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Sandalwood: A Primer

23rd March 2022

 

 

After the brief introduction to sandalwood here, let’s take a deeper dive into this God of All Woods.

 

Why is Santalum album so magical?

 

Santalum album, meaning ‘white sandalwood’, is not the only species of sandalwood on the planet.  But it is widely considered to be the best.  Why is that?

 

Thanks to scientific analysis, we now know that Santalum album smells richer and more intense than any other type of sandalwood because it contains the highest percentage (between seventy and ninety percent[i]) of santalol, the molecule responsible for the characteristically complex aroma of sandalwood, which darts between woody, creamy, lactic-sour, fragrant, sweet, rosy, and milky-green.

 

Other species of sandalwood, such as Australian Santalum spicatum, for example, contain a much lower concentration of santalols (between thirty-five and thirty-nine percent) and therefore feature far less of that characteristic sandalwood aroma.  They produce an effect that, while still pleasant, does not scale the heights of Santalum album oil.

 

 

Can I still smell Santalum album? Or am I too late?

 

Not too late at all!  Remember, as stated here, while real Mysore sandalwood oil from vintage, well-aged stock is a genuine rarity, its species – Santalum album – is not.  Santalum album is the species of the sandalwood tree traditionally grown in Mysore, but it can also grow (and thrive) in regions other than Mysore, where climate conditions are optimal.  These places include Indonesia, Tamil Nadu, and Northern Australia.  Naturally, when the Santalum album species of tree is grown in an area or country other than the Mysore region, it is not technically Mysore sandalwood.  It is, however, still Santalum album.  And it is still absolutely gorgeous.

 

Can I still get my hands on Mysore sandalwood oil, though?

 

Yes, but tread carefully.  For reasons outlined here, export of Mysore sandalwood outside of the borders of India is technically illegal.

 

It is, of course, still possible to buy small quantities of real Mysore sandalwood oil.  But given that demand far outstrips supply, be aware that the risk of adulteration is high.  Seek out small samples of Mysore sandalwood oil that comes from old, wild trees and that has benefited from aging.  Sandalwood oil is like oud oil in that it smells the best when it comes from old trees (between eighty to a hundred years for preference) growing in the wild and has been allowed to age in the bottle.

 

Instead of taking your chances on eBay and or Etsy, buy directly from trusted artisan and small-batch distillers like Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, and Al Shareef Oudh.  These artisans distill oil from vintage stocks of Mysore, but also from new trees being grown on the Mysore plantations. 

 

 

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Unsplash

 

Is that Mysore sandalwood in my attar?

 

Honestly? Probably not.

 

Beyond the pure essential oil itself, most attars, mukhallats and concentrated perfume oils boasting the presence of Mysore sandalwood do not contain even a drop of the real thing.  This is also true of commercial or niche perfumes that claim to feature Mysore sandalwood.  Santalum album, its species?  Yes, sure.  The actual species itself is not in short supply.  But actual Mysore sandalwood oil?  Fuhgeddaboudit.

 

So learn to treat all mention of Mysore with a healthy dose of side eye.  The only attars that genuinely contain Mysore Santalum album are either vintage attars from the 1990s (or earlier), or modern attars produced by small-batch artisan attar makers, such as Sultan Pasha, Ensar Oud, Rising Phoenix Perfumer, et al, all of whom understand their customers and know that they will pay a premium for attars made with even minute quantities of Mysore sandalwood.

 

These days, Indian attar-making families and distilleries still making attars in the traditional manner (deg and bhapka) likely use a different variety of sandalwood oil for the bases of their attars, such as the Australian variant or even amyris, which is not even sandalwood.  However, the modern attar and fragrance factories of Mumbai likely use cheap filler oils like paraffin or D.O.P. 

 

 

What does real Mysore sandalwood smell like anyway?

 

 

People are almost always surprised when they smell real Mysore sandalwood oil. Mysore sandalwood’s fêted role in big 1980s compositions such as Guerlain’s Samsara or Amouage’s Ubar leads to its common misdiagnosis as something that projects creamily and loudly across a room.  If a Westerner were to describe the smell of Mysore sandalwood, they would probably use words such as powdery, sweet, buttery, and creamy.

 

But in fact, this is an effect almost always created using sandalwood synthetics rather than the raw material itself.  Western perfumery has always leaned on a complex array of aromachemicals to get the sandalwood oil to speak up in a composition, nudging its naturally shy aroma into a rich sonic boom.  The same rings true for its use in attars and mukhallats.

 

The quietness (or loudness) of sandalwood in any attar very much depends on the role it plays in the overall composition.  In complex attars such as shamama and majmua, it is very difficult to identify the aroma of sandalwood, as its ‘library’ voice tends to be overridden by the stronger spices, aromatic, and florals.  However, in single-material attars such as motia or mitti, the quiet creaminess of the sandalwood carrier oil is a vital part of the composition.  Some attars and mukhallats place the aroma of sandalwood at the heart of a composition, choosing to highlight its tender beauty.  For example, Amouage not only has Sandal, a sandalwood soli-wood, so to speak, but also Majan (ambergris and sandalwood) and Ayoon al Maha (sandalwood and rose).

 

A good rule of thumb for spotting a sandalwood synth is that if a perfume – be it an attar or Western spray – smells immediately of rich, loud, creamy sandalwood, then you may be reasonably sure that there is some sandalwood synthetic somewhere in the mix, boosting the aroma of the natural oil.  Some people are sensitive to sandalwood synthetics and can pick them out of a line-up.  I personally cannot, and therefore even mukhallats featuring sandalwood synthetics smell good to me.

 

After long exposure to the fake, loud sandalwood that passes for ‘Mysore’ in most commercial perfumes and modern mukhallats, the reality of what the essential oil smells like is eye-opening.  At first, the prevailing aroma is slightly raw and pale, the scent of a freshly-cut log of wood and nothing more. It smells streamlined, shorn of extraneous detail or fuzz.  The topnotes feature a steamy, vaporous texture akin to the haze of molecules that fizzes from the top of a container of industrial glue or ethanol.  These vapors have an almost hallucinogenic effect on the senses.

 

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not uncommon to find fresh, silvery, or green topnotes in Mysore oil, depending on the age of the heartwood from which it was distilled, and the number of years spent maturing in the bottle.  Mysore often displays some of the terpenic (pine- or camphor-like) greenness associated with Australian sandalwood (s. spicatum).  However, where they do appear, the terpenes in Santalum album are much softer than in the Australian type – a gentle, almost milky green freshness rather than the solvent-like screech of lemon and pine.

 

There is also a clear peanut-like odor inherent to the scent of Mysore sandalwood oil, less the aroma of the nut itself than its papery husk and skin.  There may also be a scent of neutral oil, like vegetable or sunflower oil, which, when mixed with the peanut aroma, produces a flattened, roasted-nutty effect.  The overall texture is at first vaporous, then cloudy.  It is not immediately creamy, although it will increase in creaminess.  The aroma is very quiet and does not project far off the skin.

 

Later, the aroma becomes slightly deeper and more complex, with a milky undertone developing.  It is still not fatty or creamy, tending instead towards the scent of lightly soured milk or yoghurt.  The thin, lactic sourness is given body by a nutty texture akin to crushed, pounded peanut shells, husks, and nuts.  It remains acidic and greenish for some time, but there is now a hint of rose in the milk.

 

Further still, most s. album sandalwood oils – even those that are not Mysore – gain a toasty depth more suggestive of thick, red-brown logs than light, raw blond wood.  Although never as spicy or as musky as modern sandalwood bases in perfumery, the oil does develop some mild nutmeg-like elements and becomes increasingly creamy.  In some sandalwood oils, a sweaty spice note can appear, a nuance often replicated in Western perfumery via the use of cumin, funky-musky cedarwood, or even carrot seed (a good example being Santal Blush by Tom Ford).  This nuance is why some perceive sandalwood as smelling of body odor.

 

The aroma of Mysore sandalwood is soft and calming.  It takes its own sweet time to cycle through different facets: raw lumber, blond peanut shells, green roses, buttermilk, salted butter, and finally a reddish-brown depth, aromatic (dry) wood, incense, hints of amber, spice, and full-fat cream.  Texturally, Mysore displays the same push-pull between aromatic-dry and creamy-sweet common to all Santalum album oils.

 

Compared to, say, oud oil, S. album sandalwood oil is far more linear. It can be as complex as oud, but its range of complexity is spread out across a shallower line than that of oud.  If oud and sandalwood oils were charted on a graph, for example, the sandalwood would be performing a small but complex series of movements between points one and four, while the oud would be making jagged leaps between one and ten and back to five, and so on. Both materials can be superb, and a preference for one or the other might depend on one’s appetite for turbulence and drama (oud oil) or gentle, unassuming beauty (sandalwood oil).

 

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

 

The Other Sandalwoods: If Not Mysore, then What?

 

If you are a Mysore freak, then feel free to skip this part.  But if you are even a little curious about what the other, non-Mysore variants of sandalwood oil smell like, then read on!  Invest in a sampler from Eden Botanicals to get your nose on most of these.

 

 

Santalum album – Tamil Nadu type

 

 

Santalum album grown in the Tamil Nadu region of India. Warm, woody, and sweet, with no rough edges, Tamil Nadu oil is relatively close to the aroma of vintage Mysore sandalwood oil and does not contain any of the harshness of Vanuatu types of sandalwood.

 

Aroma: Creamy, sweet, with a Mysore tonality.

 

 

 

Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum)

 

 

A different species than Santalum album, the Santalum spicatum is a species native to Australia and grown sustainably in plantations there.  It is not as rich in santalols as santalum album and therefore does not smell as nutty or as creamy.  Most commercial perfumes employing a sandalwood effect use the Australian type of sandalwood (in conjunction with sandalwood synthetics).  It is much cheaper than Santalum album species, but most would also say that it is also markedly inferior to Mysore, with a sharp, yoghurty aroma, and sawdusty texture.  Most will also pick up strong terpenic (pine-like) notes in the aroma profile.

 

However, because it is sustainably managed and therefore in abundant supply, Australian sandalwood is enormously useful in perfumery.  With clever positioning of sandalwood synthetics and other notes such as rose or vanilla, it can achieve a very credible sandalwood result in a finished perfume.

 

Aroma: A cedar-adjacent aroma profile, with the sourness of a freshly-split pine log.

 

 

 

Santalum austrocaledonicum (Vanuatu and New Caledonia types)

 

 

Native to the islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia in the South Pacific, Santalum austrocaledonicum is a light, fragrantly woody species of Santalum that possess a surprisingly high proportion of santalols (approximately sixty percent).  However, there is a blunt, sour smokiness to its aroma that many people find off-putting.  It eventually evens out into a creamy, fragrant ‘true sandalwood’ aroma but the journey to get there is kind of rough. 

 

Aroma: fragrant, but slightly harsh, sour, and smoky.

 

 

Australian plantation-grown Santalum album

 

 

This is not Mysore, but rather the same species of tree (Santalum album) grown in plantations in Australia.  The oil is sustainably produced, and in aroma is quite close to the aroma of Mysore oil, namely, soft, sweet, warm, woody, gentle, creamy-milky, and full-bodied.  It is unknown whether the Santalum album species grown in Australia will ever match the depth and beauty of Mysore Santalum album, but first reports are positive.  Due to the crucial matter of aging, Santalum album oil from new plantations will not smell as richly golden as older specimens of Mysore oil now, but in time, it is likely that they will.

 

Aroma: milky, sweet, with a true Santalum album ‘flavor’.

 

 

Amyris balsamifera

 

 

Not a sandalwood at all, but an entirely different species of wood that exudes a highly-fragrant oleoresin.  Oil produced using amyris smells a little terpenic (pine-like), fragrantly bitter, and smoky.  It is pleasant on its own, and often used as a replacer oil for sandalwood, although in truth, it is no match for the complexity of the Mysore aroma.

 

Aroma: clean, terpenic, with bitter, smoky topnotes

 

 

 

Sandalwood synthetics

 

 

The main synthetics used to amplify or replace natural sandalwood oil are Ebanol, Javanol, Sandalore (all by Givaudan), and Polysantol (by Firmenich).  Though the specifics are not all that important to the layman, it is important to note that they each provide a slightly different effect.  For example, Ebanol is used when a soapy-musky dimension to the sandalwood is sought, Sandalore apes the creamy aspect of sandalwood, and Polysantol is used for maximum diffusion and amplification of the sandalwood aroma.

 

The use of sandalwood synthetics is so prevalent in the fragrance industry that their aroma has become intertwined with that of natural sandalwood oil in the minds of fragrance wearers.  For example, vintage Samsara (Guerlain) once contained great quantities of real Mysore sandalwood oil – some say up to forty percent of its composition.  But there are, and have always been, huge amounts of Polysantol in the formula too, making it very difficult to separate the loud, booming creaminess of the synthetic from the quieter savory-nutty aroma of the natural sandalwood. 

 

 

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: Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

 

[i] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Demise-of-sandalwood/articleshow/12078008.cms

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