Oud-heads and oud newbies, check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and all about the different markets that consume it. Also, have a read of Parts I (The Challenges of Oud) and II (Why Oud Smells the Way it Does) of this Oud Primer, while you’re at it.
As previously discussed in Why Oud Smells the Way it Does, species, terroir, inoculation, and distillation technique are all factors important to the final aroma of the oil. But the scarcity of wild oud and the subsequent rise in plantation cultivation means that geographical and species boundaries are not as important as they once were. With the near depletion of the original wild trees that once gave us the best oud oils, distillation styles have stepped in to fill the gap.
For example, if you want to buy a ‘Cambodi’ oud oil these days, it is likely that it will have come from a tree grown in Thailand. Likewise, you can buy a Borneo-style oud oil from resinated wood that has never been within a hundred kilometers of Borneo island itself. A skilled oud artisan can coax Cambodi-style or Kinam-type characteristics from bog standard Malaysian wood. A plantation owner in Indonesia can grow Agallocha species trees that, once upon a time, would have traditionally only been grown in Assam, in Northeastern India.
When we talk about the styles of oud, therefore, we are talking about oud oils that reference trees no longer in existence, such as the original Crassna species of trees that produced the famous Cambodi oils of the seventies, or the wild Agallocha species of trees in Assam, Northern India, once used to produce the Hindi oils so desired by the Arab market. Style provides a neat solution to the problem of high demand versus dwindling or non-existent supply. Wild Agallocha trees are almost extinct in Assam, for instance, and yet the hunger for Hindi oil is as strong as ever. Market economics 101 dictates that if it is Hindi oil the customer wants, it is Hindi oil the customer gets. The depletion of a certain resource, like a species or generation of oud trees, is a constraint. But it is not a complete roadblock.
This is why and how a whole generation of oud distilling has sprung up around the replication of the aroma characteristics displayed by the original tree. We no longer need the original tree when we have what we think is the recipe for what made oil from that tree smell so good. And in fact, the success of some of these efforts in aping the aroma of the original oil, using different wood and different distillation techniques, is nothing short of astonishing.
The boundaries between authentic terroir and adopted styles are somewhat fluid. It can be confusing to work out whether an oud oil is a Hindi oil because it comes from Assam in Northern India or because it has been distilled in the Hindi style. To most buyers, such hand-wringing is pure semantics. They do not care about the minutiae as long as an oil smells authentically ‘oudy’. But for those who love and collect oud oil, these differences matter a great deal.
In an interview with me for Basenotes, Ensar of Ensar Oud explained the difference between terroir and style in a way that makes perfect sense, so I repeat it here: ‘Nobody will tell you, “Hey, I’ve got the latest Aquaria Agallocha, fermented for three months, cooked in stainless steel cauldrons, then oxidized for 30 days.” They’ll just say, “I got the latest Hindi.” The details of terroir and species and distillation setup are already embodied in the style, and style isn’t a new thing. But, definitely, the nitty gritties of the style can change, and that can lead to lots of cheating – or should I say, misrepresentation. Fifty years ago, ‘Cambodi’ meant oud distilled from Crassnas mainly in Kampong Speu, Pailin, Pursat, or Koh Kong. Today, that same profile (fruity, sweet) is made in Thailand in a different way. No problem with that. To the regular Joe shopping in Dubai, ‘Cambodi’ just vaguely means a scent profile. All the salesmen will insist the oil is from Cambodia, even if it is not, but it doesn’t matter because Joe doesn’t really care.
Yet, to a diehard oudhead, it means the world. Genuine Cambodian oud smells very different to Thai oud. But only to the connoisseur. Folks new to the artisanal oud scene are on a learning curve where details aren’t clear cut but do matter. You train your nose to identify certain notes and develop your personal taste along the way. Knowing the details helps you navigate the ocean of choices out there – tells you which oud you might like and which ones to avoid. At this level, style and terroir both matter.”[i]
Style versus terroir has much to do with the availability of the original tree, therefore. In some countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, oud-producing trees are still plentiful, at least in plantation form, and therefore may still be thought of in terms of geographical provenance. For example, because there are plenty of Thai agarwood trees, we can think of them simply as Thai oils, rather than Thai-style oud oils. However, when we talk about trees that no longer exist, like the original Crassnas that produced the famous 1970s Cambodi oils, it is more accurate to talk about Cambodi-style oils.
With all that said, here are the main styles and types of oud oil.
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Hindi oud is alternatively known as Indian, Bengali, Bangladeshi, and Assamese oud. Originally, Hindi oud referred to a specific terroir. Hindi oil was exclusively distilled from Agallocha-species trees that grow in Assam in Northeastern India, a mountainous area known for its lush tea plantations. But because the Agallocha is now grown in regions other than Assam, and because you can use different woods and force-aging to produce a Hindi-style oil, it is probably more accurate these days to view Indian oud as more a style of oud than strictly a product of its terroir.
Since Hindi oud was so highly valued by the elite, i.e., the royal families of the Middle East and the Emirate, the taste for this style became pervasive in Arab culture as a whole. The characteristics of Hindi-style oud oil are as follows:
- Animalic, with strong barnyard aromas to start with
- Undertones of hay, dung, tea, straw, woods, and spices
- Smoke and leather are key flavor characteristics
- Can smell heavily fermented
- Stark, austere, and uncompromising
- Regal and spiritually uplifting
- A brown or black color
Hindi is a style of oud that is challenging for most Westerners unused to oud oil, and to newcomers to the world of oud. But although the aroma of Hindi oud is often stark and uncompromising, many also find it to be spiritually uplifting and regal in stature. Today, the Indian style of oud oil is largely created through a combination of a specific species (Agallocha) and a traditional Indian method that requires a longer than normal soak of the oud wood in water prior to distillation, thus producing that characteristically sour, fermented ‘flavor’ that many consider an essential part of a good Hindi. Smokiness is also a prized characteristic of Hindi oils, and this aspect is brought forward deliberately through both the longer-than-average soak and steam distillation at faster, higher temperatures.
Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash
Cambodi oud oils originally came from wild Aquilaria Crassna trees in the jungles of Cambodia and became enormously popular as an alternative to Hindi oils in the 1970s. The scent profile of these Cambodi oils thrilled with its juicy, fruity, honeyed aroma and user-friendly demeanor. Cambodi oils were easier to love than the stern Hindis – big, friendly Labradors to the Hindi’s imposing Rhodesian Ridgeback.
But the original trees that produced these wonderful Cambodi oils were quickly over-harvested and made extinct, whole swathes of forest wiped out over the course of just three decades. Now, it is estimated that less than five percent of the stock of this original Cambodi oud oil remains on the market.
What is sold these days as Cambodi oud oil comes either from new trees (A. Crassna) planted in Cambodia after the wild ones were wiped out, or are a mixture of Thai, Borneo and other regional oils, lightly oxidized to approximate the odor profile of the original Cambodi oil. The Aquilaria trees planted in Cambodia after the depletion of the original trees produce wonderful oud oil. But it does not smell the same as the original Cambodi oil.
One may speculate as to the reasons why the original Cambodi oil was so wonderful, but logic suggests it may be due to a combination of factors. One factor is the old age of the original trees, which were between fifty and eighty years old when the first serious harvesting began and thus had ample time to develop massive deposits of thick, crystallized oleoresin.
Another likely factor is the lack of exploitation and a much cleaner microclimate during the seventies, due to the period of low industrial activity while the Khmer Rouge regime was in place. No matter how good the current trees growing in Cambodia are, it is impossible to replicate the exact microclimatic conditions that helped the original trees to develop their special ‘flavor’. (And, of course, in the case of the forced agrarian rule of the Khmer Rouge, one certainly wouldn’t want to).
However, the Cambodi-style of oud oil became so popular that distillers and producers continue to make oud oils that mimic the original characteristics of the original Cambodi oil from the seventies. The main aroma characteristics of Cambodi-style oud oil are as follows:
- Sweet, jammy red fruits and berries, figs, plums
- Hints of honey and caramel
- Soft, chocolate-like woods
- No barnyard, rotting, sour or fecal nuances
- A reddish color
- A stale, plasticky dustiness may appear in Cambodi oils that are hastily aged or distilled
Cambodi-style oud oils are suited more to casual use than ceremonial use, and lack the soaring, stark leather profile of the more austere Hindi ouds.
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
Borneo oud oils come from a group of different species of Aquilaria trees (A. beccariana, A. apiculate, A. cumingiana, A. filaria, A. hirta, A.malaccensis, and A. microcarpa) all growing on the island of Borneo, which has a steamy rainforest climate. In the case of Borneo oud oil, terroir and style seem to be far more important than the species, because the oils produced from wood on the island all display the same general aroma profile regardless of the species used in the distillation. Borneo oils and wood are highly regarded in the oud world for their uniquely fresh, light character.
People usually refer to Borneos as Borneo-style oils not because Borneo oud is extinct (it is not) but in recognition of the fact that it is the scent profile of the Borneo terroir that is important, rather than the species. Specifically, with skillful distillation techniques, it is possible to imbue a non-Borneo distillate with some of the characteristics of a Borneo. Thus, the argument for calling them Borneo-style oils rather than purely Borneo oud oils.
The island of Borneo is owned by three countries: Indonesia, which owns seventy-three percent of the island, Malaysia, which owns twenty-six, and the Sultanate of Brunei, which owns one percent. Oud from trees on the actual island of Borneo tends to be different (and superior) to oud from trees on the mainland of Malaysia or Indonesia, regardless of whether the tree comes from an Indonesian-owned or Malaysian-owned part of the island. The characteristics of Borneo-style oud oil are:
- Airy, light, and head-spinningly vaporous
- Rich in terpenoids, which in isolation smell like pine needles, camphor, paint thinner, solvents, glue, and sometimes mint
- Contains creamy nuances, such as vanilla
- Generally sweet but can display slightly bitter undertones
- Can display surprising hints of white flowers, raw honey, and herbs
- Often described as transcendent, meditative, and sparkling
- More female-friendly and newbie-friendly than other styles of oud oils
Papuan Oud Oil
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Papuan ouds are another lush island oud terroir. Papuan ouds are similar in profile to Borneo ouds but feature the following characteristics that set them apart:
- Green, with leafy aspects
- Often has an ethereal minty or herbal freshness
- Light, woody, sparkling
- Often has tannic nuances in common with green tea and unripe mangoes
- Can display a surprising array of floral nuances, such as violet and jasmine
- Features cool, moist rainforest-like tones
Vietnamese-Style Oud Oil
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Vietnamese-style oils are rich, savory, and tart. Vietnam is home to kyara, the very rare, densely-resinated oud wood considered to be the crème de la crème of the oud world. Vietnam is also the source of the best soil agarwood, namely, shards of densely resinated agarwood from felled trees that are either half- or fully-buried by earth and leaves, and thus ‘weathered’ by the soil and other elements. Soil agarwood from Vietnam is sorted according to color (red, yellow, or black) and sold to incense companies and private collectors for sanding down into incense dust.
Vietnamese oud oil is available these days primarily as Vietnamese-style oud oil rather than the actual oil from Vietnam itself. That’s because it is next to impossible to source good Vietnamese oud wood for distillation into oil, every piece of wood brought out of the jungles having already been bought by the big Japanese incense companies and private collectors. If you want to smell Vietnamese oud in the ‘flesh’, so to speak, buy Baieido or Shoyeido incense, which uses this precious agarwood in powdered form. The wood itself is otherwise largely unavailable to distillers.
Distillers do, however, produce Vietnamese-style oud oils that mimic the characteristics of the original Vietnamese oud, based on memories of how the oil smelled from the time when it was still available to distillers. The characteristics of Vietnamese-style oud are:
- Rich but almost mouth-puckeringly tart
- Peppery underbite
- Savory rather than sweet on the ‘flavor’ spectrum
- Pairs well with the cloves, camphor, and spikenard traditionally used in Japanese incense
- Home to kyara, the highest sorting grade of oud wood
Thai Oud Oil
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Thai oils are A. Crassna oils with a similar profile to Cambodi-style oils but with less of the bright, jammy fruit of Cambodi oils and more of the metallic, funky sourness of oils from Vietnam and India. Thailand has many plantations of Aquilaria trees and therefore plentiful wood. Accordingly, Thai oud oils are simply called Thai ouds rather than Thai-style ouds.
Chinese Oud Oils
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Chinese oud oils (Hainan, Sinensis) are extremely rare because the trees that produced agarwood are now close to extinction in China, if not already extinct. Some distillations exist but tend to be from small collections of vintage wood, and with just one kilo of vintage Chinese stock costing between one and eight thousand dollars[ii], few artisans can afford to do it.
The original oils are animalic to the point of being feral, but for some they are the pinnacle of the oud experience. There is some argument for calling them Chinese-style oud oils since the original oil barely exists anymore. The Chinese style lives on through special distillation techniques used by oud artisans to imbue the oil with animalic, noble ‘Chinese’ aroma characteristics, or through special one-off distillations of Chinese wood acquired through local contacts. The characteristics of Chinese oud oil are as follows:
- Citrusy topnotes: orange peel, lemon
- Ferociously animalic heartnotes
- Contains nuances corresponding to natural animalics, such as deer musk, ambergris, castoreum, and civet
- Can be very musky and woolly in texture
- Deep, expressive character
- Can have notes of honey, dark woods, aged woods, musk, fur
Laotian Oud Oils
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Oud oil from high-quality, wild Laotian wood is difficult, if not impossible, to source, so most Laotian oils on the market are actually distilled from plantation wood. The oil that is produced by Laotian plantations is plentiful and consistent in quality. Therefore, much of the output is sold directly to the large flavor and aroma factories in France and Switzerland, where it is used in upscale niche perfumery. The characteristics of Laotian oud oil are as follows:
- Pungently animalic to start with, with some funky off notes
- Traces of heavy metals and industrial smoke
- Tend to smooth out after its animalic start into a syrupy, woodsy sweetness that is very pleasing
- Creamy, floral facets, with nuances suggestive of gardenia or goat’s cheese
- Can be a bit loud and overbearing, so skill is required to blend the oil into a composition if using in a commercial perfume
Malaysian Oud Oils
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Malaysian oud comes from the Malaccensis species of Aquilaria, which is one of the main species that grows on Borneo. It is difficult to know what the true characteristics of a Malaysian oil are supposed to be, because, as one producer put it, most modern Malaysian ouds ‘are pungent, and almost smell like a rotting heap of banana peels and apple cores. This is due to the poor quality of the feedstock, over-soaking the wood prior to distillation, and the less-than-ideal distillation methods typically adopted’[iii].
This suggests that oud distillation and harvesting may be poorly managed in Malaysia, resulting in a shortage of good quality or even interesting Malaysian oud oils on the market. However, when you find a Malaysian oil that is good, then it is really, really good. There are one or two Malay oils reviewed in this book that proved to be my favorite oud oils of all. A good Malaysian oil appears to be characterized by the following features:
- A complex dual structure of smoke and earth on top, fruit and leather underneath
- Damp jungly or forest-like notes
- Sweet and smoky
- Nuances of damp earth, truffles, and wet wood
- Some tropical fruit notes
- A clean aroma profile, meaning few animalic or sour, funky, fermented notes
Indonesian Oud Oils
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Indonesia is a vast territory, both geographically and stylistically-speaking. Maroke oud oils typically come from Indonesia and possess what might be defined as an Indonesian character: dark, jungly, moist, and a bit wild. Many oud legends such as Oud Sultani by Ensar Oud also hail from Indonesia. But with such a broad and diverse profile, it is difficult to make any generalizations about the character of Indonesian oud oils as a group. Only the following can be stated with much confidence:
- The variety of Indonesian oud is huge, as is generally the quality
- The very best examples display an aroma that’s close to the smell of oud being burned as incense: green, damp, pure, and smoky
- Maroke oud oils come from this region: some pure, some tempered with nasty chemicals
- Maroke oils when pure are truffled, earthy, wild, and jungly
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If you are buying a commercial oud-based perfume or a mukhallat or attar at the lower end of the price scale, then what you are getting is not real oud, but oud synthetics. While oud synthetics are made in a lab and not inside a tree, and therefore cannot be either a style or a terroir, they have been specifically created to mimic different characteristics of the styles observable in the natural material. Therefore, it is useful to have an idea of the different types of oud synthetics currently in use and where you might encounter them.
As with any raw material that is both prized and in short supply, synthetic variants have been developed to replace it. The largest companies responsible for producing synthetics, flavors, and bases for the perfume industry, such as Firmenich and Givaudan, have each developed several high-quality oud oil ‘replacers’ that are used in commercial perfumes to approximate key aspects of the aroma profile of oud oil or oud wood. There are many of these oud synthetics on the market, but here are a few of the most noteworthy or most commonly-used ones.
Firmenich produces a molecule named Synthetic 0760E, which features in many of the commercial perfumes where an oud oil note is sought. It reproduces the astringent, medicinal (some would say ‘band-aidy’) twang that has come to represent what oud smells like to a whole generation of fragrance wearers. The smell this aromachemical produces is dry, medicinal, and somewhat piecing or sharp. It will be recognizable to anybody who has ever worn a commercial oud-based perfume, with choices ranging from Versace Oud, Rose d’Arabie (Armani Prive), and Black Aoud (Montale) to Rose Oud (By Kilian) and Rose Gold Oudh (Tiziana Terenzi).
Firmenich also produces Oud Fireco and Agarwood Fireco[iv], two new generation oud replacers that represent a big step up from Synthetic 0760E. These very expensive molecules produce a very silky, creamy, and funky aroma that come close to the goat curd creaminess of Laotian plantation oud, and can be used to give an authentically cheesey, barnyard odor to perfume blends.
Givaudan produces a synthetic oud molecule called Black Agar, which is used in perfumes where the goal is to recreate the smoky, warm smell of incense-grade agarwood chips being burned on a mabkhara. This molecule is used in perfumes based on the smell of oud wood being gently heated rather than oud oil. It features in fragrances such as Leather Oud (Dior), Oud Ispahan (Dior), Songe d’Un Bois en Eté (Guerlain), and Oud Palao (Diptyque). It can also smell like dry, smoky patchouli under some conditions.
Naturally, although some of these synthetic oud accords and perfumes smell great, none of them can come close to the sheer complexity of oud oil with all its facets ranging from fruit, wood, rot, decay, chocolate, rubber, and leather, to surprisingly floral notes such as rose, tuberose, or gardenia.
Oud is incredibly complex, consisting of over five hundred aroma compounds, so it would be difficult for a single synthetic molecule to replicate its complexity. Synthetic oud fragrances showcase one or two facets inherent to real oud, such as a medicinal note or a smoky sourness. But no oud synthetic can adequately represent its full range of flavors and hues.
Buying oud: a bit of common sense
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Finally, let us talk about the purchasing of oud-based perfumes, mukhallats, or pure oud oil.
Many people find the buying of oud anything stressful, partially because of the extra outlay involved and partially because of fears over authenticity. The more money one spends, the higher the expectation of purity. Nobody likes to feel that they are being duped. But a bit of common sense will help steer you in this matter.
For example, if you have bought a cheap dupe of Tom Ford’s Oud Wood on eBay, then it will not contain any real oud oil. Then again, neither does Tom Ford Oud Wood itself. Be aware of the segment of the market you are buying in and keep your expectations at that level. Skipping from dupes to attars, the same principle of common sense should apply. If your mukhallat or attar is advertized as containing real oud, but costs under fifteen dollars for a tola, then it does not contain any real oud. Real oud oil is simply too costly to put into mukhallats in any noticeable quantity and still come in under a certain dollar amount per tola.
But if you are looking at an oud-based attar or mukhallat that costs at least a hundred dollars a tola and is advertized as containing real oud oil, then it is likely to contain some quantity of the genuine article. As the prices for oudy mukhallats and oudy attars rise, so too does the quantity and quality of oud oil likely to be used in the blend. Mukhallats containing real oud can range between a hundred and over three thousand American dollars.
The big Emirati and Indian perfume companies all work with real oud oil, meaning that they either own oud plantations themselves or have contracts with distillers on the oud plantations and suppliers in the big Emirati markets. Those established supply channels are not a guarantee of either purity or authenticity, however. If it is one hundred percent pure oud oil you want, buy from the small-batch artisans. There is no other way to guarantee you are getting a pure oud oil, or an attar containing pure oud oil.
Big brands such as Ajmal, ASAQ, and Arabian Oud sell huge volumes of oils worldwide and have branches in major cities. The oud oils they are selling as Cambodi or Hindi are rarely (if ever) one hundred percent pure oils from a single distillation, but instead, blended with other farmed or wild oud oils, smoothed out with fillers, other essential oils, and sometimes even synthetics. Which is fine, of course. Just be aware.
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 Galen Crout on Unsplash