of the finest boutique incenses ever devised, it’s certainly not the kind of scent you’d double task to even if you’re able to. It’s a virtual whirlwind of complexity and astonishment, the kind of scent that could only truly be approached by fine poetry.

As I finish this up I also want to mention I’ve really been enjoying the Labdanum resin from Crete. When you think of how many great incenses from Mermade are made from such excellent quality material, it behooves one to occasionally check out some of the material on its own. I’ve tried labdanum before, but some of it can come with some nasty off notes. No worry, there are none of those here, quite to the contrary. So don’t forget to check this out as well as the palo santo wood and some of the many fine frankincenses and copals Mermade carry. There are many treasures to uncover here.

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Runcato / Copal, Palo Santo

Runcato is a small Peruvian company who provide ethnic/multicultural arts and crafts, essential oils and a couple of incenses from the Amazonian rainforest and the Andean highlands of Peru. The company radiates with the spirit of ecological sustainability and the holistic earth-based spirituality that gave birth to it. In the United States this tends to be represented under shamanism and sold by companies with such an affinity, in fact you can not only purchase these incenses through Runcato’s main site, but also through sellers in the Amazon marketplace.

The Copal and Palo Santo incenses come in two forms, sticks and cones, these reviews are for the stick versions that the company provided samples of. These could be considered premium incenses of a sort, they’re created with a clean and natural mix of ingredients, with very thick sticks that burn for quite a while. Runcato’s Copal is actually one of the few stick Copal incenses you will find on the market. Copal varies widely in scent and style, so it must be stated that the copal in this incense is from the Amazonian rain forest and will differ slightly in scent from copal found in different geographic regions. Those who have sampled Fred Soll’s Copal incenses will know that there can be problems with using this resin in stick form, as the sheer stickiness of the resin can cause it to stick fast to its packaging. Runcato have sidestepped this problem by grounding the resin in a wood base, a style similar to a particular Shroff line (such as their Patchouli) where the main ingredient is mixed with a wood scent similar to the aftermath in a wood shop. The balance between base and the resin is nicely achieved, although obviously this will not be the same thing as copal resin on charcoal. The mix of the two main scents creates a cooling scent that isn’t overtly complex, but the combination does have a slight creamy note, not to mention a strong forest scent with a clarity and power that would make this good for clearing space. If you love the resin, this incense is well worth checking out.

The Palo Santo incense is similarly constructed, however this time the main ingredient is a wood itself rather than a resin and as such the combination of the two pushes this over into a much drier space. The wood base seems to be very similar to the one grounding the copal incense, with a wood powder scent that reminds me of a woodshop after a saw has been active for a while. Given that the Palo Santo is so much closer to the scent of the base, the individuality of the wood’s scent is a little more buried, but having sampled Palo Santo in other incenses, the main scent, which is unique and spicy in a way that’s difficult to capture in words, can definitely be sensed with little difficulty, which tells me that the main ingredient hasn’t been overdiluted by the base. And really if you’ve never tried Palo Santo at all, it’s worth checking out as it has a character and uniqueness that can’t really be compared to anything else.

Given that so much world incense comes from very familiar corners of the world, it’s good to have a couple entries from South America that bring forth the aura and sense of place in a way that is so respectful of its indigenous cultures and I can imagine anyone trying both of these will find them to come with a strong sense of personality and clarity.

November Top Ten

Welcome to the November Top Ten. As is usually the case for me these are not necessarily laid out in any kind of  “order of wonderfulness”! I like to use many different styles and types of incense so getting it down to ten is an interesting endeavor and something of a difficult task. I would also like to mention we try and hold these to ten selections so if you current favorite is not listed, remain calm and perhaps light another stick 🙂

Next months Top Ten will turn into our “end of the year, completely over the top, blow out list” which we hope to get up by mid December. We are holed up in the secret ORS testing lab wildly waving sticks at each other to back up our various favorites. It’s getting a little smoky in here and I hope the extra fire extinguishers show up soon.

You can find all the incenses listed below in past reviews at ORS unless I have added a link as they are too new to have a review. Enjoy  -Ross

Baieido’s: Rikkoku Aloeswood Set: Quite simply put this is a work of natural art. It comes in a wonderful presentation box that is stunning all by itself. All the woods are great and at the same time very different. The Kyara is mind bending, but then again, in their own way, so are the others. There is a lot of study potential here. Used in the recommended manner this set will last one for quite awhile. You can also sometimes find this in the “mini” size.

Baieido’s Kokonoe: This is one of my “go to” wood scents. I find it very enjoyable and the cost makes it pretty easy to use. It has a clean aloeswood scent and does a great job of showcasing the Indonesian wood. Its also a good place to start looking at specific examples of regional scents within aloeswood as any extra spices or resins in these sticks is there to highlight the wood.

Nippon Kodo’s: Gokuhin Kyara Taikan: This is the second rung up in NK’s high end Kyara ladder. It features a more distinct wood note as well as more refinement in the top notes then Tokusen Kyara Taikan. It is a very elegant incense and quite potent at the same time. There is a sort of resin/floral/powder feel in the overall scent that is a wonderful counterpart to the wood notes. It’s only draw back is that it makes you start wondering how you can afford to get the next one up, which is much more money.

Kyukyodo’s: Sho ran Koh: This one is on our Top Tens a lot and with good reason. It is a very beautiful scent, an elegant floral that is not overdone and has some quality Aloeswoods backing it all up. Not to mention the roll is very large, just opening the box is a huge treat. Koh Shi in San Francisco tries to have this in stock.

Seijudo’s: Kyara Horen: Seijudo decided to create the best Kyara blends that they could for as long as they can get the materials to do so. The top three in the line up actually use Kyara in their blends while the other 4 have very similar notes but use aloeswood. Sometimes the differences seem very subtle. This one is the third from the top. I find it the easiest to get along with, it has tons of Kyara notes mixed in with spices and maybe a hint of musk. It is refined and elegant, but still friendly. It’s also something to be burned first and savored. There is quite a lot going on here and you will get the most out of it this way.  Not inexpensive but a real treasure as well as a treat for the soul.

Mermade’s Scared Grove: Lighting this will almost instantly surround you in the scent of a very large forest. It is very clean and for this time of the year I find it a great way to sort of “open up” the room it’s burning in. High quality and natural ingredients play a big part in Mermade’s success. I notice that there is a bunch of new offerings listed on their site right now.

Daihatsu’s Kaizan: Not only does this has a very nice amber note but the story I was told is that it was formulated by Daihatsu’s Ko Shi ( Fragrance Master) to mimic the scent that geishas used in their hair. Nice scent and a great price. A strong and long lasting aroma that can easily fill a room. Just the thing for all us amber fans.

Shunkohdo’s Houshou: A quality aloeswood at a very reasonable price. It has subtle top notes of chocolate that play with the aloeswood. Quite a beautiful combination and at the price($20) is a great deal not to be missed. Great gift for the incense people in you life.

Incensio’s Palo Santo Wand: If you like Palo Santo then you will be in heaven. The incense look’s sort of like thin cigars on a stick. They are packed with a wonderful and very woody scent that is particular to Palo Santo. These are available at Mermade and a full review of the line is in the works. By the way, using just a portion of a stick will do the trick; these people did not mess around when they put the woods in! Very interesting and at a good price.

Blue Star’s: Lavender: This is from a small producer in Canada (I can hear Anne getting excited). He uses all natural ingredients and the sticks are done in a sort of Tibetan Japanese fusion style, so they are thick and go for around 30-40 minutes. This one stands out for me as it has a nice light wood base note overlaid with a very clean and clear Lavender scent. Just a tiny bit sweet and really beautiful. Lavender Essential Oil is used and then the stick is rolled in Lavender flowers. This one is a winner and a review of the lineup is coming soon. Not to be missed and you get 10 sticks for around $4.00

Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Rose, Palo Santo, Vanilla, Mixed Fruits, Citrus, Marine, Lavender, Violet

Shoyeido’s Xiang-Do series is created by what the company calls their exclusive pressed incense process, a process that for most of us on the outside will be somewhat obscure. What we can tell from the product is that these incenses concentrate the aromatics to a degree rarely found in the natural world and, most importantly, do so very successfully. To my nose, Shoyeido is responsible for many of the best modern incense styles on the planet and their pressed incense is generally extraordinary.

Like Shoyeido’s LISN series, one is aware by the numbers on the boxes that we only see a small part of this line here, what would amount to 16 incenses, with three of them labelled as Xiang-Do Fresh (Green Tea, Tea, Coffee). Xiang-Do not only provides a small sampler for the Fresh trio, but a 12 stick/12 aroma sampler as well. It looks like the larger 30 stick/10 aroma sampler has been deleted at the Shoyeido site, but may be available for a little while longer if you look around. The price of the 20 stick boxes is rather close to $15 and with the short 2 3/4 inch length, these incenses can generally be considered pricy, as is all of the incenses that use the pressed incense process (I know I’d like to see bigger (60 stick) boxes). I’ll be covering half of the line in this article, the other half will be forthcoming (including my two favorites in the entire line – Forest and Peppermint).

Xiang Do’s Rose is easily one of the better Rose incenses I’ve been able to sample, perhaps not quite at the level of the Floral World/Royal Rose, but certainly more affordable. Like all of the line’s incenses the floral oil is very concentrated, starting with a sweet garden-like rose aroma and ending in a surprisingly dry finish. Rose incenses aren’t generally my favorite, but the style and rich base make this quite attractive.

Palo Santo comes from an Andean tree and while it’s a rather extraordinary scent whether natural or in this pressed style, it’s one you rarely see in Japanese incense, which makes this somewhat unusual. I think of it as a somewhat orangey aromatic wood, with hints of mango and apricot and a bit of talcum. Quite pleasant and definitely unique, it’s likely to be friendly to most noses.

Vanilla is about what you’d expect, although the intensity of the aroma brings out sides to the scent rather uncommon to most vanilla incenses. It’s both slightly sweet and spicy, but not at all like vanilla in the ice cream or confectionary sense, a little closer to the tonka bean sort of aroma, almost as if it had fruitlike qualities. This is one I’ve slowly grown to over time and I’d probably put it in the second tier after Forest and Peppermint.

Mixed Fruits never strikes me as a good idea for incense, and while this is decent the overall mix of apple, citrus, banana and grape kind of renders the overall aroma somewhat banal. I can imagine specific fruits would probably work better under such a style and can imagine the Japanese line must have them. Here there’s a surprising lack of aromatic concentration and distinction. However fruit incense lovers might see this a bit different.

Citrus has similar issues, although in many ways this is fairly close to Forest and Peppermint in style. The previously mentioned 30 stick sampler was displayed sort of like a rainbow of colors and while it does help to make it look like a pretty box, there may also be some similarities in style with scents similar in color. The end note on this one has a grapefruit-like citrus aroma that for my nose doesn’t finish quite so well.

Marine is another one that may seem bizarre to the western nose. It’s that attempt to capture the aromas of being at sea or on a beach. Nippon Kodo have an incense called Aqua that captures that sort of wet/watery sort of scent. Marine itself is more of a saltwater vibe, a bit of brine that doesn’t seem to work so well with the general base of this incense. Fortunately it’s dry, but this will be one you’d want to try in a sampler first.

The last two are probably my favorite in this specific group. Lavender surprised me in not being very typical of incenses with French lavender oil, which is a good thing given their prevalence. The aromatics are intense enough to give the incense an almost liquor-like lavender scent, dense, perfumed and sweltery. It does have similarities to the lavender you might find in hair products, however the Xiang-Do base helps to balance this proclivity and keep it a little on the sweeter side.

Violet‘s my favorite of the Xiang-Do floral scents, not terribly far from the natural aroma, although the base adds sweetness and balance to the oil. I got a little purple valentine candy in there as well, it’s a really delightful scent, one of the few florals I can really get behind.

Other than the Fresh trio I mentioned earlier, the remaining Xiang Do incenses (exported to the US) are Forest, Peppermint, Sandalwood, Frankincense and Agarwood, all of which I hope to cover in the future once I managed to “complete the series.” Despite that I’ve been fairly critical on this first eight, I’d still recommend giving the sampler a try as depending on one’s personal tastes you might well find that you enjoy certain blends more than I do. I tend to find Shoyeido pressed incenses to be among the finest treats in incense and very complimentary to woody, spicy and more natural styles.