Now we come to Middle-Eastern mukhallats. First, let’s get etymology out of the way. The word mukhallat simply means blend in Arabic and refers to a mix of pre-distilled attars and ruhs with other raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords. Remember, unlike traditional Indian attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials.
One of the most famous types of mukhallat is the rose-oud mukhallat, a pairing that matches the sour, smoky bluntness of oud oil with the peppery brightness of Taifi rose. This coupling has taken the world of Western commercial perfumery by storm, flooding the market with hundreds of rose-oud fragrances that ape the structure of the original mukhallat template.
Of course, in modern-day parlance, the words attar and mukhallat are used almost interchangeably. Hence, Amouage calls its (sadly discontinued) range of perfume oils attars even though, from a technical perspective, they are mukhallats. The same applies to Sultan Pasha and most other young, modern attar makers – although technically mukhallats made by blending distilled attars and essential oils (some of which the attar maker may even distill himself), the final product is always marketed as an attar, because attar is the word that modern customers know and recognize.
It is important to note that the cultural ties and trade in perfume between India and the Middle-East go back thousands of years, which has led to a symbiotic exchange of materials, knowledge, and even language about perfume between these cultures. For example, the word attar is virtually identical across all major languages in the area, meaning Hindu, Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, etc. Thanks to the rich melting pot of cultures and arts encouraged by the Mughal dynasty, themselves an empire of traders, attars are something of a fluid, boundary-crossing art, claimed by all cultures in this part of the world as their own.
But the culture of use of perfume throughout Turkey, Northern Africa, and the Middle East has evolved quite differently to that of India. Though it is difficult to speak on this without flattening entire and richly diverse cultures into one generalization, it is broadly accurate to say that people of Arabian, Persian, Turkish, and Northern African descent have a cultural preference for richer and heavier animalic aromas, such as those from oud, deer musk, and ambergris. While Indian attar perfumery is inward-looking, focused almost exclusively on India’s own natural bounty, Middle-Eastern oil perfumery avails itself of a much broader range of raw materials sourced outside their own national borders, likely the result of the centuries-long history of Arabic-Persiatic empire-building and trading.
Oud oil, for example, is sourced from humid jungle areas of a geographically-vast sweep of countries ranging from North India and Borneo island to China and the countries of the Mekong Delta (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand). Resins and gums such as frankincense (loban/luban) and myrrh are more important in Arabic oil perfumery than in Indian perfumery, because these resins are not native to India – they are grown and gathered in the hot, desert-like areas of Arabia and Africa (with some like copal resin, Peru and tolu balsams even coming all the way from Peru, Colombia, and Argentina, in South America). Use of these smoky, sometimes vanillic gums and resins has come to define a whole genre of perfume, formerly known (inaccurately) as the oriental family of perfumes (a term now being replaced by more culturally and etymologically-correct terminology, such as ambery or resinous perfumes, see note here). In general, the Middle-Eastern market for perfume displays a strong, cultural preference for more heavily perfumey smells than Indians.
But the cultural and historical links between these two perfume-making cultures run deep. Arab and Persian perfumers value Indian ruhs and attars for their purity and use them to mix into their mukhallats. One of the biggest attar companies in the world, Ajmal, is an Indian company that distills oud and makes mukhallats almost exclusively for the Middle-Eastern market. Furthermore, it was India, and specifically the Assam region in Northern India, that gave Arabs their first taste of oud oil, stoking a fire in their hearts for the animalic, Hindi (Indian) style of oud oil that burns brightly to this day.
Reminder: We are working our way through the four categories of oil-based perfumery as I see them, which are (1) traditional distilled attars (discussed here, here, and here), (2) Middle-Eastern mukhallats (this chapter), (3) foundational essential oils such as oud oil and sandalwood oil, and (4) concentrated perfume oils. The main differences are briefly outlined below:
Traditional distilled attars: In contrast to its catch-all categorization today, the word attar originally referred to a specific method of production, and a tradition that was almost exclusively Indian. True attars are made through the slow, laborious process of hydro- or steam-distilling flower petals, herbs, exotic woods, and resins directly into a base of sandalwood oil.
Middle-Eastern mukhallats: While traditional Indian attars are distilled from a fragrant material, mukhallats – meaning ‘mix’ – are compounds of many different oils that have already been distilled, tinctured, or otherwise produced elsewhere.
Foundational essential oils: Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery. In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume. Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.
Concentrated perfume oils: Although all attars are by nature concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars. For example, a perfume oil from Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, or BPAL is not an attar. Neither is the Al Rehab dupe for Dakar Noir that you can buy on Amazon for four dollars. They are perfumes in oil format but made in a completely different manner (and intent) than attars.
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.
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