Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

Indian Single-Material Attars and Ruhs

3rd November 2021

 

Traditional Indian attars (and ruhs) can be divided roughly into two groups.  First, there are attars made by distilling a single material, like, for example, rose or vetiver. (These are the subject of this chapter).  Then, there are the more complex attars made by co-distilling several materials in the same deg or mixing several distilled attars and ruhs together.  The range and diversity of the fragrant materials used in traditional attars is astonishing – Westerners will likely have not heard of half of these plants or combinations.

 

Indians regard their native plants and herbs as possessing ayurvedic properties and use them accordingly.  Attars such as musk, hina (shamama) and majmua, for example, are warming attars for when the weather is cold, whereas mitti, kewra, and ruh khus attars are seen as cooling, refreshing oils to be used in hot, muggy weather.  Below is description of the main types of single-material ruhs and attars distilled from one single aromatic material using the hydro-distillation method.

 

 

 

Ruh Khus

 

 

Translating roughly to ‘the spirit of vetiver’, ruh khus is an essential oil traditionally distilled from wild vetiver roots using traditional methods in Northern India.  Its characteristic color – a glowing mélange of lurid greens and blues – actually comes from the copper vessels used in the distillation process rather than the rhizome itself.  The copper pots add a slightly metallic tinge to the aroma profile of the oil, but this is considered a desirable property.  Ruh Khus used to be exclusively distilled from wild vetiver roots, but due to unpredictable yields and the labor intensive nature of the distillation process, plantation-grown roots are increasingly used.

 

The scent of Ruh Khus is cleansing and spiritual, encompassing as it does all the possible facets of pure vetiver oil, from soft, buff-colored nutty notes to deep green foresty aspects.  The main flavor wall of a Ruh Khus will always be the grassy-nutty-rooty aroma of vetiver root, but behind the main bouquet, you can pick up on the more complex facets of the root’s aroma profile such as sweet spices, smoke, earth, roses, olives, grass, clay, saffron, and hazelnuts.  Its fresh, grassy aroma is most appreciated during hot summer weather, when it provides a cooling effect.  Indians also make a very refreshing drink (khus water) from vetiver roots macerated in water.

 

 

 

Ruh Gulab

 

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Gul means rose in Hindi, although the word is sometimes also loosely interpreted as ‘flower’.  Ruh gulab is an extremely costly essential oil of roses, distilled from rosa damascena rose petals (the Bulgarian and Turkish varietal of rose).  It is also known as rose otto.  The scent of ruh gulab is strong, spicy-sweet, and richly rosy.  Ruh gulab is distilled primarily over a forty-day period (mid-March to late April), which is when the roses are at their best, and exclusively in Hasayan, a village in North India that lies 200km away from Kannauj[1].  Ruh gulab is so costly to produce that what is usually marketed as ruh gulab is actually an attar of roses, i.e., rose distilled over a solvent such as sandalwood oil or IPM.

 

 

Attar of Roses/ Attar Gulab

 

When rose petals are distilled into pure sandalwood oil or another solvent, it is no longer a ruh, but an attar, known worldwide as the famous attar of roses (or sometimes, Attar Gulab).  Attar of roses production takes place in Kannauj itself over nine months of the year, using Bourbon roses (Rosa bourboniana) rather than rosa damascena.  

 

 

 

Ruh Kewra

 

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Translating to ‘soul of the screwpine flower’, this beautiful ruh smells like raw honey and fresh, creamy white flowers undercut by a delicate fruit note.  Ruh Kewra is extracted from the kewra flower (Pandanus odoratissimus), a plant native to Odisha state, through the steam distillation process.  The top notes are rather piercing and shrill, like sucking on a copper penny, but it subsequently develops into a sweet, smooth fruity-floral aroma that is very pleasant.

 

A Kewra Attar is similar to a Ruh Kewra, but as the name suggests, the attar version is not a pure essential oil of the material (screwpine) but instead distilled over a solvent such as sandalwood oil (if natural) or IPM, TEC, Migyol, etc. (if synthetic).  Kewra is very valuable to the tobacco and food industry because it is potent enough to flavor syrups, cosmetics, and tobacco leaves without losing any of its characteristic honey and fruit tones.  Correspondingly, when used in attar perfumery, attar wallahs must be careful not to allow kewra to overtake all the other elements.

 

Kewra is also popularly known as pandan. Pandan leaves are used as liberally in Eastern cookery as vanilla is in Western cookery.  The leaves can be chewed or used to wrap up sticky rice and chicken, but it is most commonly used to flavor desserts, sweet syrups, and drinks.  Pandan syrup leaves a hauntingly sweet, floral taste in the mouth that, once tasted or smelled, will never be forgotten. 

 

 

 

Mitti Attar

 

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Mitti is one of those extraordinary attars that make one wonder at the resourcefulness of man and his determination to make perfume out of everything.  Mitti is an attar distilled from the dry, cracked earth of India at the end of the dry season, and it smells of exactly that moment when the first drops of rain of the monsoon season come down and drench the cracked earth. For many Indian people, mitti is the scent of longing.

 

The process of making mitti attar is a complex and arduous one. First, villagers will identify a dried-up well, river, or lake where they can excavate earth that will still have a little moisture in it. Clods of earth are dug up from the ground and transported in trucks to open-air potteries, where potters take the clods and use water to massage them into a sort of dough or clay, which they then shape into cup-like vessels. The potters partially bake the cups in kilns, whereupon they are removed and brought to the distilleries[i].

 

As described very beautifully by Christopher McMahon on the White Lotus Aromatics blogpost on mitti (unfortunately no longer available), the partially-baked earthen cups are then stacked one on top of another in the deg, the copper cooking cauldron, sealed, and unusually for an attar, first heated without water in order to allow the mysterious earth molecules to vaporize and imbue the sandalwood oil with their scent more strongly. Only later is the water added, and when it is, it is fed through a small hole in the deg rather than unsealing the whole pot and exposing the delicate baked earth to the air.

 

The point of this process is to aromatize the receiver oil most strongly with the scent of dry, baked earth, before adding water. The addition of water alters the scent of the vapor slightly, shifting from dusty earth to slightly moist soil. Since the mitti attar captures both the dry dust of sunbaked earth and the scent of raindrops hitting that dry earth, using this combination of distilling methods ensures both dry and damp facets are captured. 

 

Unlike most other attars, the deg is cooked over a fire only for two hours a day before being allowed to cool and rest. After the water is siphoned off the essential oil and sandalwood in the bhapka, the deg is loaded with new earthen cups, dry baked, and the hydrosol from the day before added in later. The process is repeated over twenty days and stopped when the oil in the bhapka is strongly aromatized with the scent of earth, both dry and damp.

 

The mysterious scent owes its strange, haunting power to the compound called geosmin, which recalls the smell of things once rain has fallen on them: think of the hot asphalt smell of the streets in the city after a downpour, or the smell of earth and grass out in the countryside. Mitti attar captures the petrichor effect of rain drenching the red, cracked earth in India, because it is made from that same earth. It smells simultaneously musty and earthy, with a certain ‘red’ dustiness one associates with terracotta pots.

 

 

Kadam Attar

 

 

It is challenging to talk about kadam because it is expensive, and almost impossible to source outside of India. However, it is one of the most prized floral attars in India and forms a key component of the famous majmua attar, so it is worth discussing on that basis alone.

 

Distilled from the small, yellow bushy flowers of the Anthocephalus cadamba, kadam (sometimes written as kandam) produces a complex floral oil said to possess a green, almost minty topnote akin to Borneo oud wood, and a yellow floral tonality in the base that runs close to the creaminess of champaca.

 

 

 

Attar Mehndi / Gul Heena

 

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Attar Mehndi, or Gul Heena, a name which translates to ‘flower of henna’, is an attar derived from distilling henna leaves (Lawsonia Inermis) directly into sandalwood oil. Mehndi attar comes from the same plant as the popular red dye that is used to paint elaborate patterns onto the hands and face of brides in most Indian weddings, be it a Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh ceremony. There is also a Ruh Mehndi, but it is very expensive at $43,000 per kilogram (while the attar ranges between $500 and $5,000 per kilogram)[2].

 

The scent of mehndi attar is that of earth, hay, flower petals, ink, baked clay, and iodine. (The ruh smells greener, with a  tobacco-ish facet).  It possesses a haunting astringency that can suck all the moisture from your nostrils.  I find Mehndi attar to be roughly in the same aroma family as saffron and turmeric, although these are spices and therefore dustier, sharper, and more austere.

 

Confusingly, the name ‘hina’ (heena) is often applied to the complex mixed attar known as shamama, which leans on Gul Heena as a key component of its aroma profile. According to Pranjal Kapoor, whose family business distills mehndi attar, it blends very well with oud oil and ruh khus. Its scent profile is not very well known outside of Europe and is therefore sadly under-utilized in Western niche or artisanal perfumery.  Strangelove NYC’s fallintostars is a happy exception – it uses a heena attar distilled by M.L. Ramnarain. (Review here).  

 

 

Jasmine ruhs and attars (Motia, Chameli, and Juhi)

 

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In the Kama Sutra, jasmine is described as the most carnal smell in nature. But jasmine balances its fleshy, creamy, and sensual side with a dewy freshness. Innocence and carnality in one flower – an irresistible combination!  The word jasmine comes from the Arabic word for the flower, yâsamîn, which itself comes from the Persian word for it, again demonstrating the cultural and etymological fluidity between the Indian, Persian, and Arab worlds when it comes to perfume.

 

Jasmine petals can be distilled into either a ruh (pure essence) or an attar (distilled into sandalwood oil).  There are three different types of jasmine species used in attars, and thus three different names for the attars.  Motia (or mogra, as it is sometimes written) is the most popular, and is made from Jasminum sambac, the famous ‘Arabian’ jasmine. Ruh motia is distilled exclusively in Kannauj (whereas solvent-extracted absolutes and concretes can be found elsewhere).  Chameli attar is made from Jasminum grandiflorum, the type of jasmine grown in India and in Grasse and used in classic French perfumery.  Juhi attar is made from Jasminum auriculatum.  The auriculatum variety (Juhi attar) is simply a three-petalled subset of the sambac jasmine, and so the differences between them are negligible.  The differences between sambac and grandiflorum, on the other hand, are more significant.

 

Sambac jasmine (motia or mogra) is lean and sharp, with a spicy edge that some find addicting.  Also known as Arabian jasmine, Sambac is full-throated, fruity, leathery, and often a bit coarse.  Sambac jasmine is usually more indolic than grandiflorum, but I find that it really depends on the individual batch.  There is a surprising greenness to sambac jasmine, with a crisp, minty facet that does a nice job of balancing out its spicy, indolic side.  Some Sambac jasmine oils have a tea-like character as well.

 

The grandiflorum variety (Chameli) is the epitome of refined sensuality – a lady to the sambac’s tramp.  It is sweet, luscious, and full-bodied, with a hint of overripe fruit that approaches decay in the most charming way possible.  Under some circumstances, it can smell like petrol, bananas, or bubblegum, largely due to the strong presence of benzyl acetate, an isolate in the chemical make-up of both jasmine and ylang that contributes to its tropical, steamy character.  Most attars and mukhallats reviewed in this Guide use the sambac variety of the flower (the so-called Arabian jasmine), although in India, practically every variant of the flower is revered and appreciated.

 

As an aside, I have not been overly impressed with the way jasmine oil is used in mukhallat or attar perfumery beyond the basic motia attar, which is nice in and of itself.  When used in complex compositions and blends, I find that the special characteristics of the sambac tend to get swallowed up and flattened out into an overly sweet ‘bubblegum’ accord that seems to be analogous with other sweet florals like orange blossom or champaca.  In my experience, Sultan Pasha makes the best complex jasmine-focused attars available today, and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi the dullest.  

 

 

 

Other Flowers: Genda, Nargis, Lotus, and Champa

 

 

Genda attar is made from marigold (tagetes minuta), which, for a flower, smells uniquely herbaceous, bitter, and spicy.  Its astringent tonality has something in common with saffron, and indeed, the two are often blended together.  Calligraphy Saffron by Aramis is a good example of a commercial niche fragrance where saffron and tagetes are used to complement each other, leaving a synesthetic imprint of something sharply yellow-gold in the wearer’s mind.  Genda attar is uncommon outside of India, but marigold itself is used quite cleverly in some other mukhallats and perfume oils, one example being Aroosah by Al Rehab.

 

Nargis is the Indo-Persian word for narcissus (daffodils, jonquils), and so nargis attar is made using narcissus oil.  Wherever this is sold online, it is described as possessing a pleasantly fruity and floral aroma.  Do not believe a word of it.  Narcissus oil smells green but also ludicrously filthy, with the barnyardy twang of a stable packed to the rafters with dirty hay.  It eventually softens into a fresh yellow-green floral aroma that is indeed very similar to the smell of fresh daffodils. Narcissus is used extensively in fine French perfumery to give florals a starchy-oily greenness perched between freshness and dirtiness.

 

There are three different types of lotus (kamal) attars, but only two of those types (pink lotus and white lotus) technically belong to the true lotus family of nelumbo nucifera.  Then there is the blue lotus of Egypt, which, strictly speaking, belongs to the lily family.  Lotus flowers are revered in Buddhist and Hindi culture, long considered to be a direct route to spirituality.

 

Both the pink and white lotus varieties are extremely expensive to produce, requiring 250,000 flowers to make just one kilogram of lotus concrete, which in turn yields only about 250 grams of absolute after washing[ii].  This to emphasize just how costly true lotus absolute is, and how rarely seen on today’s market, especially outside of India itself.  I have smelled a white lotus absolute but cannot attest as to its authenticity.  The absolute of pink and white lotus flowers smells golden, honeyed, soft, powdery, and somewhat resinous.  Voyage 2019 by Hiram Green (review here) is the rare Western niche perfume to feature natural pink lotus oil as an ingredient.  

 

Champa attar is perhaps the most famous floral attar from India. It is made from the champaca flower, revered across the Indian subcontinent and much of tropical Asia as a symbol of sacred femininity. Champaca absolute smells rich and creamy, similar in general aroma profile to magnolia, but with a denser, muskier body weight.  It features hints of bubblegum, green apple peel, mint, and apricot. The musky nuances of champaca are interesting, because it sometimes comes across as indolic, but then at other times, as clean and as starchy as a laundry musk.

 

It must be the clean, fruity facets of the flower that dominate for most, however, because this is a flower traditionally associated with cleanliness.  In fact, the word ‘champa’ gave rise to the word ‘shampoo’ by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, ‘champo’, which means ‘to massage’[iii].  Champaca oil is widely used in Asia to fragrance many of its functional products such as soap, detergent, and shampoo.

 

Champaca is possessed of a steamy, almost tropical character that can remind one of hot basmati rice and green tea. It has an indolic facet like jasmine (although less distinctive) and a heady fruity side that makes it similar to some aspects of ylang (but more delicate).  It is a traditionally feminine flower, prized by women for its sensual but clean character.  Champaca oil is also used in the recipes for traditional Indian pressed cone or stick incense, the world-famous nag champa.

 

 

Aromatics and spices:  Indians distill attars and essential oils from a very broad range of aromatics and spices not listed here, such as charila (an oakmoss-like lichen), patchouli, saffron, and spikenard (jatamansi).  These will be discussed in full detail in the section of the Attar Guide that deals with earthy, spicy, and aromatic notes in oil-based perfumery.

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Photos: All photos used in this chapter were provided to me by Pranjal Kapoor, with full permission to use.

 

[1][1] Information by way of Pranjal Kapoor.

[2] Ibid.

[i] I am indebted to Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics for his detailed description of the process of making mitti attar in his 2000 newsletter (sadly no longer available)

[ii] As above, Chris McMahon’s description of white and pink lotus absolutes informed this section, but is unfortunately no longer available online. 

[iii] The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, by Julia Lawless, 2014 edition, published by HarperThorsons, pg. 72

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