Attars & CPOs Oud The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 2 (Oud)

12th November 2021

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the previous one as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery – sandalwood and oud oil.  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.

 

 

 

 

Oud: The Noble Rot

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Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

 

While sandalwood is the most important essential oil for traditional distilled attars, the truly essential oil for mukhallat perfumery is oud.  Oud is an oleoresin, a word that literally means ‘oily resin’.  The dark, damp oleoresin forms inside the wood of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops species of tree as a response to external trauma – the equivalent of white antibodies in the human body sent to fight infection.  The external trauma can be anything, from an infiltration of a fungus through the bark or chemical inoculation by farmers to bug infestations, drilling holes into the bark, burns caused by molten lava, or even strafing by bullets.  In other words, oud resin is the tree’s way of defending itself from attack.

 

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Photo of an Aquilaria crassna tree with (darker) oud oleoresin clearly present. The strafing on the trunk was done by poachers to allow an airborne fungus access to the wood, hopefully prompting the tree into producing more of the oleoresin as a response to the ‘attack’.  Photo by Blaise Droz,, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2254233

 

The appearance of the oleoresin is dark brown, greyish, or even black, and clearly distinguishable from the light creamy color of the non-resinated wood.  Older resinated specimens such as genuine kyara or incense-grade wood will not display such clear delineation between the oleoresin and the uninfected wood, instead appearing as one piece of wood uniformly threaded with greyish resin.

 

Oud wood refers to the piece of wood that contains the oleoresin.  Resinated oud wood can be heated gently over a burner as incense or carved into prayer beads and other objects.  In Arab culture, the smoke from heating oud wood is used to fumigate clothes (both personal and ceremonial robes), houses, and even the hair or beard.  The Japanese grind agarwood to powder to use in their world-famous stick incense.  The Chinese and the Japanese both have a long tradition of carving precious oud wood into prayer beads and ornaments to be used for ceremonial or religious purposes.  The very wealthy may even buy a top quality piece of oud wood (kyara) and display it in a glass case as a showpiece.

 

Most oud is consumed in oil form, however. Oud oil is the essential oil distilled from resinated oud wood.

 

 

Why is oud so important?

 

No other essential oil in the world is as subject to hysteria, obsessive behavior, collector’s mania, and controversy as oud oil.  Its rarity and expense parallels that of Mysore sandalwood oil, and yet, you don’t really find whole Internet communities dedicated to the minutiae of sandalwood oil.

 

There are several reasons for this. First of all, oud oil is so complex in its aroma profile that it wears as a complete perfume on the skin. Oud oils can have topnotes, a heart, and basenotes, just as in a commercial fragrance.  It is therefore the rare essential oil that provides the wearer with a full 360° experience.  This marks it out as different from other essential oils such as sambac jasmine or vetiver.

 

Second, oud oils are exciting because they vary a lot in basic aroma profile from region to region, terroir to terroir, style to style,, and species to species.  Therefore, if you don’t like the barnyardy honk of Hindi oud oils, no problem – simply move onto the sweeter, friendlier Cambodi style oud oils, or the super-treacly Trat ouds.  Likewise, one might find oneself nerdily consumed with the different types of oils that are distilled from wood grown on the island of Borneo, each with their own little quirks and personalities.  There is something in the oud pot for everyone.

 

Third, oud oils satisfy the eternal human hunger for individuality, rarity, and uniqueness.  Oud oils are the perfect riposte to the mass-market, standardized wave of products we consume in our daily lives.  Pure oud oils are small-batch and limited edition, full of minute but important nuances never to be replicated with a hundred percent exactitude again.  The idea that one can own something a tiny piece of a non-renewable resource is irresistible, especially to those with a keen collector’s mentality.

 

The final reason why oud oils can be the focus of obsession is that they, unlike other essential oils, allow for a large degree of artisanship and creativity on the part of the distiller.  Even minor tweaks to the distillation process can produce surprising variations in the resulting aroma.  Therefore, not only is the raw material more intrinsically nuanced than other materials, but its manner of distillation is more open to innovation.  The result is still an essential oil, but in experimenting with different distilling materials, mineral content of the water used, cooking temperatures, soaking times, and post-distillation aging, the distiller can arrive at a slightly different result each time.

 

This ‘room to play’ aspect of oud distilling has resulted in oud oils that display a surprisingly wide range of notes that might not otherwise appear in the oil, such as lilac, chocolate, musk, and even hints of salty, golden ambergris.  One oud artisan describes it as alchemy.  This aspect of creative experimentation in oud distilling has attracted a greater proportion of artists and artisans to the process, far more than are drawn to either sandalwood or other essential oil distilling.

 

 

 

The Process of Making Oud Oil

 

The process of distilling oil from resinated wood is very traditional.  In many ways, the process is like that of producing a ruh (essential oil) in the old Indian method, namely slow steam distillation using clay, steel, and copper degs.  First, the hunters arrive out of the jungle, bearing wood they have chopped out of living trees or felled to access the wood.  If the oud wood is from a plantation, the wood is harvested just like any other farmed crop.

 

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Uninfected agarwood, i.e., bunkwood. Photo by Hafizmuar at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4782613

 

The big logs will then be broken down into shards of oud wood and inspected for bunkwood, which is wood in and around the darker, resinated areas of the wood that do not contain any essential oil or resinoid at all (see photo above).   If the distillation is a high quality one, then the bunkwood is carefully carved out of the piece of wood and discarded.  In lower-quality distillations, the bunkwood is left in to make up the weight needed to pack the distilling pot to capacity.

 

The remaining wood shards are soaked in water for varying periods of time, but usually for no less than ten days.  Longer soaks will ensure that the wood rots a little, adding a sour, fermented note to the resulting oil.  This is an effect that consumers of Hindi oils (the Arab market) have come to prize as the principal characteristic of good oud oil.  The mineral content of the water used for soaking will impart its own character to the resulting oil, with varying effects coming from carbonated water versus spring water versus tap water, and so on.

 

After soaking, the still is loaded with about seventy kilos of soaked wood chips and a fire built underneath the still.  The oud oil is distilled from the wood over the course of a week, using very exact heat and condensing methods to keep the wood at exactly the right temperature.  Steam distillation is the preferred method of extraction because it is easier to keep the heat constant using this method.  It is vital not to allow the still to get overheated.  The average yield from a seventy kilo distillation is only about twenty to twenty-four grams, which is enough for two tolas of pure oud oil.  The yield depends on the species of the wood used, as some species are notoriously low-yielding.  The water in which the agarwood has been distilled (called a hydrosol) is valuable to producers because it still contains little particles of oud oil, so the hydrosols are used again and again to wring out the most oud particles possible.

 

 

 

The Scarcity of Oud

 

 

Oud is scarce.  Less than eight percent of wild Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees contain oud resin.  Its scarcity means that it is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Its status as an endangered species is partly because of the naturally-low infection rate among wild trees and partly because mass deforestation across South-East Asia is mowing down much of the forests, including the agarwood-producing species of tree.  Wild oud-bearing trees are facing depletion in much the same manner as Mysore sandalwood.  Oud wood from wild trees is rare and costly, leading to high demand, which in turn means that people will spend anything or do anything to get their hands on it. 

 

Although technically it is true that trees are a renewable resource, it takes a lot of time to replace an wild tree that has spent eighty plus years growing that precious oleoresin inside its trunk.  Once a wild tree is gone, it is gone for good.  Wild agarwood trees are listed as Appendix II in CITES.  But as with all Appendix II classifications (including, for example, deer musk), this does not mean that there is a ban on the material itself.  It simply means that strict measures are in place to control its trade.  James Compton, the South East Asian director for TRAFFIC, clarified this in a press release, by saying: ‘It is important to remember that CITES Appendix II is not a trade ban, but a management intervention that will help ensure legality, promote sustainability and enable more accurate monitoring of the agarwood trade.’[i]

 

For many, the best ‘management intervention’ to address the scarcity of wild-crafted oud is plantation cultivation.  Plantations are farms that grow Aquilaria species under controlled conditions, with farmers artificially inoculating the tree trunks with fungus to spark them into producing the valuable oud oleoresin.  Plantations enable sustainability, continuation of supply, and consistency of product quality – a good thing from the point of view of commercial perfumery.

 

There is no global shortage of plantation-grown agarwood.  Trygve Harris, in her wonderful article, entitled ‘Agarwood – Is It Endangered?’, states that people in Asia are investing in agarwood farming to supply the market and that there is subsequently a healthy number of plantation-grown agarwood trees in Asia[ii]:

 

‘Ajmal perfumes estimates that there are 55 million trees planted in Assam, in anticipation of the worldwide shortage.  Many of these were planted over 20 years ago.  There is a nice plantation of 1.5 million on the Lao plain north of Vietnam, planted in 2000/2001 and now set to become a fishing resort for secondary income.  These are mostly, if not all, Aquilaria Crassna.  There are 2 million Aquilaria trees planted near Bangkok, and more all over Thailand.  One can also find in plenty of trees in Vietnam at the fragrant mountain experimental station in An Giang, not to mention other plantations.  Those trees are Aquilaria Crassna.  And it seems everyone’s planting them at home, in their yard.  All over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam at least, these trees grow.  The world of agarwood does not exist in a separate universe where people have no concept of nature’s limits.  In fact, many people have noticed the incredibly high prices agarwood commands and are taking steps to integrate themselves in the future market.’ 

 

The CITES effort to regulate and control trade of agarwood has had a big impact in signatory countries where agarwood naturally grows, and some say not for the better.  Agarwood grows naturally in Northern India, for example, but strict CITES certification procedures have cut smallholders out of the picture and accidentally allowed corruption to flourish.

 

Trygve Harris explained the effect of CITES on agarwood production in an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018 as follows: ‘Basically, it was illegal to harvest an agarwood tree, even from your own property, unless certain steps were taken and rules followed, and the designated places to distill for oil were in cities far away from the towns and villages in NE India where Agarwood happily grows.  Agarwood naturally and traditionally grows all over those states, in people’s yards.  Trees were harvested for important events, weddings, college, etc.  But, with the 2000 regulations, people couldn’t legally sell their own agarwood, unless it had a CITES certificate, which were only obtainable though the official channels at Guwahati and Kanpur.  So, a big gap was left, and who better to step in than the mafia?  They did, and that’s all I want to say about that.’’”[iii]

 

The current production landscape is made up of large-scale plantation farmers who grow agarwood under contract for the big Emirati houses and Western commercial perfume houses, and a second, much smaller group of mostly foreign artisan distillers who run small-batch, custom distillations of oud for their customer base.  These two groups of people have very different goals for the oud oil they produce, so it stands to reason that their ways of managing the trees are also different. 

 

Indigenous plantation owners and farmers are under contract to produce the oud oil needed in large-scale perfumery, which includes the big Emirati and Indian brands, as well as Western commercial perfumery[iv].  For these plantation owners, oud is a cash crop like any other.  They do not have the financial wherewithal to wait between twenty and forty years for the trees to mature, and many begin harvesting at between six months and three years old.  Plantation-grown oleoresin therefore often lacks maturity.

 

In some regions of SE Asia, but particularly in Laos, farmers use chemical inoculants to stimulate oleoresin production, to speed up the process.  Many say that the chemicals leave a metallic dirtiness in the resulting oil.  These factors contribute to an oud oil product that is certainly cheap and plentiful, but also inferior-smelling.  In contrast, farmers in Assam, in Northern India, rarely use chemical inoculants and allow the trees to be naturally infected by bugs or wounding the trees with knives.  Therefore, different countries, different production cultures.  Laos produces trees hard and fast, while Assam takes a slower, more rural approach.

 

Through experimenting with a combination of blending with other oud oils for consistency of smell and force-aging the oils by exposing them to the air to get those traditional barnyardy flavors, the plantations have come up with an oil that can be used in commercial and niche perfumery.  The advantages to plantation agarwood are clear – it is cheap, plentiful, and of consistent quality.  Depending on the manner of inoculation (chemical versus natural), the age of the wood when harvested, and the quality of the distillation process, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is not always pleasant or suitable for wearing neat on the skin.  But blended with other natural ingredients and lifted by synthetics, the effect in a commercial perfume is usually excellent.  It also allows for Western perfume houses to make a claim of authenticity for their oud perfumes.

 

Artisan distillers, in contrast, just want the best-smelling oil possible.  They do not care about selling large volumes of oil and intend for the oil to be worn neat on the skin, not mixed into a larger perfume formula.  Therefore, they are inclined to buy small quantities of high quality plantation wood whose quality they can control.  Artisans usually select only farmed trees that have been growing for between twenty and forty years and buy from farmers who use organic inoculation methods to infect the trees, namely drilling holes in the wood and allowing natural air-borne fungus spores and bugs to enter the wood on their own.

 

Careful management, selection, and inoculation can yield very good quality plantation oud wood for distilling.  The resulting oil can be of a quality that approaches or even matches that of wild oud.  In oud terminology, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is called ‘organic oud’, a term that, as in food, is supposed to convey to the customer qualities of purity, cleanliness, naturalness, and the level of care taken during its production.

 

 

 

The Market for Oud

 

The culture of a country or ethnic group is the strongest influence on how oud is consumed, valued, packaged, used, and sold.  Arabs consume the great majority of the Hindi-style oils and wood, for example, while the Chinese consume most wild Cambodi incense-grade wood for carving ceremonial beads and ornaments.  The Japanese consume most, if not all, of the incense-grade wood that comes out of the Vietnamese jungles for milling into incense powder for sticks and cones.

 

In terms of sheer volume, the Arab market is by far the most important consumer of oud.  Arabs have used oud oil and oud wood for burning for almost five centuries, an appetite that accelerated sharply with the discovery and exploitation of crude oil in the Emirates region.  Oil made many Arabs rich, and this wealth meant that they could now indulge their appetite for a material – oud – that had once been reserved for the Royal families.  It is the Arab preference for the smoky, austere, leathery oud oils, i.e., Hindi-type oils, that set the tone for most oud oil production in the Far East.

 

Hindi-style oud oils were traditionally consumed exclusively by the royal families of the Middle East and the Emirates.  Since Hindi oud was so highly valued by the elite, the taste for this style became pervasive in Arab culture.  The preference for this style of oud runs so deep, in fact, that if an oil does not possess the traditional Hindi aroma profile, many Arab consumers have trouble recognizing the oil as genuine oud.  Clean, green, woody oud oils such as a Borneo or Papuan oil, for example, do not sell well in this market.

 

The cultural expectation of what oud must smell like plays a huge role in how oud oil is distilled, soaked, mixed, and aged for the Arab market.  To cater to the Arab taste, many large companies require that their distillers soak the wood for a longer time before distilling it or expose the oud oil to the air in order to oxidize it and produce an aged, leathery result (called ‘force-aging’).  These processes produce a more pronounced, fermented ‘Hindi’ flavor in the oil.

 

Above all, the enormous Arab appetite for oud oil has had an impact on purity.  Yields of pure oud oil are low, averaging at about twenty grams per seventy kilo distillation, which begs the thorny question of how to satisfy huge demand with such tiny amounts of oud.  Realistically, something has got to give.  And in the case of oud oil, that something is purity.  Put bluntly, every single quantity of pure oud oil brought out of the jungles of India and the Far East and into the Emirates is adjusted, stretched out, and diluted with other oud oils, essential oils, and fillers in order to make a quantity large enough to satisfy Arab demand.

 

And the Arab demand for oud is inexhaustible.  The Arab market consumes oud oil and wood not only in their pure form, but also mixed into soaps, detergents, and toothpaste.  Therefore, oud is as much a flavoring product to be used in functional cleaning products as lily of the valley or rose is in the West.  Oud oil is an essential oil, but its purity is of a lesser concern to Arabs than its essential oudiness.  The Arabs prize purity in most all other essential oils such as rose ottos, sandalwood, or Sambac jasmine oil, but regard oud more as a general scent category than as an essential oil. 

 

The Chinese market absorbs almost all the wild, incense grade agarwood from the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam.  Ensar of Ensar Oud reports that it is practically impossible to procure Cambodi oud wood now[v], since every single log carried out of the jungles have already been bought by the Chinese and at a far higher price that other buyers can afford to pay.  The Chinese use some of the oud wood they buy for burning in their temples, but the majority is used to carve beads, ornaments, and necklaces, all of which are assumed to have ceremonial or religious importance.

 

The Japanese market consumes incense-grade oud wood for use in Japanese incense cones and sticks.  The market for oud oil itself is not significant.  The huge Japanese incense companies of Baieido, Shoyeido, and Nippon Kodo, among others, consume such large quantities of the highest grades of oud wood (termed incense-grade, Kyara, or Kinam) that they often station representatives outside the edges of jungles to make sure they get first pick from the loads the hunters carry out.  In Japan, oud wood is known as jinko or aloeswood.

 

Once back in Japan, the aloeswood is sorted further into grades, milled to fine powders, and mixed with other powdered woods such as sandalwood and cedar, spices such as clove and cinnamon, and gums and resins (most particularly benzoin).  These mixtures are destined for use as molded incense cones or incense sticks, the highest quality of which does not possess a wooden core but burn straight through.  Aloeswood is prized in Japanese culture almost uniquely for its role in incense ceremonies, known as Kōdō (香道, or the “Way of Fragrance”).  Kōdō involves ‘listening’ to Japanese incense and understanding its spiritual message.  The ceremony includes games, a code of conduct, and rituals.

 

The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates to the 6th century AD, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes.  Some warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.  The best pieces (Kyara) were reserved for royal use, and some pieces of Kyara from this period have been preserved in vaults by the government.  The price and scarcity of Kyara means that the ceremony of Kōboku is rarely performed today.  However, the art of Kōdō continues, with the more expensive aloeswood being mixed with sandalwood, clove, spikenard, and other aromatic spices to produce a wonderfully fragrant incense for burning during the ceremony.

 

 

Waiter! Is that an oud in my perfume?

 

When buying a perfume or oil that has oud in the name, the buyer usually wants to know: is there any real oud in this?  It is a reasonable question, especially since any scent or oil marketed as containing oud will likely be more expensive than other, non-oudy options (regardless of whether there is any oud in it).  In general, if you are buying a commercial (spray-based perfume), then the likelihood is that the oud will be synthetic.  A small number of commercial niche oud perfumes contain real oud oil, but the vast majority does not.

 

There are two reasons why not.  First, there is the problem of replicability.  Pure oud oil is one of the most inconsistent materials in the world.  Oil batches can smell different from each other even if the same type of wood is used, because of variations in the mineral content of the water used to distill, as well as differing soak times, microclimate, etc.  The problem of replicability is not a factor for small-batch artisans such as Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, and AgarAura, because their unique selling point lies in the interesting variations from oil to the next.  But this type of batch inconsistency is a logistical nightmare for commercial perfumery.  In commercial perfumery, it is vital to be able to replicate an accord with a hundred percent consistency from one batch to the next.

 

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Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash  

 

Second, there is the problem of scaling up.  Real oud oil yields are too small and expensive to make sense in perfume formulas that require greater quantities of each raw material or aromachemical to scale up for production.  One twenty gram batch might stretch to fill a formula for two hundred bottles, but it will not be enough to make the ten thousand bottles required to stock the shelves at Sephora or Douglas.  In general, small-batch raw materials with huge variances in quality or aroma rarely translate well to large-batch commercial perfumery.

 

The great issue of oud in commercial perfumery is therefore not that of sustainability but of transparency.  If few commercial perfumes contain real oud oil, then why do companies charge more for perfumes with the word oud in them?  The simple answer is that oud is an exotic note to which ideas of rarity and expense has been attached.  Customers are demonstrably happy to buy into its mystique.  It is likely that many consumers believe that the higher prices for scents with an oud note are to cover the cost of obtaining and using real oud in the perfume, although this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Many reputable companies obfuscate on this matter and charge much higher prices for the perfumes in their lines that supposedly contain oud.

 

As mentioned, however, a small number of niche perfume houses do use real oud oil in their formulae, sourced from the plantations of Laos and Thailand.  The advantage to Western perfume houses of using plantation oud oil is that it is cheap, pre-blended with other oils to achieve a replicable consistency, and, crucially, available in the quantities needed for commercial perfumery.  Brands reputed to use real Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai farmed oud include Mona di Orio (Oudh Osmanthus), Fragrance du Bois (e.g., Oud Violet Intense), Dusita (Oudh Infini), Maison Francis Kurkdijan (Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Silk Mood, Oud Velvet Mood), and The Different Company (Oud for Love, Oud Shamash).  Ex Idolo 33 is a niche perfume that used a stock of 33-year-old Chinese oud oil and might be said to be the only commercially produced perfume to contain an amount of high-quality, vintage wild oil rather than plantation oil.

 

Higher-end oudy mukhallat sprays produced by the big Emirati and Indian brands such as Ajmal (Shams Oud) and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi (Dahn al Oudh Anteeq) also contain a quantity of real oud, diluted with other oils and perfumer’s alcohol to scale the formula up into a spray-based perfume.   In contrast, oudy mukhallats on the lower end of the price scale use the same oud synthetics as everyone else.  For a detailed breakdown of what types of perfumes are likely to contain real oud and which are not, please refer to the section in the upcoming Oud chapter titled Challenge 1: Where to Start?  This section runs you through all the available options (artisanal oils, big brand oils, oudy mukhallats, Western niche, etc.) and explains the extent to which each option is likely to contain real oud and in what proportions.

 

 

 

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.

 

[i] http://www.fao.org/forestry/50057/en/

[ii] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Agarwood%252dIs-it-Endangered%3F.html

[iii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[iv] Fragrance du Bois, for example, is a brand that either owns or contracts exclusively with an agarwood plantation in Malaysia to supply them with oud oil for their line of fragrances.

[v] http://agarwood.ensaroud.com/the-great-cambodian-experiment-3/

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