Browsing Category

Mukhallats

Attars & CPOs Collection Dominique Ropion Frankincense Mukhallats Oudy Concentrated Perfume Oils Oudy mukhallats Review Saffron The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume Thoughts Vanilla

The New Generation Amouage Attars: Thoughts and Reviews

13th September 2022

 

 

Thoughts

 

Reception of the New Generation Amouage Attars has been mixed, the reasons for which are not exactly rocket science.  First, in order to explicitly associate these new perfumes with the OG attars that had garnered such praise for the brand prior to their discontinuation in 2015, Amouage called these perfumes ‘attars’.

 

Reader, the New Generation Amouage Attars are not attars.  But then, neither were the Old Generation Amouage Attars.  The word ‘attar’ refers to a specific (and specifically Indian) manner of production, i.e., the steam distillation of a fragrant material, like rose or vetiver roots, over a base of pure sandalwood oil.  These are not that.

 

Rather, these perfumes are ‘luxe’ concentrated perfume oils along the lines of Alexandria II (Xerjoff), Absolute Amber (Clive Christian), Cardamusc (Hermès), Parfum Fin (Nabucco), Patchouli (Jalaine), or any one of those Henry Jacques oils sold in Harrods.  Of course, there is prestige attached to the notion of an attar, so some of these are (erroneously) referred to as ‘attars’ in the marketing materials. 

 

Not to get too technical about it, but it is worth knowing that niche CPOs are not distilled (as in traditional Indian attars) or mixed (as in mukhallats) but instead made to a precise formula in a laboratory in one of Europe’s big oil factories, like Givaudan, IFF, or Symrise, by a perfumer working to a brief.   Just like any other perfume, in other words, only instead of being mixed with perfumer’s alcohol and sent off in pallets of 500 units to Sephora or Douglas, these particular formulas remain in oil format, are poured into dinky little bottles, and get sold at terrifyingly high prices as ‘attars’.

 

The OG Amouage ‘attars’, while not attars at all from a construction perspective, were still definitely authentic mukhallats rather than luxe CPOs.  They employed a distinctly Middle Eastern approach to perfumery in both manner of construction and artistic intent.  In terms of construction, the OG oils followed a Middle Eastern tradition of mixing (‘mukhallat’ meaning ‘mix’) already distilled attars with oud oil, musks, and resin oils.  In terms of artistic intent, the OG oils existed to draw the world’s attention to the glories of an Eastern tradition of perfume making and a wholly Eastern set of raw materials, from the silvery Omani frankincense and peppery Ta’ifi roses to lusty Sambac jasmine, Hindi oud, and Egyptian orange blossom.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Amouage branded the OG oils as ‘attars’ and hard to blame them for doing it.  By the time of the original launch, the word ‘attar’ had already come to exemplify – for Westerners – the exoticism, whether real or imagined, of the East.  Amouage is an Omani brand with a proud tradition of mukhallat perfumery rather than a Kannauj distiller.  But Amouage, being a corporation, has a right to segment its market according to what is deemed to be profitable.  So ‘attar’ it was.

 

Sadly, the OG Amouage ‘attars’ were discontinued and are now largely unobtanium outside of the UAE or the secondary market.  But now we come to 2021 and Amouage, seeing the rising popularity of oil-based perfumery, wants to claw back its rightful share of the ‘attar’ market.  This time around, they want to position themselves in the high-end consumer bracket, which has been steadily growing.  To cut a long story short, that means niche perfume oils that correspond to the luxury consumer’s idea of a perfume rather than maintaining authenticity or fidelity to the Eastern manner of perfume making.

 

The brand must have been aware that while the OG ‘attars’, in being mukhallats, were one step removed from actual distilled attars, these new oils were now two steps removed – not attars, not even mukhallats, but concentrated perfume oils.   In other words, no different than Alexandria II by Xerjoff or even the oil version of Santal 33 by Le Labo.  But the wheels had been set in motion for this particular fiction decades ago, so Amouage deciding to go all in and call these 2021 attars too was probably the only logical move.  And naturally, the brand would want to cash in some of that OG fairy dust for the 2021 release.  Thus, the word ‘attar’ front and center, expectations were raised.

 

Which begs the question – what did Amouage think would happen when these expectations were not met?  

 

My guess is that the brand simply hoped that their positioning of the 2021 oil releases at the luxury consumer market would circumvent the small but vocal group of true perfume (and attar) aficionados that had bought the OG stuff.

 

You see, the people who will be interested in buying these newer Amouage ‘attars’ are not the same as those who were buying the OG ‘attars’.  The folks who bought the OG Amouage Attars were investing in the authenticity of a Middle Eastern or Indian raw material, like oud or sandalwood, whereas the folks who will buy the New Generation Amouage Attars are mostly looking for the prestige of dabbing on an oil out of a tiny, exquisite bottle.  The first is a desire for art, the second a desire for luxury.  

 

Amouage likely looked at the market and decided that they could generate more revenue from the people who view a bottle of the newest attar from Amouage in the same way they view all other luxury consumables like, say, an Hermès handbag or a Lisa Eldridge lipstick or the latest iPhone – opulent, high-spec things that give the pleasure of an object well made, none of which will scare the horses – than from the much smaller group of fragrance enthusiasts who stay up until 4 am, sweatily gripping their computer mouse, to secure 3 mls of the latest sandalwood oil from Areej Le Doré or the newest Hindi drop from Ensar.

 

It goes without saying that one group is not morally inferior (or superior) to the other.  Their buying parameters are just different.  Some folks long for the authenticity and artistic derring-do of some of the original Amouage attars, while others will much prefer these smoother, more Westernized pleasantries. And from a marketing perspective, it is perfectly legitimate for Amouage to decide to switch lanes for the 2021 release.  

 

Where Amouage might have messed up was in not communicating the differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ as clearly as they might have to the group of people still intensely loyal to the artistry of the brand’s original oil output.  Sure, from a business perspective, no corporation has to go the extra mile to explicitly explain a change in direction, manufacture, or artistic intent such as this.  However, some of the most pointed criticism about these oils may have been averted and some goodwill created amongst the very community that helped raise and maintain Amouage’s reputation for excellence.  Instead, the brand done took a match to a couple of bridges.  

 

Surely, for example, the brand could have explained their rationale for using Western perfumers to compose these ‘attars’.  In an age where awareness about cultural misappropriation and decolonization has scaled new heights, the brand might have anticipated that its clumsy pairing of the word ‘attar’ – traditionally an Indian art – with ‘master’ European perfumers such as Dominique Ropion would create some uncomfortable associations or even take some of the shine off the brand. 

 

Amouage has always kept schtum about who composed the original ‘attars’.  It is likely that they used Middle Eastern perfumers with experience in mukhallat perfumery but didn’t name them (the company did name, however, the Western perfumers like Guy Roberts and Bertrand Duchaufour who worked on their spray-based fragrances).  For this new release of ‘attars’, Amouage’s strategy was to hire Western perfumers experienced in composing formulas for niche and designer perfumes, like Cécile Zarokian, Julien Rasquinet, and Dominique Ropion.  Now, to me, this makes perfect sense.  If you are creating a line of luxe perfume oils that are basically supposed to be a haute luxe or niche fragrance, just in oil format, then it makes sense to hire perfumers who are used to producing this sort of formula for other high end niche companies.

 

However, the brand didn’t explain that these new attars weren’t really attars at all (probably because this particular bit of fiction is now decades deep and it’s too late to walk it back), and therefore left itself wide open to accusations that it was aiding and abetting Western perfumers to misappropriate a traditionally Indian art of perfumery.

 

Now that you (yes, you Dear Reader!) understand that these oils are not attars but simply posh niche perfumes in oil format, I bet you don’t care if the formula was composed by a perfumer in Grasse or by one in Delhi or Dubai, do you?  Right.  It ceases to be an issue.  But the brand didn’t or couldn’t communicate this, thereby running straight into the fire that any 19-year-old social media manager worth their salt would have been able to predict was coming their way.  

 

More accurate than the cultural misappropriation (which is itself based on a misguided belief in the fragrance community is that only Indian or Middle Eastern perfumers can or should be involved in the creation of attar, oud, and mukhallat perfumery*) is the accusation that, in naming the 2021 oils ‘attars’, Amouage was cynically cashing in its previous reputation for authenticity and ‘realness’.  There is no real comeback to this.  The 2021 oils are, at best, a good ole cash grab, and at worst, a thumb in the face of loyal perfume fans who believed that Amouage anything was special, not to mention one of their vaunted attars.  While the general specialness of Amouage is less true today than it was ten, fifteen years ago, the 2021 ‘attar’ release still feels like a line in the sand between the brand’s proud artistic past and its now far more glossily commercial future. 

 

Whether or not this is a successful strategy from a business perspective is something only the Amouage CPA can tell us.   

 

 

Reviews

 

Now onto the actual reviews.  Spoiler alert: I enjoyed each and every single one of these new CPOs from Amouage, and as long as you go into it expecting luxe perfume oils rather than genuine distilled attars from India or authentic mukhallats from the Middle East, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t either.  Are they groundbreaking or original?  No.  But they are all extremely pleasant, smooth, and yes, luxurious-smelling perfumes.

 

Of the six that I have smelled, two oils didn’t smell at all Middle Eastern, pursuing instead traditionally Western (read: French) perfumery themes such as vanilla and orris.  Two of the ‘attars’ smelled straight up like an oil version of existing Amouage spray perfumes.  But they are all extremely nice and well executed, and thankfully (mostly) subtle in their use of modern woody ambers like Norlimbanol or Amber Extreme.

 

Are they $540 good?  Again, nope.  That’s my annual car insurance.  To be fair, I’m not the target market, and unless you’re the rare Birkin bag buyer whose SEO somehow re-routed you to this blog, then it’s safe to assume that neither are you.  The only reason I have to review these is that (a) I am currently publishing a Guide to Attars (which covers attars, mukhallats, essential oils like oud, and concentrated perfume oils) so this release kind of is my business, and (b) a very dear friend sent me her sample set free of charge.  So, there you go.

 

 

Photo by Veronika Nakhtman on Unsplash

 

Orris Wakan, composed by Julien Rasquinet, focuses on the famously cool, rooty aroma of orris butter to the exclusion of all else.  In fact, it smells suspiciously close to an ionone-rich orris butter dilution I have in my collection, which is to say a heady blend of the following: parsnip roots pulled from the soil on a freezing December morning, spermicidal jelly, a silver spoon, soap, and freshly-poured concrete or latex paint.  Why all of this should add up to a scent that Chandler Burr once described as ‘liquid good taste’ is a mystery, but God knows it does.

 

Orris Wakan is unusual for an ‘attar’ or oil-based perfume in that it manages to capture the very nuances of orris butter that normally get ‘squashed’ by other, heavier materials in oil format.  This is all rhizome, no flower.  In fact, in keeping the structure simple, Rasquinet has managed to produce something that briefly reproduces the opening of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens). 

 

This is quite the achievement until you remember that orris butter itself is so lovely and complex a material that all the perfumer really had to do here was set it in place and leave well enough alone.  To Rasquinet’s credit, he didn’t overstuff the composition with any shouty materials that might detract from the orris.  It just fizzles out quietly into an ether of soft, frothy musks.  Like your first roll in the hay, Orris Wakan is poignantly beautiful for all of the thirty minutes it lasts.

 

It is worth noting that Orris Wakan is one of the two 2021 perfume oils that are completely Western (read: French) in both theme and construction.  I imagine this being a big seller for the luxury leather goods crowd, because the scent of orris has a natural affinity with creamy leather, suede, and hawthorn accords.              

 

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

 

Rose Aqor, composed by Cécile Zarokian, well – let me just stop right there.  Even without looking it up, it is clear that this is a Cécile Zarokian creation.  I love her work, but this central accord of soda fizz rose, sparkling ‘white’ incense, piquant black or pink pepper, doughy benzoin, cinnamon, and radiant golden ambers is as identifiable a fingerprint as anything done by Bertrand Duchaufour.  Rose Aqor is very lovely, as it should be, as it is a near note-for-note recreation of Zarokian’s 2009 Epic Woman (Amouage) in oil format.  Epic Woman is my most worn Amouage perfume, so I know her.

 

Like Epic Woman, Rose Aqor tucks a sweet-n-sour, heavily peppered rose inside a powdery incense-amber accord that is part pickles, part sherbet.  As roses go, Rose Aqor is a complete meal in and of itself, from the lip-smacking savor of kimchi to the meaty, peppery rose and a thimbleful of thin crème anglaise to sweeten the tongue at the very end.  It diverges slightly from the Epic Woman template in some parts, most notably with a touch of the slightly doughy bubblegum-benzoin accord and zesty cardamom ‘fuzz’ borrowed from Fêtes Persanes (Parfums MDCI), another perfume by – you guessed it –  Cécile Zarokian.

 

I am predisposed to enjoy Rose Aqor because I also enjoy Epic Woman and Fêtes Persanes.  But unless you have a very small collection and you’re specifically in the market for this type of rose (spicy, ambery, incensey), then it is likely you already own something very like this.  For me personally, Rose Aqor is redundant.  But remember, neither you nor I am the target market for Rose Aqor.

 

It is in Rose Aqor, by the way, that the key differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ emerge most clearly.  Smell Rose Aqor and immediately the closest equivalents that jump to mind are themselves niche perfumes that pursue a vaguely ‘exotic’, Middle Eastern theme albeit via the heavily filtered lens of a Western luxury buyer.  Contrast this with OG Amouage rose-centric ‘attars’ like Ayoon Al Maha (rose and sandalwood) or the infamous Homage (Taifi rose, frankincense) and, straight away, you can tell the difference.  Rose Aqor smells like a niche perfume in oil format; Homage smells like the fiercest distilled attars of Taifi rose and frankincense oil mixed together.  The first is a complete perfume composition, clearly made under temperature-controlled conditions in a lab, while the second smells like something violently wrested from this good earth.   And that right there is largely the difference between a concentrated perfume oil and an attar (or mukhallat).    

 

 

Photo by allison christine on Unsplash

 

Vanilla Barka, composed by Dominique Ropion, is guilty of what Luca Turin named the ‘one-liner tendency’ in today’s niche perfume market, which is the fashion for composing a perfume around one of two headlining materials and allowing that be the whole artistic point of the fragrance.  Imagine a scale of compositional complexity with L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) at one end and Vanille Benjoin (Affinescence) at the other, where the closer you move towards Vanille Benjoin, the more ideas your perfume sheds.  Vanilla Barka is positioned right at the Affinescence point on that scale. 

 

After one thrilling note of frankincense, in all its silvery-lemony severity, this devolves very quickly into the plain white sugar + vanilla-tonka bean sludge you see everywhere from Tihota (Indult) to Vaniglia (Mazzolari) and even, to be honest, Vanille (Molinard).  It is slightly plasticky, albeit in a nice way, like Vanyl (Bruno Acampora).  You can even get reasonable versions of this accord from indie oil perfume houses, like Solstice Scents, and have it work out at $18 for a 5ml bottle.  Vanilla Barka costs $540, for scale.  

 

Vanilla Barka is far from unpleasant, just to be clear.  There is a not insignificant amount of hygge to be mined in its deeply doughy, almost almondy dollhead embrace.  But let’s be honest.  Wearing Vanilla Barka is the scent equivalent of eating white frosting or raw cookie dough straight from the packet, while mindlessly binging Netflix in your slouchiest sweatpants.  Yeah, it’s insanely comforting.  But you also kind of know it’s not good for your teeth or your IQ.  Not to mention that, for $540, you can pick up two whole bottles of Tihota.  Of course, Amouage is counting on Dubai mall foot traffic not to know about Tihota.  So, there’s that.

 

 

Photo by volant on Unsplash

 

Incense Rori, composed by Julien Rasquinet, is the standout of the 2021 line for me.  No wonder, because it takes as its starting point the wonderful Omani silver frankincense that Amouage made so famous throughout the world.  The opening note is marvelously fizzy, dark, and sooty – picture the smoked out remains of an open fire in a traditional stone church.  It smells like handfuls of charcoal dust dumped into Schweppe’s Bitter Tonic, with this clean edge that frank fans will find utterly addictive.  Cedar and I think a good deal of unlisted amber join forces to lend the soaring frankincense some basso fondo, creating a rich, resiny background that swings between ashy (pipe tobacco) and sweetly whiskey-ish (amber, immortelle).

 

This darting contrast between achingly dry smoke and ‘wet’ booze is incredible, reminding me variously of a mash-up between the original Vetiver (Annick Goutal), Jeke (Slumberhouse), Tobacco Oud (Tom Ford), and Black (Comme des Garcons).  The drydown lays out a rich, salty oakmoss for our consideration, which is the precise point at which Incense Rori does a fabulous impression of the latter stages of L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), where all that funky oakmoss dries out on a bed of halitosis.  Incense Rori isn’t at all animalic, but it shares something of the scalpy moss funk of the Miller Harris – likely that same metallic, musky, slightly cheap suit shininess of Evernyl Prunastri.  Add a rubbery, saline myrrh (deflated latex condom and all) in the far reaches, and you have the complete incense madness that is Incense Rori.

 

Incense Rori is the perfume that I imagine most appealing to the Old Guard of the perfume community, i.e., the ones who bought the OG Amouage attars.  It smells pure and smoky enough to grab the attention of the most ascetic of luxury buyers’ tastes, yet complex and different enough to capture the interest of even the most jaded of incense (or indeed oakmoss) freaks in our tiny corner of Fragcomm.  Also, is Incense Rori possibly the 2021 Amouage apology for dropping Tribute?  A very small, scaled down tribute to Tribute, mind, but better some Tribute than no Tribute at all.     

 

 

Photo by marlik saffron on Unsplash

 

Saffron Hamra, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is the most traditionally ‘attar’-like of this collection, due to its clever use of a spice – saffron – that, as part of the age-old triumvirate of rose-sandalwood-saffron, will not fail to evoke a Pavlovian response.  I smell saffron, I smell attar.  Even if you think you don’t know attars, you have certainly smelled some variation of that rosy-saffron attar scent in your local Asian supermarket, round the back where the incense sticks and chunks of bakhoor and gaudy perfume oils are stocked.

 

On its own, saffron is piercingly medicinal, like gauze bandages soaked in iodine or the rawest piece of cowhide you ever saw, a quality that aligns the material surprisingly enough with natural oud oil.  Indeed, on the lower end of the scale, you will find that all the big attar or mukhallat houses – Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and so on – pad out their ‘oudy’ compositions with saffron in order to create that subliminal link in our smelling receptors to natural oud, even when none is present (the same may be said for cypriol, which is smokier and far less medicinal than saffron).

 

In Saffron Hamra, Zarokian allows the medicinal properties of saffron to play out in full, but wraps a soft, sweet rose around it to cushion us from its sharper edges.  The result is a sort of vanilla custard tinged with iodine and dirty bandages.  I assure you that this is delicious and unsettling in equal measure, which is what makes it such a successful and balanced accord.  Imagine Safran Troublant by Olivia Giacobetti for L’Artisan Parfumeur but removed from the utter comfort of the Parisian salon to the harsh planes and arid environment of the Rub’ Al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia.

 

At this stage, Saffron Hamra strikes me as being authentically attar-like, and even worthy of being included in the original Amouage attar line-up. (It reminds me somewhat of a smoother Al Siraj by Arabian Oud, one of my favorite saffron-forward mukhallats).

 

However, it is worth noting that the far drydown of Saffron Hamra introduces an unpleasantly metallic note that gives me a headache.  Cade oil, listed in the notes, might be responsible for this element, as it is a dirty green, smoky material that can be quite pungent.  To my nose, though, it reads like a trace of some woody aromachemical.  A disappointing end to a perfume that started out smelling absolutely wondrous, therefore, although it also reminds me that sometimes, just sometimes, the normally thoughtful Zarokian can go ham on the woody aromachemicals (Sheiduna for Puredistance being an example).   

 

 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

 

Oud Ulya, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is very similar to Zarokian’s own Silver Oud for Amouage, only not as earthy (there is little to no patchouli felt here).  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, as with the Rose Aqor/Epic Woman parallel, this is Cécile Zarokian translating the formula of another of her Amouage spray perfumes to oil format.

 

Similar to its parent, Oud Ulya wraps a pungent oud oil (which smells authentically feral, aided no doubt by a lascivious touch of civet) in a syrupy amber-vanilla glove designed to make the medicine go down.  The opening resembles Trat oud oil, which is to say, soiled hay plunged into a hot, bubbly strawberry jam.  Now imagine this pungent oud-date jam spread across a huge chunk of pain d’epices and left to smolder and char at the edges on a censer, the air filling with the intense scent of burnt sugar.  The point here is that the ferocity of the animalic oud is equal to the ferocity of the syrupy sweetness of the vanillamber.  Add in the haunting smoke of birch tar and you are halfway to the delicious second half of Patchouli 24 (Le Labo).  

 

It might be the equivalent of showing up to church in full drag if the whole thing wasn’t so ergonomically velvety.  You see, Zarokian has managed to wrap all of this up in the most buttery of buttery leather accords, so even while part of your brain flashes on the barnyard, you also keep making that involuntary crooning sound you make whenever you see a picture of those Ritz-Carton lodges in the Maldives or when your hand brushes against the 500-count sheets on display in Harrods.  Oud Ulya is a mish-mash of things for sure – there is a bit of Amber Absolute, Patchouli 24, Prive by Ormonde Jayne, among others – but it is a charming and well-balanced mish-mash, and that counts for a lot.

 

But again, compare Oud Ulya to the towering oudy masterpieces of Badr Al Badour (my favorite OG Amouage ‘attar’), Al Molook, or Al Shomukh, and the differences in style are immediately laid bare.  Though Oud Ulya certainly contains an authentic-smelling oud, it is framed against a backdrop of sweet and smoky notes artfully arranged to evoke a fantasy of the East as expected by a Western gaze.  Like Shalimar.   Oud Ulya is deliberately exotic, because the perfumer has arranged the amber accords, the leather, and the smoke to create just that effect.

 

In Badr Al Badour, on the other hand, the combination of the oud, the rose, the ambergris, and the frankincense smells exotic because the raw materials themselves are exotic and because the perfumer has simply mixed these exotic smells together in the most pleasing way he knows how.  Badr Al Badour cares not if it pleases our Western nose or not; it is wholly agnostic to our comfort.  In contrast, Oud Ulya brings you on a magic carpet ride but keeps checking over its shoulder to make sure we’re still on.

 

 

 *This is largely true for traditional Indian attar perfumery since genuine attar distillation is now mostly limited to Kannauj, India, but we have established that neither the old nor the new Amouage ‘attars’ are actually attars.   Still, many of the most prolific and creative perfumers or distillers working in the field of oil perfumery (oud, sandalwood, and mukhallat perfumery) are themselves Western by birth or upbringing.  Ensar is American, Taha Syed is Canadian, Sultan Pasha is a Londoner, JK DeLapp is from Atlanta, and Russian Adam is…well.   You see where this is going.   A gentle suggestion: as fragrance writers, let us put down the pitchforks and try to see the perfume sector for what it is rather than for what we think it ought to be.   

 

 

Source of sample:  A very dear friend of mine passed on her set of official Amouage samples to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

 

Cover Image: Photo taken by me. Please do not re-print without my permission.

 

Aromatic Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials House Exploration Incense Mukhallats

Oudologie: A Sampling

2nd August 2022

 

Reviews about attars and mukhallats for my Attar Guide aren’t conjured out of thin air.   When I write about a Sultan Pasha or an Abdul Samad Al Qurashi oil, I come armed with years of experience with their individual stylistic patterns and ‘tropes’ (and often also their raw materials).  This familiarity allows me to assess the attar in the context of the brand’s other output or against the backdrop of similarly-themed attars by other brands.  

 

So, when Oudologie, a brand out of Dubai with which I am completely unfamiliar, offered to send me some samples of their mukhallats, I was a bit hesitant.  Not only because the crowded ‘oil perfume’ market makes it tricky to sort the wheat from the chaff (and here was yet another entrant), but because, without the comfort of knowing pretty much everything about the brand and its approach in advance, I would be judging these fragrances entirely out of context.

 

On the other hand, who says that the deep dive on background is always necessary to tell people what a perfume smells like?  Not everyone wants to read a 5,000-word essay, Janet.

 

In general, I give Oudologie an enthusiastic thumbs up.   Unlike many mukhallats boasting high loads of naturals, these are all immediately pleasurable to smell, with nothing spiky or difficult for someone unused to the pungency of absolutes.  They are all quite soft, rounded, and easy-on-the-nose.  Good starter mukhallats, in other words.  Though there was one mukhallat with a clearly synthetic woody-amber in the base, the others all smelled very natural to my nose – without necessarily making the natural the sole point of the exercise.

 

And that last bit is important.  I love smelling high quality naturals as much as the next person.  But if I wanted just that, I could slather myself in absolutes and be done with it.  What I really want is a fully-worked-out perfume that allows me to bury myself in an abstraction of ideas and aromas that are harder to pin down than one absolute alone.  And the oils from Oudologie had a good hit rate in that respect.  None of them are aromatherapy sludge.  If you are interested in sampling any of the oils I am about to review, you can buy directly from their retail site here.   

 

         

 

Photo by Alexandre Trouvé on Unsplash

 

Jamal Al Attar

 

Jamal Al Attar calls upon a cast of rich ‘brown’ notes – oud, tobacco, leather, resins – to produce an aroma close to those treacly but herbaceous liquors they sell at Italian bars for digestion.  A brief but memorable Coca Cola brightness sparks against the boozy darkness, an effect found wherever cinnamon or clove rubs up against tobacco, rose, and something creamy like santal, kulfi or vanilla (think Enigma by Roja Dove, Egoïste by Chanel, and Noir Extreme by Tom Ford).  Interestingly, the opulence is cut somewhat with a mean streak of galbanum, an Iranian resin that smells partially like freshly-cut green peppers and partially like chalk.

 

In some respects, even though they are quite different scents, Jamal Al Attar has some building blocks in common with Aquilaria Blossom by Areej Le Doré.  Most notably, an extenuated heart of oud that smells like soft, well-worn leather, and later (much later), a rich ambery finish that is quite Amber Absolute (ambrein-rich) in character, with a very similar dusty-rubbery myrrh leading the charge.

 

In the spaces between these two points, however, there is a very different message being broadcast.  The leather accord in Jamal At Attar, for example, tips its hat at the rich, brandy-and-cigars-saturated ambience of a private study in a men’s club rather than at the leather saddles grimy with horse sweat.  Whereas Aquilaria Blossom’s more feral oud has been dressed in the airiest of linens – citrus, foamy florals, and so on – Jamal Al Attar starts with a finer-boned oud and takes it in a far more traditionally Eastern direction, i.e., enriching the leather-oud core with a boozy, dried fruit tobacco, caramelized resins, anisic myrrh, and, past the Amber Absolute stage, what smells to me like sandalwood, serving up a tiny bowl of its famous aromatic peanut cream.  

 

I enjoy Jamal Al Attar from beginning to end.  In fact, in the space of a few short weeks, it has jumped into my top 15 mukhallats of all time, a list that I can assure you is tightly edited.  There is nothing to grit my teeth against and I don’t find myself ‘waiting for the good bits’.  It is a rich, handsome leather-oud-tobacco scent all the way through.  And though it is ostensibly more masculine in theme, it doesn’t feel particularly gendered in one direction or another.  It would be an ideal scent for winter, with all those rich ‘brown’ notes like oud, leather, resins, and woods gathered up into one smooth, liquorous whole.  

 

 

 

Patchioud

 

I was expecting a tiger; I got a pussycat.  I have smelled this sort of combination before, and it has more often than not been a disaster – the pungent, medicinal tones of both materials duking it out until one roars in defeat and bends the knee.  However, here, a touch of amber or vanilla softens the impact of the patchouli and oud, ensuring that they billow gently, like liquid silk, into your olfactory space.  

 

The minty-soil nuances of the patchouli are well matched to the Listerine wood notes of the oud, but just when you think things are headed in a predictably grungy direction, the whole affair is lifted by a dab of sunny peach.  What starts out as earthy and medicinal, therefore, soon becomes bright, tangy, and certainly far more perfumey than the name would suggest for a marriage between two such potent raw materials.  

 

The fruit note dovetails neatly with the herbal cherry-almond heft of tonka bean, which thickens and swells to hoist the more delicate notes up onto its shoulder.   Later – much later, when almost all the other party guests have gone home – the shy voice of genuine sandalwood provides an elegantly pale, peanutty finale. 

 

It is only later that I realize that Patchioud is actually a soft, custardy fruitchouli that, despite its fierce name, is both female- and office-friendly.  It reminds me slightly of Ajmal’s wonderful Royal Patchouli, which also belies its name by being more of a gentle floral-woody vanilla than a patchouli scent.  But Patchioud has the advantage of that generous dollop of real sandalwood bringing up the rear.  Out of the samples I received, this is the most complex and traditionally perfumey.   

 

 

 

Photo: Provided most kindly by Pranjal Kapoor. The photo depicts his company’s mitti distillation process in Kannuaj, India.

 

Santal Mitti

 

Read about the miracle of mitti here.  For those of you who don’t feel like clicking through, mitti is a traditionally Indian distillation of clay bowls made from Indian soil into pure sandalwood oil.  Deeply evocative of the scent of the first rains of the season hitting the parched red soil, mitti is one of those scents that hardwire into your soul.

 

This version of mitti beats to the sound of its own drum, though.  Santal Mitti immerses you into the slightly violent atmosphere of the distillation process itself, rather than into the gentle rain-on-earth aroma that a finished mitti usually entails.  You smell everything all at once – the earthy red dust, hints of rubber tubing, and the slightly smoky or fuel-like notes from the fire licking at the bottom of the still itself.

 

The potently industrial vibe is exciting rather than off-putting.  Close to being a hallucinatory experience, in fact.  It smells completely ripped from nature – if nature was a workshop full of tools, machines, raw wood, paint, and in the corner, piles of red, earthen bowls made from soil.  Again, a gloriously real sandalwood appears in the base, miraculously summoned just as all the activity from the hot stills calms.  I am in heaven.  Smoke, earth and santal, fused into one.  

 

 

 

Amiri

 

Amiri is a take-no-prisoners assault on the rose-oud theme, with a goth fruit twist that is borderline erotic.  The oud upfront is not for the uninitiated.  It reeks of the urinous hay and leather notes of Hindi oud, but also is oddly fruity and syrupy, like ebony smeared in strawberry jam (Trat oud, perhaps?).

 

The dissonance between the high-fructose brightness of the fruit and the feral darkness of the oud sets the stage for the late emergence of a radioactively hot pink rose that blooms against her dark materials.  Unsettlingly, this gives the scent a sulky, misanthropic character that is both regal and kinky.  It reminds me in parts of the haughty-but-sexy rose oud of the Elite Blend Al Noukhba by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, reviewed here.

 

However, this sexy goth effect is almost entirely spoiled by a loud woody-ambery drydown with a brash woody synth that unhappily swells with every minute.  For many, this will not be a deal breaker, but for me, this is what puts Amiri firmly in the no column.   What a shame.

 

 

 

Photo by Lawrence Chismorie on Unsplash

 

Calabria

 

As the name suggests, this is Dubai by way of Southern Italy.  What this entails is the bright sourness of bergamot set against an initially smoky pleather (oud).  The light and the dark – a simple but striking effect.  But is it ever truly possible to make oud bright and refreshing?  In my experience, something always jars.  Citrus and oud are uneasy bed partners.

 

I have to give credit where credit is due, however.  Calabria pulls off the no small feat of being fresh, sour, delicate, and yes, uplifting, while also being recognizably oudy.  I think that the composition’s success is due to the addition of an earthy note like a dusty mitti or a ruh khus (vetiver distillation) that helps bridge the lime-peel sunniness of the citrus and the medicinal twang of the oud.  This bridge both sustains the volatile citrus and tames the oud, turning it into a gentile, polished leather accent. 

 

The latexy, sooty-mushroomy myrrh in the drydown is ballast where, honestly, little was needed.  This would have succeeded on its own steam as a handsome hybrid between an Italian citrus cologne and a refined Middle Eastern leather oud.

 

 

 

Jannah

 

Jannah (Arabic for ‘garden of paradise’) is a musky kaleidoscope of all the buttery yellow and white flowers under the sun.   First to bloom is a minty, camphoraceous ylang, whose initial freshly-cut-grass topnotes soon give way to a gasoline undertone.  Then a musky, heady champaca note joins the fray, with its green apple notes jostling around with the sultry banana-ish tone.  Some jasmine and frangipani join the conversation, but sotto voce.   The overall effect is of a stunning tropical floral bouquet, with all its full-figured floral accords melting down into a gently-spiced crème anglaise.

 

Two things elevate this beyond the norm for a nip at the white and yellow tropicalia cup.   First, a spicy nag champa accord lends an attractively mealy or musty incense texture to the scent’s underwiring.  This adds grit to the creamy floral custard upfront, stopping it from flowing formlessly out of its own seams.

 

Second, the most divine gardenia note pulls away from the floral porridge and announces its presence.  For gardenia lovers, the price of Jannah is worth it for this note alone.  The savory, butter-like nuances of the gardenia give the floral bouquet a softly soapy dimension, like florals melting down into beeswax or a really expensive botanical musk.  I don’t want to oversell this, but Jannah strikes me as a reasonable substitute for, or ‘lite’ version of something like Ottoman Empire (Areej Le Dore) or lostinflowers (Strangelove NYC).

 

 

 

Photo by Alexandre Jaquetoni on Unsplash

 

Santal Royale

 

I don’t for a minute dispute that the sandalwood in Santal Royale is real.  But for a brand whose sandalwood-rich drydowns are pretty close to pure santalum album as you’re going to get in mukhallat perfumery these days (it rivals that of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, for instance), I am disappointed by Santal Royale.  With its opening of camphor, Vicks Vapo Rub, pine, terpenes, and mint, it has all of the sour, metallic nuances I associate with Australian sandalwood, and none of the hallmarks of a good Indian santal.  And yet, according to the website, this is Mysore sandalwood distilled from 75 year-old heartwood!  

 

Some minor notes that appear later in the scent profile – wildflowers, smoky woods fresh off a metal saw, clove – hint at a more interesting direction.  It is certainly not a simplistic aroma or one without interest.  And much later on, the oil does settle into that sweet, creamy ‘blond wood’ aroma I think of when I think of Indian santal.  It is just that when you are expecting santalum album or a good Indian santal reconstruction straight out of the bottle, and you get piney, yoghurt tannins instead, you begrudge having to delay your gratification.  It is like frittering your stomach space away on small teaser bites at a twenty-course meal and then seeing the roast suckling pig being brought in on gold trays just as you’ve pulled on your coat to go.

 

On the flipside, the same sandalwood is used in Mitti Santal, and I loved that one.  Therefore, it is possible that I am just unfamiliar with this type of Indian santal and how it behaves on its own versus in a composition with other materials.  Bottom line, don’t let me experience put you off if you are a santal freak like me and won’t stop until you taste every single last one of them.    

 

 

 

Source of samples: Samples were sent to me free of charge by Oudologie for review purposes. Thank you, Abdul!

 

Cover Image: Photo by William Bout on Unsplash 

 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Incense Mukhallats Resins Review Round-Ups Smoke The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews K-T

7th June 2022

 

Wrapping up the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with the final chapter of resin-related reviews, with everything that falls between K and T, following on from Review sections 0-A and B-I.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

Kalemat Amber Oil (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Kalemat in the eau de parfum format is probably Arabian Oud’s most popular ‘mainstream’ fragrances.  So how does the oil version stack up?  Well, it sticks pretty closely to the curves of the original, the only real difference being the compression of some of the flightier notes in oil format.   In other words, Kalemat oil has a much denser, doughier texture than the original, and is both rosier and sweeter.   In general, though, the friendly, golden-fruited amber of the original has been faithfully translated.

 

I cannot therefore explain why I love Kalemat so much in its original eau de parfum format and find it so mind-numbingly dull in the oil.  I suspect it is because gooey ambers like Kalemat, being as stodgy as a bread-and-butter pudding in the depths of winter, need a bit of air and space between its molecules to make it work.  When you squash something already so densely, jammily sweet down into an even more compressed space, you end up with a stock cube’s worth of it.  And even the memory of that is enough for me to cry out for some ventilation.   

 

 

 

Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

 

Little Egypt (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Honeyed myrrh and sweet flag

 

 

Little Egypt is a bright, resinous honey scent with a sharp green calamus note running through it to keep things fresh.  All the honeyed, sticky sweetness of myrrh has been drawn out and emphasized in this scent, but none of its anisic or earthy-mushroomy nuances.  This makes for a very sweet blend indeed, but the inherent smokiness of myrrh resin, plus that crisp calamus note, does a good job of holding back the syrup.  Myrrh fanatics may want to hunt this one down.

 

 

 

Luxor (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Egyptian Musk, Vanilla Bean, Amber, Frankincense, Patchouli, Dark Rose, Egyptian Sandalwood

 

 

Luxor is another NAVA blend that, for all its exotic notes and resins, smells as faint and as simple as an Airwick one might pick up in the local hardware store.  In other words, it is about as exotic as a roll of toilet paper.  How does a company dedicated to resurrecting the glories of ancient Egypt through use of some of the heaviest, most strongly-scented resins, gums, woods, and spices in existence manage to turn out so many perfume oils that smell like weakly-scented candle oils?

 

Note that they are not bad per se – far from it, many of them are very enjoyable.  But anyone looking for the gutsy, full-force assault of true frankincense, patchouli, or sandalwood materials will be very disappointed.  Even the worst mukhallats are more color-saturated than this.  (Also, be an informed consumer – sandalwood does not grow in Egypt).

 

But if you are determined to love NAVA anything and don’t mind overlooking the outrageous marketing guff in the descriptions, then there is enough room in Luxor to accommodate a fantasy of ancient Egypt – as long as you accept that it will be your imagination, and not the scent itself, doing all the heavy lifting.  Luxor is a soft, gently resinous-woody amber thing that is neither distinctive nor exotic.  On the positive side, you will be bothering nobody with your perfume.  Because if you can hardly smell anything, then neither will anyone else.

 

 

 

Mabrook (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mabrook is a very smoky blend of frankincense and labdanum.  As it develops, it leans almost entirely on labdanum for an effect that is leathery, balsamic, smoky, resinous, and almost tobacco-like.  Very much in the vein as La Via del Profumo’s Balsamo della Mecca, and equally as mystical, Mabrook would make for an excellent oil for layering with Western perfumes to add depth and smokiness.

 

 

 

Minister (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sandalwood, Amber, Cassia, Elemi, Sweet Smoke & Somalian Frankincense

 

 

Minister is similar in tone to Solstice Scent’s other incense blends – Incensum, Inquisitor, Basilica, and Scrying Smoke.  It differs mainly by way of its use of a sour, piney Australian sandalwood in the first half of the scent, which fights rather unpleasantly with the bitter-lemon frankincense and elemi notes.

 

Once the sourness abates, however, Minister is a satisfying ride, especially when it turns into a creamy incense-sandalwood duet spliced with woodsmoke.  The drydown is remarkably similar to the drydown of another Solstice scent, Hidden Lodge, making me wonder if some of the house bases aren’t simply re-purposed from one scent to another.

 

While nice in parts, Minister is one of those scents that confirms my belief that indie brands like Solstice Scents and others should more rigorously evaluate all their scents in one particular category to identify areas of overlap and redundancy.  Minister is, frankly, too similar to (and not as good as) other Solstice Scents perfumes in the woods-and-incense category to earn a spot in the permanent line-up.  A good pruning would allow more light to reach the perfumes that deserve it.

 

 

 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

 

Morocco (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The intoxicating perfume of exotic incenses wafting on warm desert breezes. Arabian spices wind through a blend of warm musk, carnation, red sandalwood, and cassia.

 

 

I must be anosmic to something in Morocco because I can barely smell it at first.  The parts of it that I do smell are very nice indeed – a warm, resinous musk with a clove-like carnation and a lightly soapy sandalwood in the background.

 

It smells exotic in a vague, formless way that will please anyone who finds the pungency of real resins to be a bit de trop.  Quite honestly, while I like Morocco and wear it quite a bit, there is no escaping the fact that it smells more like a stock oil one might use for making soap or candles than a proper perfume.

 

Morocco is a homespun fantasy of orientalia rather than anything truly of the orient.  It is terribly faint.  When I smell it, I imagine the imprint of a cloth soaked in rich spices and incense pressed lightly against a sheet of paper, then the paper held to my nose to smell.  In other words, it is a secondhand impression of a smell rather than the full whack.  I would normally find that frustrating, but Morocco’s laid back laziness holds a certain appeal.

 

The drydown is a soft sandalwood that smells not (strictly speaking) of the wood itself but rather the lingering scent on one’s hands after washing with Mysore sandalwood soap.  This may sound like I am damning Morocco with faint praise, but I am not.  There is a time and a place for a subtle, creamy-golden take on the woody theme, and if that is what you are looking for, then Morocco is a solid contender.

 

 

 

Mughal Amber Oud (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A magisterially austere affair, Mughal Amber Oud pairs a funky Hindi oud with a smoky, ashy labdanum for a result so parched it sucks all the moisture out of the air like a lit match.  The oud note is first to hit the nose, clustering its damp, leathery sourness up front.  But this dies back quickly to reveal a labdanum note that is briefly toffee-ish, then increasingly dusty.  Soon, the labdanum dominates the blend, filling all the available air pockets in the scent with a sensation of punishing dryness.

 

Mughal Amber Oud smells like hot sand, Omar Sharif, and the ashes left in the grate of a coal fire.  Highly recommended to people who love their ambers to be as desiccated as a desert – complete with visions of drift weed and abandoned cattle pens.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki is built along the same lines as Attar al Kaaba, i.e., a big rosy amber thing, but less sweet and thick all around.  It also features a dose of either bergamot or lemon up top, which freshens it up a little.

 

There seem to be coffee grains swimming in my tola, but oddly enough, I do not get any notes of coffee in the actual fragrance (whereas I do in Attar al Kaaba).  The base is a soft, vanillic amber with hints of rose.  I can’t smell any oud, synthetic or otherwise, in this.  It is a hair more subtle than Attar al Kaaba and might be more office-appropriate.  However, in general, these two mukhallats are so similar that there is really no need to own both.  Choose solely according to your tolerance for sweetness.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind purports to be a blend of Hindi oud oil, Ta’if rose, amber, saffron, and musk, but to my nose, it completely skips the Hindi oud.  Instead, this is essentially a medicinal saffron-rose combo overlaid on a bed of leathery labdanum that smells like a combination of salted caramel and sheep tallow.  The combed-from-goats-hair fattiness of the labdanum is undeniably delicious and lends the mukhallat an attractive buttery smoothness.  But for the money, I recommend sourcing a good quality, vintage Cretan labdanum elsewhere and blending it with rose and saffron oils yourself.  In other words, this is good, but overpriced.

 

 

 

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

 

Nankun (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nan-kun, meaning ‘Southern Wind’ in Japanese, is a famous coreless incense manufactured by Shoyeido.  Costing in the range of $150 for thirty five sticks, Nan-kun is a truly premium-grade incense experience featuring agarwood (oud wood), cloves, camphor, and Hinoki wood.  The experience of burning Nan-kun goes beyond a simple breakdown of notes to a meditative, transportative experience that relaxes the mind and soothes the soul.  Although hard to describe why it should be so, it smells identifiably Japanese, even for people who have never been to Japan or taken part in Japanese kōdō rituals.

 

Sultan Pasha’s Nankun goes some way towards capturing the Nan-kun burning experience, especially in the combination of the dry, spicy clove and star anise notes with the green, camphoraceous and woody nuances.  The one thing it is missing is the crisp smoke notes one gets when burning Nan-kun incense sticks, an aroma that comes close to the pleasurably sulfurous smell of a freshly-struck match.  The mukhallat does eventually gain a small degree of smokiness in the later stages of its life, but it is a wisp of sweet, transparent woodsmoke rather than the matte, almost charcoal black effect of the smoke in the incense.  Nankun mukhallat was infused with smoke by placing it close to or over a burner with sinking grade oud chips in it. 

 

Highly recommended to fans of high-end Japanese incense and incense ceremonies, meditation, yoga, and so on. For a truly holistic smelling experience, wear this while burning some of Shoyeido’s Southern Wind itself. 

 

 

 

Osirian Purnima Bastet (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The personification of Isis, daughter of RA and Goddess of Love. Bastet’s Amber is the underworld helm of this incense perfumed with soft wisps of amber smoke, NAVA ICONIC Rose Oudh brings a smoke and NAVA floral throughout this OP.

 

 

As far as I can tell from NAVA’s rather Byzantine method for categorizing their perfume oils and series, Osirian Purnima Bastet is a mixture of three basic accords – the rose-oud accord from the Icons series (now discontinued), the Bastet amber accord, and the Osirian Purnima incense base accord, which consists of myrrh, the NAVA Kashmir accord (red musk), the NAVA Hessonite accord (patchouli), the NAVA Santalum accord (sandalwood-type oil), and NAVA’s Eternal Ankh blend (vanilla-amber).

 

You would be forgiven for thinking you need a PhD to decipher this product description.  But all it really means is that NAVA has a collection of pre-made bases that they simply recycle and configure differently from scent to scent.  A bit lazy, don’t you think?

 

As one might expect from the mixing of so many pre-made bases and accords, OP Bastet smells complex, rich, and slightly muddy, like compacted silt at the bottom of a pond.  Many people pick up on a central rose-oud axis here, but to my nose, this smells astonishingly like a pint of warm malt ale, full of yeasty sourness and rich, beery molecules all piled in one on top of the other.  

 

In fact, this is pure eau-de-pub, by which I mean that gust of warm, stale air that rushes out at you when you open the pub door the morning after the night before.  However, many resinous spicy rose fragrances do have this oddly beery tint – I find traces of this in several artisanal rose perfumes with lots of cardamom, such as Smolderose (January Scent Project), Calligraphy Rose (Aramis), and Pharaoh’s Passion (Diane St. Clair).

 

Here and there in the thick, beery miasma, there are glimpses of a berried musk, resin, burnt wood, and something darkly soapy.  However, such is the density of this wall of aroma that it is very difficult to make out the shape of any one thing clearly.

 

On balance, I guess you could say that OP Bastet wears like the color purple.  It smells not really of rose or oud, but of syrupy white flowers and gummy red musk poured over a smoky resin base.  Its distinctly beery-cardamom-rose flavors melt quickly into a caramelized, burnt wood base.  It is distantly related to Memoir Woman by Amouage and vintage Poison by Dior, which share an accord of syrupy white flowers laid across an ashy floral incense, a waft of cigarette smoke blurring its outline.  Like those perfumes, OP Bastet runs the risk of being a Bit Too Much, but there is no denying that this is a perfume with presence, darling.  I really rather like it.

 

 

 

Oud Absolute (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The name is a bold middle finger to the concept of truth in advertizing, but since this is on the cheaper end of the ASAQ scale, I won’t ride it too hard for that.  Oud Absolue is your basic rosy amber-incense oil with a chemical woody buzz in the base presumably slotted in to create a picture of oudiness.  (Well, more a photocopy than picture, but still.)

 

Having said that, I really cannot fault the pleasantness of the blend.  The topnotes are an electric fizz of bergamot, sweet orange, and lemon, which, when combined with the rose, amber, and oud, forms a low grade impression of Estee Lauder’s Amber Mystique.  Since I often recommend Amber Mystique as a great all-rounder for someone who wants a vaguely Arabian-style fragrance, I will extend the same courtesy to Oud Absolute.

 

Quibbles over the name aside, Oud Absolute would make for a great all-rounder for someone who wants a snippet of something sweet and resinous wrapped up in a digestible form.  The sweet powderiness of the florals is neatly curtailed by that woody amber.  Sillage is excellent.

 

 

 

Ozymandias (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Royal Sweet Frankincense, Amber, Royal Amber Resin, White Pepper

 

 

Ozymandias is a mild, sticky white amber with a texture vaguely reminiscent of furniture wax or saddle soap.  The sound it broadcasts is muffled, the resins and spice underneath straining to make themselves known through a thick layer of milky-soapy varnish, like the dim glow of fruits sott’ alici or mostarda.  Once the strangely gluey coating melts away, the green, peppery nuances of the frankincense start to burn a little more brightly.  Overall, pleasant if a little underwhelming.

 

 

 

Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

 

Petrichor (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

As a fan of the petrichor effect (the smell of the ground after rain) in perfumes such as Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée, I had high hopes for the Mellifluence take on it.  And indeed, the tart lime and pink pepper notes in the opening combine with the saline, mushroomy myrrh that Mellifluence uses to form a brief petrichor effect, full of watery, earthy nuance.

 

But there is an error in construction here.  For some reason, the attar maker has decided to emphasize the fungal dampness of the myrrh with the dusty, dour nuances of oud or deer musk, causing all airiness – essential to the petrichor effect – to be squeezed right out of the scent.  On the positive side, once the sharp lime dies down a bit and the sweeter benzoin and nag champa notes rise to flesh out the hollowed cheekbones of the myrrh, the blend becomes less angular and therefore more comfortable to wear.  Overall, though, Petrichor is an opportunity missed. 

 

 

 

Prince Bandar (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although labdanum is not specifically listed, Prince Bandar is a thick, syrupy, and almost goatish labdanum poured all over the tangy, fermented rotting wood of oud.  It has a treacle-like consistency that reads as simultaneously bitter, sweet, syrupy, and sour, leading to an interesting experience for the wearer.  The wet funk of fermented wood points to the use of real oud oil, but the creamier, toffee-like sweetness of the surrounding accents make me think much more of labdanum than ambergris.  In overall feel, Prince Bandar reminds me very much of several mukhallats by Abdul Karim Al Faransi, especially Oud Cambodi, which, despite the name, is not a pure oud but an oudy mukhallat with lots of labdanum.

 

The syrupy oud-amber combination develops a dry, leathery facet, further deepening the suspicion that this is labdanum rather than ambergris-based.  The leather comes slicked in a medicinal haze of something ointment-like, like a pair of army boots rubbed with lanolin and wrapped in gauze bandages.  The leathery facet grows stronger as time passes, edging out the fermented wood and syrupy amber a little, forcing them to recede.  There are hints of a creamy rose lurking at the corners.

 

Many hours on, the same dry-ish musk and cedar combination used by Agarscents Bazaar elsewhere makes an appearance.  The faint funkiness in the musk, as well as its dark, woody character, serves to bring the oud notes forward more firmly, coaxing it out from the corner to which it had retreated.

 

Overall, Prince Bandar a rich, dry but also creamy amber oud with a strong musk and leather character in the drydown.  It is dense and rich enough to provide the impression of value for money, but smooth in a way that will please those with less adventurous oud palates.

 

Whether it is worth $385 for a quarter tola is debatable, but if you have the money to burn and just want something that smells pleasantly rich and enveloping, then this is a good option.  However, for that level of investment, I would much rather hand my wallet over to Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Sultan Pasha, Ensar Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, and any number of attar artisans at work today and let them have at it.

 

 

 

Pure Incense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Pure Incense demonstrates a prune-like darkness, a sort of balancing act between bitter and sweet that is almost edible.  It makes my mouth water.  The panforte-like bitterness recalls the sticky ‘burnt hydrocarbon’ of Norma Kamali’s Incense but without the sometimes stomach-churning dirtiness.

 

The mix of frankincense, myrrh, copal, and elemi creates a resin stew that shifts constantly between herbal (bay leaf), spicy (cinnamon, clove), dusty, sticky, smoky, piney, and balsamic.  If you are Catholic, one sniff of this will bring you to your knees.  Recommended to fans of the original Norma Kamali Incense, Tom Ford Sahara Noir, and Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure.

 

 

 

Pyramid of Khafre (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dark Amber, Limestone Amber, Lavender, Chai Spice

 

 

A touch of the NAVA candlewax coats the opening with a balmy film, briefly obscuring the basic shape of the fragrance.  What emerges soon thereafter is a gentle lavender and spice combination knitted lightly over a watery amber accord.

 

I am not sure what limestone means as an accord in perfumery (if anything) but it surely denotes something mineralic or acidic.  This rings true for Pyramid of Khafre, whose amber accord is initially metallic, with a porous texture suggestive of tiny holes burned in the resin by acidulated rainwater.

 

However, as time wears on, the amber accord grows warmer, eventually settling into the soft, resinous sweetness we associate with classic ambers.  All in all, Pyramid of Khafre is a nice spin on the classic amber model, and one that is more suited to hot weather than most.

 

 

 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

 

Pyramid of Menkaure (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dark Amber, Balsam, Tangelo, White Amber

 

 

Pyramid opens on a bitter and soapy high note that bothers the nose as surely as if you had just accidentally inhaled a cloud of marine-fresh laundry soap flakes while loading the washing machine.  This is due almost entirely to the balsam note, which I take to mean fir balsam.  The problem with pine and fir notes in perfumery is that their piney freshness is now so closely associated with laundry detergents and bathroom cleaning sprays that it can come across as ‘chemically clean’ even if the material used is itself a natural.  Here, therefore, the overriding feel is that of chemically-enhanced pine.

 

Does it get better?  Yes, or more accurately, it gets more bearable.  A warm amber nudges the fir balsam in a more perfumery direction, taking down the harshness a notch.  A winey, pleasantly-bitter chypre tone develops, giving the sharpness of the blend something to aim for.  Finally, when the fir balsam dies away completely, a soft butterscotch accord slots into place.

 

For me, personally, Pyramid of Menkaure is difficult to wear or even assess objectively, because it gives me a massive headache every time I test it.  But for fans of confrontationally bitter or balsamic green oils, have at it. 

 

 

 

Regolith (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Regolith is so potent that it is wise to step back and let it settle for a while before placing your nose to skin.  The first wave of molecules hits the nose like a snifter of brandy or rum set on fire, flaring the nostrils with a plethora of really disturbing aromas, among which are fuel, pure alcohol, rotting dried fruit (raisins, plums), and something unhealthy, like the sickly air inside a room that has been closed up for centuries.

 

But then, a sugary spark of labdanum and myrrh ignites the concoction, turning it into something so edible you might be tempted to gnaw at your arm.  The change in tempo is head-spinning.  Suddenly, the basic structure takes shape – a fruitcake amber sodden with cognac, raisins, chocolate, and sugar crystals that crunch when your teeth close in on them.

 

How something so initially disturbing can be so delicious only moments later is beyond me, but there you go.  Anybody who ever loved the original Amber Absolute or even Norma Kamali’s Incense should have a little supply of Regolith in their collection.  It is not a replacement or dupe for either by any stretch of the imagination.  But they share the same balance between inedible and edible – that wild swing between claustrophobia and exaltation.

 

The oud oil is an innovation on the Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali Incense model, but I suppose it is also what updates it.  The damp wood rot nuance of oud works well here because it pushes back on the plushy sweetness of the amber.  I’m a fan.

 

 

 

Resine Precieux (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Resine Precieux is a smooth, affable amber with a strangely attractive muffled ‘sound’.  Despite the presence of asafetida – a pungent resin with onion and garlic aspects when smelled in the raw – this blend is noticeable for its gentleness.  Although packed with seemingly every resin under the sun, it is neither smoky nor sharp.  Instead, the overall texture is balmy, almost muted, as if the resins were glowing softly through a thin layer of white wax.  This lends a ‘candlelit’ glow to the composition, making it tremendously easy to wear.

 

Resine Precieux feels honeyed but in a soft, light manner that avoids the cloying heft of the material itself.  Imagine a slice of honeycomb, pale and waxen, its holes filled with resin, cacao, and caramel, backlit by a fat church candle.  This is the attraction of Resine Precieux. 

 

There is a deliciously dark, stewed fruit note in the background that is part plum, part dark cocoa – like the opening of Tobacco Vanille but less clovey.  Far into its drydown, Resine Precieux begins to manifest the drier aspects of tobacco and labdanum, for an outcome not a million miles away from the ashy leather syrup of Rania J’s Ambre Loup.  Resine Precieux’s smoked sea-salt finish is nigh on irresistible. 

 

 

 

Rouh al Amber (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

In many ways, Rouh al Amber is the archetypal Arabian attar – just ‘Middle-Eastern’ enough to smell exotic to someone who isn’t looking for anything more than a trope.  This is a simple blend of medicinal amber, a bright, lemony Taifi rose, and a dab of blond-ish woods.  I doubt any of the materials are tremendously expensive, but the overall effect is admirably unsweet, clear in intent, and reasonably exotic.

 

For the price, therefore, Rouh al Amber is an excellent everyday option for those who love traditional Arabic pairings of rose and amber.  Furthermore, because it leans heavily on the medicinal amber of traditional Indian canon rather than sweet Arabian-style amber, it retains a leathery dryness that makes it wearable in even the sludgiest of summer heat.

 

 

 

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

 

Sahraa Oud (Fragrance du Bois)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Sahraa Oud is a soft, waxen orange-tinted amber scent hiding a sliver of smoking oud wood within its folds of flesh.  It is unctuous, golden, and slightly fuzzy, like an oil lamp seen a mile away through a fog.  Its lack of definition should bother me and yet I remain staunchly unbothered.  Scents such as Theorema (Fendi) and Ambre Soie (Armani) were built in a similar soft-focus manner to transmit a feeling of comfort through a haze of burnished half-light.  The result, in Sahraa Oud, is soft and effortlessly luxe.

 

About half an hour into the proceedings, a winey, medicinal rose breaks free from the ambery morass.  The soft, rosy tartness prevents the syrupy amber elements from sticking to the roof of one’s mouth, rather like the strawberry jelly component in a PB&J sandwich.  If the oud is there, then it is well hidden.  Perhaps it is behind the saffron leather that emerges hand-in-hand with the rose.

 

The real star here, however, remains that waxy, toffee-like amber.  If you feel like upgrading from stuff like Theorema, Ambre Soie, and Ambra Aurea, then this is somewhat in the same wheelhouse.  Is the tiny smidgen of oud oil hiding out here somewhere worth the extra squeeze?  Only you and your pocketbook can decide that.  For me, it is a no.  Sahraa Oud is really nice but doesn’t distinguish itself enough from its peers to warrant the additional investment.

 

 

 

Salem (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Damp leaves, church incense, worn leather, dry birch woods, clove bud absolute, bonfire smoke

 

 

Insanely atmospheric, Salem really does conjure up the feeling of stumbling across an old stone chapel in the middle of a wind-whipped New England forest, dry leaves swirling around one’s ankles.  The scent hinges on the use of a smoky birch note, which, when joined to the realistic church incense accord, smells like black leather smoking out over scorched resins.

 

The opening is acrid, due to Sixteen92’s signature black leather accord, which tends to run everything in an acid (rather than alkaline) direction.  The Sixteen92 leather note is similar to that of Solstice Scent’s Library and Inquisitor, for reference.  But it is also faintly fatty, the underside of the leather dotted with yellow globules of coagulated animal fat.

 

Salem seems to be a scent that improves with age, however.  When I first received my sample, I found the leather note both bitter and goaty; now, a full three years later, it is smooth and sharp in all the right places.

 

It is worth noting that the realistic church incense at the start eventually gives way to something a little more headshoppy in nature.  But on the whole, I think that Salem works fantastically as an atmospheric set piece.  It is properly moody and almost cartoonishly witchy.  I visualize the scent as a wine-stained mouth in a pancaked Goth face, her sneer hidden by a wall of pitch black hair.

 

 

 

Scrying Smoke (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Natural and Meditative Melting Frankincense Resin, Frankincense Smoke, Vanilla, Sandalwood, Cedar, Petitgrain, Vetiver, Labdanum & much more

 

 

Scrying Smoke is all about the frankincense, a resin whose natural lemon-and-lime piquancy is emphasized here by pine, bitter orange, and a rich Coca-Cola note.  The gustatory sourness of the frankincense is subdued somewhat by the dusty spices of labdanum and cedar, giving the scent a rather dour, unsmiling character.  A stripped down, even more morose version of Messe de Minuit by Etro, this should go on the list of anyone who’s beginning to look into incense as a theme.  And if you have a particular fetish for frankincense, then Scrying Smoke is an imperative rather than a suggestion.

 

 

 

Smenkhare (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Oriental Amber, Nokturne, Agarwood, Guiacwood, Ho Wood, Labdanum, Black Pepper EO, Balsam Peru, White Frankincense, Amber Musk

 

 

Despite the impressive roll-out of exotic-sounding resins and balsams, Smenkhare is a rather understated affair. In fact, I would call it homely rather than exotic or Middle-Eastern in temperament.

 

Boiled down to its essence, Smenkhare is a smooth honey-amber blend with a faint prickling of black pepper for interest.  I recommend it to anyone with a specific fetish for honey scents, but to be honest, it doesn’t offer much over and above the baseline established by Kim Kardashian’s perfectly good Honey fragrance.

 

 

 

Photo by Tim van Kempen on Unsplash

 

Sorcière Rouge (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Bakhoor incense from a 13th century recipe, Tibetan agar-wood, and Dragon’s Blood infused with Rock Rose and dark amber.

 

 

Sorcière Rouge opens with sharp, earthy herbs over a vegetal, spicy amber.  The oud note is similar to that used in another Alkemia blend – Hellcat – which is to say more than slightly pissy, indicating a use of synthetic civet or honey to ‘skank’ up the oud note.  Slowly, the perfume becomes earthier, warmer, and sweeter, sanding down some of the sharper corners.

 

But Tibetan agarwood?  Poor Tibet.  Shrouded in mystery due to its general inaccessibility to most Westerners, it has conveniently become the repository for every type of ‘oriental’ myth that happens to fall into the cracks between India and China.  Rest assured that the reference to Tibet in Sorcière Rouge has nothing to do with provenance of the oud (since the oud here is most assuredly grown in a lab rather than in Tibet) and everything to do with the concept of traditional Tibetan medicine, which uses precious herbs, oud, and real deer musk in prescriptions to heal patients.

 

And indeed, Sorcière Rouge does feature all the dusty, astringent feel of a Chinese or Indian healing shop, where one might buy little packets of mysterious powders and unguents with which to treat common ailments.  Whether this effect is a pleasant or desirable one is, I suppose, up to you.

 

 

 

Still (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Still features a candied floral note threaded through a dusty seam of resins and woods.  Although I do not have the notes, it smells like iris, rose, cinnamon, Peru balsam, opoponax, benzoin, and frankincense over a sandalwood base.  It reminds me of several perfumes by Maria Candida Gentile, notably Sideris and Burlesque, but also of a sweet, powdery cologne that an old boyfriend used to wear that might or might not have been Jaipur (Boucheron).  Still tugs at my heartstrings, making it difficult to evaluate objectively.  But high quality as it indubitably is, it is far from unique and perhaps therefore not the Henry Jacques on which to blow your wad.

 

 

 

Tabac Oranger (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Tabac Oranger is a thick, labdanum-driven amber that emphasizes the dustier, more tobacco-like facets of rock rose extract.  The effect of the orange and rose oils at the start is breathtaking, their juicy brightness merging seamlessly with the ashy tobacco undertones of the labdanum to produce a river of delicious, near edible aromas.  It becomes smokier and more sweetly ambery as time passes, sadly shedding the orange-tinted tobacco hues of the start.

 

 

 

Tinderbox (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The essence of a baroque case filled with tempered firesteel [sic], flint, and linen charcloth: resinous black amber, woodsmoke, sweet mallow root, frankincense, cubeb, and sandalwood.

 

 

Tinderbox is great for people who love the grungy smells of undergrowth, with lots of smoldering resins and cedar.  It opens with a cutting note as metallic as fresh blood, creating the sudden sensation of a rusty blade drawn across your tongue.  This is not unpleasant per se but may be jarring to anyone unused to confrontational accords in perfume.

 

The metallic smoke note dominates for about half an hour, before dying down to reveal a sweet, almost meaty woodsmoke note and the soapy-fattiness of frankincense resin as it starts to bubble on a censer.  It smells like herbs and freshly tanned skins thrown on a campfire to scorch.  The base is a musky mishmash of creamy woods (a sandalwood material of some description), woodsmoke, and the lingering trace of sharp metal.  It is similar in many ways to Holy Terror.

 

I like Tinderbox very much and often use it as a smoke layering note for other fragrances.  On its own, I would have to be in a Lisbeth Salander kind of mood to wear it.  Then again, since I feel like a murderous bad-ass with a chip on my shoulder at least once a month, Tinderbox is right down my alley.  

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased my samples (and bottles) of Arcana, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Sixteen92, Arabian Oud, NAVA, BPAL, Mellifluence,  Solstice Scents, Alkemia, Agarscents Bazaar, and Al Haramain.  My samples of oils from Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands or a distributor.  My samples of Henry Jacques and Fragrance du Bois came to me courtesy of lovely Basenotes friends.

 

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 Cristi Ursea on Unsplash

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Incense Mukhallats Myrrh opoponax Resins Round-Ups The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews B-I

4th June 2022

 

 

Continuing the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with everything falling between B and I.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

 

Basilica (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Rich labdanum absolute paired with effervescent frankincense, polished rosewood, dark myrrh, exotic woods and a waft of heavenly sweet and rich vanilla absolute and fragrant ashes.

 

 

I highly recommend Basilica as a starting point for anyone interested in the incense genre.  Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense, this blend smells purely of High Mass.  It is not complicated or indeed complex, but its straightforwardness is part of its charm.  In particular, the naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky – makes this an absolute pleasure.  Soft and soulful, Basilica is basically Avignon (Comme des Garcons) in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it should come with a trigger warning.

 

 

 

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

 

Balsamo della Mecca (Mecca Balsam) (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although the crepuscular darkness of the resins is essentially the same from eau de parfum to attar, Balsamo della Mecca attar has a very different texture, and therefore a completely different feel.  Whereas the original is so dry that it threatens to ignite on the skin at any moment, the attar (mukhallat really) is a concentrated tar, like molasses seeping from a rusty pipe.  Dense, sticky fir balsam, myrrh, frankincense, cade, and who knows what else, all boiled down to a medicinal salve one might rub onto an infection.  Despite its opacity, it feels excoriating and purifying.

 

The labdanum is downplayed in the oil version, allowing the rubbery, fungal saltiness of myrrh to take the spotlight.  By corollary, the eau de parfum is dustier and sweeter, thick with labdanum.  Given its greater diffusiveness, the eau de parfum has a spiritual, if not ecclesiastical, feel; the mukhallat, on the other hand, feels gothic and a little bit sinister.  Put it this way – I would wear the eau de parfum to Midnight Mass, and the oil to an exorcism.  

 

I own the eau de parfum but prefer the mukhallat.  It has something of the leathery darkness of Tauer’s L’Oudh but is denser, blacker, and more boiled in texture.  (Balsamo della Mecca mukhallat is also completely natural in feel while Tauer’s L’Oudh has a smoky industrial aromachemical undertone in the late drydown).

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

Boukhour, or barkhour as it is sometimes spelled, is a mixture of wood chips or briquettes soaked in essential oils, resins, and other fragrant materials designed to be burned over hot charcoal disks in burners to scent the home, clothes, and hair with its thick, perfumed smoke.  Muslims also burn boukhour chips to ‘seal in’ perfume oils they have applied on their skin, hair, or robes.  This is a lovely and evocative idea – after all, the original meaning of the word ‘perfume’ is per fumus in Latin, or ‘through the smoke’. 

 

Correspondingly, Boukhour Blend is a perfume oil designed to be rubbed through your hair, onto your clothes, and even ‘baked in’ using the smoke from boukhour chips (hence the name).  The opening is a maelstrom of candied white flowers, featuring the standard ASAQ gummy-sweet blend of orange blossom, jasmine, and wildflowers that turns up in other blends.  The opening is so intensely syrupy that I feel a tooth cavity coming on.

 

A generic building block base of amber, wood, and musk has been shoe-horned in to hold up the unctuous mass of honeyed white flowers, but doesn’t really do anything beyond sitting there, looking pretty in a non-descript way.  It smells exotic and resinous in the slightly faceless way of those cheap blocks of foil-wrapped barkhour one can pick up in any Asian grocery.

 

Can you tell just how under-enthused I am?  Boukhour Blend is not bad, per se, but it is sorely lacking the interesting smokiness you get when burning real barkhour.  If you love Candy by Prada or Amor Amor by Cacherel and want something similar in oil form, then this should suffice.  For everyone else – you can safely skip it. 

 

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend Supreme (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Practically identical to the regular Boukhour Blend described above, and indeed, it is likely that they are the one and the same, albeit with a bit of up-selling on the name.  To my nose, there is a slightly higher concentration of the very sweet, gummy white flowers in the Supreme version, taking it to an outrageous level of bubblegum-like sweetness that sets my teeth on edge.

 

 

 

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

 

The Cat (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sleek, black, dark, and clever: benzoin, honey, cedar, and dark musk.

 

 

The Cat smells of fruity honey poured over cedar sap and powdery benzoin, its edges diffused and feathered by a cottony musk.  The first impression is of maple syrup seeping from a tree, its lurid sweetness balanced nicely by resinous sap and the vinegary sharpness of the cedarwood, lending it a pickled flavor that pricks the taste buds.  The latter stages are packed full of powdery musks with hints of earth and funk.

 

Overall, The Cat’s forceful essay on pungent honey, resin, vinegary woods, and sweet, powdery musks is a clever balancing act that works well on the skin.  It is worth mentioning that even if you do not typically like BPAL’s honey note, The Cat should be on your radar, because the honey here is dark and pine resin-like rather than candy-sweet.

 

 

 

Chypre Profund (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Let us dispense with the pleasantries – Chypre Profund does not smell like a chypre.  What it does smell like, however, is the twenty-year-old Cretan labdanum oil that Mellifluence used to stock, which was deliciously thick, leathery, animalic, and possessed of a salted caramel depth of flavor that never got old.  It is this, and not oakmoss, that is the pillar upon which Chypre Profund is constructed.

 

It is tough to do a chypre these days.  It is especially difficult if you are a self-taught attar maker with limited access to raw materials and a tendency to ‘feel your way’ through the process of making perfume rather than taking a more formal study track.  However, if you are a small-batch attar maker and have access to oakmoss absolute and are not bound by IFRA anyway, then why not throw caution to the wind and use oakmoss in quantities that actually show up?  If I were Mellifluence, I would take this back to the drawing board and double down on the oakmoss.

 

And while I am making presumptuous suggestions, I would like to urge the addition of the other component of a chypre, i.e., bergamot.  Chypre Profund smells good largely because it features a great labdanum material.  The tarry aspects of labdanum have been accentuated by a chorus of earthy, dusty notes to create body and interest.  But in terms of structure, it lacks both the brightness of bergamot up top and the bitterness of oakmoss down below that would qualify it as chypre.  

 

As it stands, Chypre Profund is a nice essay on the complexity of labdanum, but there is no getting around the fact that the traditionally three-legged stool of a chypre construction (bergamot-labdanum-oakmoss) is missing two of its three legs and is therefore useless for sitting on.

 

 

 

Conjure Dark (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Amber, Frankincense, Sweet Incense Smoke, Dried Rose Petals, Sandalwood, Vetiver, Woods, Oud, Vanilla

 

 

Conjure Dark mixes the musty gloom of a church cellar with the powdered sweetness of cheap Indian rose incense sticks for a result that smells unexpectedly animalic, like beeswax mixed with the odor of someone who hasn’t washed for a long, long time.   Conjure Dark conjures (sorry) an image of crouching down behind old wooden crates in a church cellar, watching a secret burial ceremony, the scent of centuries-old neglect mingling with the lingering aromas of candle wax and communion wafers. 

 

Vetiver, rose, beeswax, and cold, unburned frankincense are the notes that dominate here.  There is a gorgeously stale, almost bready air to Conjure Dark.  If you like the idea of incense resin mixed with the aura of damp books and New Age shops, then Conjure Dark will be right up your alley.  Trippy but wonderful stuff.  I own a bottle.

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Dukhan (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Dukhan refers to a Sudanese purification treatment – usually reserved for women – involving the immersion of one’s body in the smoke from a fire of exotic incense and aromatic woods.  But Dukhan leans hard on the fire part of the ritual and barely touches upon the medicinal.  This is basically what a library would smell like if set on fire.

 

Thankfully the smoke is never allowed to overwhelm.  I appreciate the restraint employed here, because smoky materials such as cade, labdanum, birch tar, tobacco, and so on, have the tendency to drown out the quieter sounds made by the other notes.  

 

Dukhan opens on a smoky vetiver note that feels as purely resinous as Hojari frankincense, before sliding into a rich tobacco and leather tandem that forms the hardest-working muscle in the scent.  Underneath this, a rubbery tar note lends the tobacco and leather some chew.  No sweetness, though.  Dukhan is as sinewy as the legs of a professional cyclist after the last Pyrenean mountain stage of the Tour de France. 

 

Overall, Dukhan smells comfortingly masculine, like burying your nose into the well-worn leather jacket of someone who smokes a pipe and has recently nibbled on a piece of frankincense gum.  The leather and tobacco are supple, almost buttery, and despite the underlying charcoal smoke, a microcosm, in scent form, of the pipe-and-slipper rituals of a gentleman.  

 

I recommend Dukhan to anyone looking for a resinous leather-tobacco masculine that doesn’t excoriate your nasal cavities with billowing gusts of BBQ smoke.  Picture a toned-down, more wearable Hyde (Hiram Green) or T-Rex (Zoologist) and you have the right idea.

 

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Madagascar Vanilla, golden amber, and resinous incense swirled together with a selection of beautifully aged incense woods and a dusting of aphrodisiac Silk Road spices. Intensely sexy in a mysterious kind of way…

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille belies its attractive description by slicing an intensely metallic incense note through a doughy, sullen vanilla, and then pretty much dropping the mic.  The advertized Silk Road spices boil down to the single note of clove, a representation so medicinal it smells spoiled, like dried milk or blood.  It eventually settles into a nice, bubblegum-like mélange of woods and amber that fails to atone for the trauma of the first hour.

 

 

 

Enheduanna (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A dark and sultry incantation of seven ancient temple offerings: Zanzibar clove, oakmoss, aged frankincenses, champa blossom, Madagascar vanilla, iron-distilled patchouli, and dark amber.

 

 

Enheduanna smells just like the inside of a head shop, i.e., unlit nag champa sticks, amber cubes, and dusty spices.  Now, there are perfumes that do a really good job of nailing the atmosphere of one of these places without getting too literal about it (Sikkim Girls by Lush and Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer, for example), but Enheduanna is not one of them.  It is too straight-forwardly headshoppy to be elegant or interesting.  There are much better variations on the theme out there.

 

 

 

Enigma Intense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Holy smokes, batman!  Lovers of fragrances such as Slumberhouse Jeke, Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d’Ascèse, and Le Labo Patchouli 24, please welcome your newest member to the inner circle!  Citrus and lavender offer a glimpse of sunlight before it is whisked away almost immediately, and the wearer plunged deep inside a smokehouse where a leather jacket has just been thrown onto the open fire.

 

Birch tar is the note that dominates with its fiercely rubbery smoke, but cedar, aged vetiver, Siam benzoin, and copaiba also add to the somber atmosphere.  A salty, ashy guaiacol note emerges from the fire, and somewhere in the distance, someone is dry-roasting cardamom, cumin, and caraway seeds on a hot pan.  The mouth waters, and so do the eyes.  The drydown is warmly ambery without once straying into sweetness.

 

 

 

Eve (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Company description: Eve is a heavy oriental, resplendent with musks, earthy sweetnesses [sic], lingering and sexy as only that first lady could have been. This is a complex blend, profound even, but still there is a sparkle to it which marks it as a Posset. 

 

Unfortunately, my sample had turned by the time I got to it (to be fair to Possets, it was a full year later).  By then, all I could smell rancid carrier oil.

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber.  For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying.  The oud is so authentically filthy that you feel like you’re being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions.  It is as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.

 

But just when you fear you are slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire.  This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be.  The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged.  It is more of a whoosh than a lift.

 

But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet.  Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he is afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself.  Therefore, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire).   Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, it smells so cleansing that I am not sure whether to drink it or apply it to a wound.

 

My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes.  I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it is giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there is nary a hint of rose.  I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.

 

What I smell in fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere.  Of course, it is entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh.  It is also possible that it is just myrrh.

 

Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed.  The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector.  In fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies.  And that is alchemy, pure and simple.

 

 

 

FBI.17 (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The name stands for Fabulous Blend from India, the 2017 edition.  It features a dark-ish musk with the faint twang of urinal cakes over tobacco, labdanum, and oud.  Thankfully, the musk is not so shriekingly animalic that you have to hide indoors until it fades.  Its funkiness is soft and velvety, with only the subtlest of bathroom nuances.

 

If this was all there was to it, FBI.17 would be a nice but boring iteration on the Arabian ‘black musk’ theme, but it has a trick or two up its sleeve.  The perfume releases its tight musky fist quite suddenly, swiveling into a complex, ashy tobacco accord, which in turn melts into a buttery, incensey labdanum drydown that will appeal to fans of the tobacco-labdanum-heavy Ambre Loup by Rania J.

 

There is no vanilla or benzoin to act as the transition shade, so the blend leans on the complexity of labdanum to do all the heavy-lifting.  There is a marked similarity between this and the drydown of Amber Ash Sheikh, but the base of FBI.17 is even more unctuously buttery.  My nose fails to pick out any oud in this blend at all, but to be fair, I don’t particularly miss it.  If you want a cost-effective alternative to Ambre Loup, FBI.17 might be a contender.

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

Geisha Amber Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Geisha Amber Rouge is – or was – a limited edition version of Geisha Rouge.  But to say that Geisha Amber Rouge simply adds amber to the Geisha Rouge formula is inaccurate.  Geisha Amber Rouge opens with hot clove and an accord that smells very much like rooibos tea that’s been brewed for a long time and allowed to grow cold.  The red tea notes smell tannic, with hints of dried currants, star anise, and rose petals stirring beneath.  Those familiar with the original Comme des Garcons Parfum and Costes No. 1 will appreciate the translucent ‘pink-red’ sourness of this accord. 

 

The amber itself only shifts into view when smelled directly side by side with its parent scent, Geisha Rouge.  When the nose returns to Geisha Amber Rouge after smelling the original, the resiny thickness of the amber accord suddenly ‘pops’, making you wonder how you missed it in the first place.

 

But the amber does not cloud the clarity of the red tea notes at all.  It simply adds a certain louche, dank sexiness that makes me think of women lolling around in half-open kimonos, unwashed and unshaved.  All in all, this is an admirably cool-headed spicy amber with a rooibos undertone that tea lovers will appreciate. 

 

 

 

Geisha Noire (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Aroma M made its reputation on Geisha Noire, and it is easy to see why.  The secret to Geisha Noire is that it gets better the longer you wear it, making it the inverse of most modern fragrances, which hit you with all the glory in the first hour or so but peter out by the time you get home and unbox your new purchase.  Thankfully, because Aroma M perfumes are not sold in department stores, there is no urgency to sell you on its topnotes.  Most Aroma M perfumes, therefore, take their time to hit their stride.

 

And true to form, Geisha Noire is a perfume that demands you wait a little for your satisfaction.  The topnotes are bright but leaden, an undissolved lump of golden resin that hisses on the skin like a scalded cat.  The resin accord is piercingly sharp, like lemon rind without any citrus high notes, reminding me a bit of elemi resin.  There is also a sherbety, turbo-charged fizz to the texture that smells the way Refresher bars taste.  Not a bad smell, you understand – just massively unrefined.

 

But give Geisha Noire the courtesy of wearing it for a full day and a strange thing happens.  The lump of resin begins to dissolve, liquefying into distinct pools of amber, creamy sandalwood, tonka, and salty ambergris.  It smells like antique gold velvet, its flavor miles deep and radiating in every direction.  It is also an intensely powdery scent, connecting it to its progenitor Shalimar in firm brushstrokes that might not agree with everyone.  But what makes Geisha Noire special, and what marks it out as more than just another Shalimar clone, is its balance between burned sugar and salty driftwood (ambergris).

 

Geisha Noire is at its very best at the end of the day when its salty-sweet amber has melted into the heat of your skin, forming a veritable forcefield of radiant, gold-tipped sweetness.  A true my-skin-but-better kind of scent.   

 

 

 

Holy Terror (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: There are utterly somber and fearsome spirits which are known to haunt certain long-deserted chapels, monasteries and abbeys. An unsettling, austere blend of burning frankincense, sandalwood, deep myrrh, and dusty beeswax candles.

 

 

Holy Terror is the star of the Arcana line-up.  Despite the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk, thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord.

 

The myrrh and frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather than as accurate representations of their natural selves.  So, for example, there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to myrrh.  Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular.  Indeed, they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.

 

To point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an observation.  Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil), myrrh, or copal.  Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they are looking for.  Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy Terror is simply for clarification.

 

Holy Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.  It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid.  It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a just-snuffed-out candlewax accord.  It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church.  This gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.

 

 

 

HopHead (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Very nervous people love this blend, it calms you down but leaves you very mellow. Coffee in its most perfectly beautiful form is dropped into 5 ambers which range from sweet to dry. Somehow this combination just makes me want to have a nosegasm. Gourmandy and very bea-utiful [sic].

 

 

HopHead is the coffee opening of The Seductive Jesuit draped over a sugary amber accord.  Is it the five different ambers as promised by the description?  Nope.  Just one – a bog-standard indie amber, which is to say sweet, vegetal, and hippyish.  

 

 

 

Incense Oud (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The incense note in the dupe is a hair soapier, but in general, this is a close match for By Kilian’s Incense Oud.  The original fragrance is a subdued, natural-smelling incense scent, backed by soft green woods, powder, and a hint of smoke.  Structurally, the By Kilian is sparse to the point of austerity but rose adds a subtle flush of warmth where needed.

 

Admittedly, the dupe does not have the same strong rose presence as the original, and its sparkly, dusty texture is more Pez than frankincense.  But it completely nails the tranquil, meditative air of the original.  With dupes, sometimes it is more important that the general atmosphere of the original is captured, rather than a precise note-by-note breakdown.  This is a great example of that.

 

 

 

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

 

Incense Royale (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Not all incense scents are alike, a fact that Incense Royale illustrates by mixing some of the resins used in the dark, tarry Pure Incense with vanilla and some of the lighter, sweeter resins such as benzoin, elemi, and opoponax to arrive at an incense fragrance that is a complete 180 degrees from Pure Incense.

 

In comparison to its muscular big brother, Incense Royale floats in on a big powdery, vanillic cloud of scent with hints of cinnamon, lemon, lavender, red berries, and rose – all facets naturally present in the resins and oud used rather than the inclusion of any floral absolutes.  A fat cushion of benzoin and vanilla adds a plush, pillowy texture that makes the incense feels luxe and pampered rather than churchy or severe.

 

There is a faint, sour streak in the woody backdrop that comes from the aged Hindi oud used for Incense Royale, but in general, the oud is not especially prominent.  Rather, it sings a low brown note in unison with the other woody notes.  Sweet, powdery, faintly resinous, and woody, Incense Royale could be a sort of Ambre 114 flushed with silvery bits of oud.  The structure is flooded with citric brightness, perhaps due to the pine and lime peel facets of frankincense, or the creamy, lemony side of elemi resin.

 

Either way, the diffuse sweetness of the blend feels like it sits at opposite ends to the dark, sticky pungency of Pure Incense.  Pure Incense is compacted resin, dark and prune-like, while Incense Royale has light and air and the birds and the bees.  Choose according to personal preference, but both are excellent.  For ease of comparison, Incense Royale has a very similar feel to softly powdered, sweet incense compositions such as Creed’s Angelique Encens and Guerlain’s Bois d’Armenie.  It also shares an airy, woody-aromatic sweetness with Ambre 114.

 

 

 

Incensum (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Amber, Frankincense, Palo Santo, Myrrh, Spices, Attars, Oud, Vetiver & more

 

 

Incensum is one of the brand’s premium blends, meaning that it is one hundred percent natural, and made with a mixture of attars and essential oils rather than with synthetics.  The all-natural nature of this composition bears out in both its quality and in its flat and somewhat muddy feel.

 

Incensum seems to be structured around a clutch of opposing materials – a cluster of smoky, green, and ‘bitter’ elements such as vetiver, palo santo (guaiac wood), and frankincense on one side, and a grouping of earthy ‘brown’ notes such as oud oil and myrrh on the other.  Incensum starts out in a very earnest tone, dominated by sourish wood and resin.  But then the oud note drops out of the picture entirely, leaving the balance hanging askew.

 

Incensum is limited in its movement by the upper limits of its natural raw materials.  It morphs very slowly from smoky green wood to earthy, anisic myrrh over the course of a wear.  There is a certain rawness (or perhaps sharpness) to the perfume that I like very much.  However, demonstrating that a negative reaction can be caused as much by naturals as by synthetic, Incensum gives me a howling headache every time I wear it.

 

 

 

Inferno (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Inferno is a potent tobacco and resin bomb presaged by a piercing lime note that runs acrid on my skin.  The opening is arresting, with a brief coca cola note leading into a blackstrap molasses note, like prune juice boiled down to a thimbleful of liquid.  However, the main character of the mukhallat lies in the interaction between that lime peel topnote with the aromatics, musk, and tobacco in the heart, a combination that draws an unfortunate association with citrus-scented floor disinfectants.  Underneath the lime-musk disinfectant note, there lies a very good, smoky tobacco accord, as dry and as husky as a thick book left to smolder in the ashes of a campfire.

 

People who are fond of well-done animalics should seek out a sample of Inferno, as it features significant amounts of hyraceum, castoreum, musk, ambergris, and civet, as well as a touch of Hindi oud, but is blended expertly so as to lend the attar a dark, sultry growl rather than an all-out, high-pitched animal shriek.  As the astringent lime-musk combo dies out, the wonderfully dry, smoky smell of the resins, animalics, and woods lingers for hours.  In fact, the drydown of Inferno is my favorite of all Sultan Pasha’s blends (excepting Aurum D’Angkhor).  I just can’t take the first half.

 

 

 

Inquisitor (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A Dark Resinous Blend of Myrrh, Labdanum, Beeswax Absolute, Frankincense, Amber, Leather & Fire

 

 

Every now and then, you want to smell like the Second Coming.  A bit churchy, a bit gothic, a bit Mordor?  Yeah, I hear you.  Forget Avignon (Comme des Garcons), Casbah (Robert Piguet), and Full Incense (Montale) – Inquisitor by Solstice Scents gets you there for about eighteen dollars.  Featuring a raw, chlorine-dipped leather over a pile of smoking resins, Inquisitor makes a lunge for your throat and doesn’t let go.

 

It is weirdly sexy.  The drydown, thick with vanillic resins like benzoin and labdanum, is slightly creamier, but the perfume never really strays too far from its dominatrix-meets-smoking-censer theme.  More gothic than churchy, Inquisitor is perhaps the choice for apostates.  If you are a true believer, I would instead recommend the wonderful Basilica by the same brand – a quiet, simple Avignon-lite number that scratches the ecclesiastical itch to perfection.

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased my samples of Arcana, Maison Anthony Marmin, BPAL, Mellifluence, Possets, Solstice Scents, Aroma M, Alkemia, and Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics.  My samples of oils from Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands or a distributor.  My sample of Strangelove NYC fallintostars was courtesy of Luckyscent, provided for copywriting purposes. 

 

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 Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Gold Incense Mukhallats Myrrh opoponax Resins Review Single note exploration Smoke Spice The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews 0-A

31st May 2022

 

 

Kicking off the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with the A’s – and given that amber starts with an A, there is a lot.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

020 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 020 is orange-scented toffee rendered in liquid form, with a sprinkle of pepper for interest.  A combination of patchouli, tonka, and vanilla gives the scent a waxy, fudge-like texture that muffles the high-toned brightness of the orange blossom.  No. 020 bears some similarity to Hermès Ambre des Merveilles, its orangey goodness spiced with pepper instead of salt. 

 

 

 

Absolute Amber (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Escaping the wrath of Tom Ford’s legal department by a hair, Absolute Amber is a juggernaut of an amber with a synth under-pinning so potent it could fell a horse at five paces.  One sniff of this stuff was enough to cause my olfactory system to start closing up shop.  But at the edges, certain elements that characterize the Clive Christian approach with these exclusive oils can still be identified.

 

The first characteristic element is a topnote that is Lanolin-like in its medicinal balminess, redolent of a mixture of vegetable oil, sheep’s wool, tallow, and raw silk.  This is probably due to the carrier oil used in the Absolute line of perfume oils.  The second element is the supersonic radiance deriving from woody amber synthetics typically used for reach, such as Iso E Super, Cedramber, and the like.  The third characteristic I notice, both here and in one or two other examples in the Absolute range, is the emphasis on bringing out the sharper, more confrontational facets of the raw material being highlighted.  Sweet and fluffy these oils are not.

 

True to type, Absolute Amber is a tremendously spicy, resinous amber with undertones of plum, raisin, and grated cinnamon bark.  It is somewhat comparable in tone to Ambre Eccentrico (Armani Privé), swapping out the plush, fruity tonka bean for a somewhat bitter, aftershavey base that men might appreciate.  Absolute Amber is rich without being syrupy or ‘wet in any way.  In overall feel, Absolute Amber matches the synthy radiance of other rather butch amber scents such as Amouage’s Opus VI and Ambra Meditteranea by Profumi del Forte.  For those unbothered by potent woody ambers, Absolute Amber would be a strong (in every sense of the word) option for winter daywear, especially under a formal suit.

 

 

 

Photo: My own, Omani silver frankincense 

 

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Natural frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is practically its main character trait, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has chosen to highlight.  The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous notes.  The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on a censer.

 

Those who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense.  Just be aware that this oil is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank frankincense.  This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, and an almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms of your hands.  My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple – too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth the cost of entry.

 

 

 

Al Masih (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus.  And to a certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress, cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.

 

The drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, collapsing into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood.  The sandalwood lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the harvest and all the good things to eat in the cellar.  This series of transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions.  At once evocative and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of piney, outdoorsy incense, as well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler. 

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

I have to put my hand up here and admit that I like almost every dupe of Amber Absolute that has crossed my desk.  I would wear any of them quite happily in the place of the Tom Ford, because they are invariably lighter, thinner, and don’t quite feel like the twenty-four-hour marathon that the real deal entails.  That said, every single Amber Absolute dupe, when worn side by side with the real Amber Absolute, suffers greatly in comparison.

 

And this is no different.  The dupe is satisfying and rich on its own but, worn in proximity to the great Tom Ford, reveals itself to fall far short of the mark.  Amber Absolute has an enormously thick and heavy labdanum note, possibly Ambreine, a smoky, caramelized labdanum material (natural) owned by Biolandes.  This produces an intoxicating brew of caramelized toffee, leather, and burning incense.  It is thick and bittersweet, puffed up on all sides by a singed marshmallow note that makes it as hefty as a sleeping toddler.  As a perfume experience, it is remarkably well-balanced.

 

This dupe – like most others – does not feature that special thick furriness of labdanum or the vanillic cushion of benzoin.  The textural density is not right, therefore.  The bitterness of the incense notes has been replicated well, but compared to the original, the resins appear watered down.  Additionally, there is a minty freshness to the amber absent in the original, whose amber is more richly toffee-like, with whiskyish undertones.  In fact, the tart herbal twinge brings the dupe closer to Ambre Sultan than Amber Absolute (although the Serge Lutens is itself far thicker, more resinous, and more full-bodied).

 

In time, this dupe settles into a plain incense amber that, while nice, is nothing to write home about.  It subtlety and near-translucence compared to the Tom Ford means that it might make for a good option for summer or for those occasions when you want a nip of amber rather than the full jeroboam.  Not a great dupe, therefore, but not a bad all-purpose amber oil.

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Woody Allen once said that ‘Pizza is a lot like sex. When it is good, it is really good. When it is bad, it is still pretty good’.  The same could be said for Amber Absolute dupes.  Even at their worst, they still smell absolutely fantastic.

 

Even though it is not a hundred percent accurate, this is the best dupe for Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute that I have personally experienced.  It lacks the essential herbal-bitter depth of the incense component that makes the original so ‘tasty’, and as with all dupes of resin-heavy fragrances, there is a thickness missing in the body of the dupe.  In particular, the expensive lushness of high quality labdanum and benzoin is just not there.  The smoky marshmallow note is also missing, and there is a weird mintiness to the amber that does not feature in the original.

 

Despite these niggles, however, this dupe manages to nail the essential fruitcake-like deliciousness of the original.  It gets you about two-thirds of the way to the real Amber Absolute, and for me personally, that is good enough.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Nazar Strutynsky on Unsplash

 

Amber Afghani (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Afghani is in many ways a traditional Eastern take on amber – dusty, vegetal, and medicinal, with an undercurrent of iodine provided by saffron and henna.  This is an amber that walks on the dry, leathery side of labdanum, rather than its unctuously sheep-fatty one.  In style and feel, Amber Afghani is similar to Royal Amber Blend by ASAQ, albeit greener and spicier.  Although floral notes and spices are listed, only saffron is perceptible, although there is a touch of the oily coolness of black pepper further on.

 

Amber Afghani is more monolithic than complex, and not something I would ever call refined.  However, if you’re in the market for a basic vegetal amber, and you’re more cowboy than cowgirl, then this is a pleasant and reasonably-priced option.  To add interest, I suggest layering it with rose and oud oils, or underneath Western (spray) soliflores such as Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia or Tuberose.

 

 

 

Amber Ash Sheikh (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Ash Sheikh is a potent labdanum bomb with the feral honk of freshly-pored road tar and hot ash.  Subtle it is most certainly not, but if you are a fan of smoky tobacco fragrances such as Jeke, Tribute, and Patchouli 24, and want a current of sweet, molasses-like amber running beneath, then Amber Ash Sheikh is a must-try.

 

On my skin, it is mostly a fearsomely smoky labdanum bomb.  Labdanum is a resin from the rockrose plant that can read as ashy, tobacco-ish, and leathery, or alternatively, as wet, unctuous, and caramelic.  The way the resin will read in any given scenario depends on the direction the perfumer decides to take it in.

 

The direction taken here, with Amber Ash Sheikh, is firmly that of the ashy, dry leather.  The opening is so parched it sucks all the moisture out of one’s mouth, but there’s a molasses note hiding behind the ash, bringing a bitter, tarry edge for depth and texture.  It is somewhat like the play on ashy and wet seen in Soleil de Jeddah by Stephane Humbert Lucas.  But unlike that perfume, there are no bright fruit notes in Amber Ash Sheikh with which to relieve the unrelenting dryness.

 

Over time – and this is an oil that plays out on the skin over the course of a day or more if you don’t shower (heck, even if you do shower) – the bittersweet molasses note emerges from the shadows, imbuing the blend with a ‘black’ note pitched halfway between soft black licorice and buckwheat honey.  The stickiness of this accord is leavened by sour, dusty wood notes, which have a mitti-like pungency to them.  Later, the mukhallat smoothes out into a more traditionally buttery version of labdanum, nicely granulated with a gritty, bittersweet resin that recalls both the incensey amber in Amber Absolute by Tom Ford and the dried-fruit, copal bitterness of Norma Kamali Incense.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

Amber Chocolate (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Who on earth could possibly dislike something that smells so delicious?  Amber Chocolate is roasted tonka bean shaved into a cup of the creamiest hot chocolate you can imagine.  It is spiced with a touch of cinnamon, black pepper, or even chili providing a little burn at the back of your tongue.  Thankfully, the spice element has been carefully calibrated to merely texturize the surface of the scent a little, not turn it into a niche-style freak show with curry or B.O. hiding out in the gourmandise, waiting to spring a nasty little surprise on you.

 

Amber Chocolate is a very thick, fluffy scent, and almost entirely linear.  In fact, it is remarkably similar to the yummy but simple goodness of Café Cacao by En Voyage.  If you love the smell of dark chocolate with a caramelized ‘condensed milk’ edge, then you’ll love Amber Chocolate.  If you don’t, or if you’re hoping it will evolve into something drier or less obviously edible, then you’re out of luck.

 

The attar format has much better longevity and duration than the eau de parfum, which fixes the common complaint that most people had with the original.  In fact, when it comes to the attar, it is as if the scent refuses to die.  It comes as a very dark, thick liquid that goes on like tar and stains the skin.  The drydown is finely textured, with hints of toasted bitter almond, hay, and an accord like burnt coffee grounds.  For me, Amber Chocolate lives up to the name of ‘delicious tonka bean’ better than Fève Délicieuse does, but I guess Dior got there first.

 

 

 

Amber & Frankincense / Amber Oudh #3 With Frankincense (Aloes of Ish)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although this quarter tola bottle came to me labeled as ‘Amber & Frankincense’, I am reasonably certain that this is Amber Oudh #3 With Frankincense, based on what I can discern of the notes.  The first portion of this oil is pleasant if a little predictable – a dry, vegetal Indian-style amber with lots of raw, rubbery saffron and the lime-peel astringency of frankincense.  So far, so traditional.  Medicinal and severe, this Indian style of amber accord sits in direct opposition to souk-style ambers, which are focused on sweet, creamy combinations of labdanum, benzoin, and vanilla.

 

However, soon one notices the distinct presence of ambergris – salty, bright, and ozonic – which alleviates the dourness of the Indian amber accord, blowing gusts of sea air up its skirt.  The amber/ambergris accord becomes flushed with a thin layer of rubbery smoke, like a lump of resin seen through the haze of steam from a samovar.  Like most ambergris-laden affairs, there is also a note of charred leather, reminiscent of choya nakh, the destructive distillation of roasted seashells that many attar makers use to give their perfumes a salty, leathery pungency.

 

The heart is amber and smoky black tea, elevated by a transparent texture, like sugar water, vodka, or even champagne running through the pores of the resin, making it possible for the wearer to smell each note clearly.  This is unusual in an attar, because the natural density of oil tends to compress more than it aerates.  It is a quieter, more translucent take on the smoky booze, black tea, and dried fruit of Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire.

 

At one stage, there is a fleeting impression of the mint-leaf freshness of a Borneo-style oud, but this soon recedes into the smoky, rubbery black tea accent.  The drydown is a pleasurable affair of smoky, sweet resins and vanilla, approaching the singed marshmallow delight of Amber Absolute.  This is the little mukhallat that could.  Belying its low price, it walks you confidently through several styles of amber, starting off with the saffron-tinged medicinal amber of India, then shifting into a more Arabic ambergris-amber accord, then a Russian samovar (boozy, black tea) amber, to finally, a Western style amber in the incensey mold of Amber Absolute.  A prize at any price.

 

 

 

Amber Musc (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Amber Musc by Narciso Rodriguez riffs on the basic framework of the original Narciso Rodriguez For Her EDT (sweet orange blossom, musk, and patchouli) by adding amber and oud notes to spin it off into a more oriental direction.  The result?  A fragrance that retains the clean skin sexiness of the original while gaining a vaguely soukish exoticism. 

 

The dupe oil is virtually identical, down to the antiseptic cleanliness of the musk and the stiffening breeze of Iso E Super in the drydown.  The dupe more than adequately stands in for the original, which costs over two hundred dollars for the big bottle at full retail.

 

When a fragrance is constructed from entirely synthetic ingredients such as white musk, Maltol, and oud replacers anyway, you begin to wonder what exactly you are shelling out the big bucks for.  The special raw materials?  Nah.  Past a certain price point, you are paying for the brand name and the perceived exclusivity or rarity of the scent.  Given that Amber Musc is such a basic bitch to begin with, you might as well just buy the dupe and be done with it. 

 

 

 

Photo by Andrea Donato on Unsplash

 

Amberosia (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amberosia is a parched amber with the texture of paper singed briefly at the edges with a blowtorch.  Picture the driftwood amber note subtracted from L’Air du Desert Marocain fused with aromatic rosewood, and that’s the basic character of this mukhallat.  Herbs and roses play second fiddle here, stepping back to let that austere, slightly cowboy-ish woody amber take the stage.  People who love, for example, the desert-dry woods, amber, and restrained rose in Czech and Speake’s No. 88 or Dior’s Ambre Nuit, will also appreciate Amberosia.

 

Towards the end of its life, Amberosia takes on a surprisingly barbershop-like quality.  You can almost taste the dry slap of a leather shaving strap against a freshly-shaved jaw.  There is a touch of soap, steam, herbs, and a tantalizing whiff of clean male skin.  These barbershoppy notes rough up the amber and wipe out any lingering traces of rose.  At this point, Amberosia is reminiscent of hairy-chested retro masculines such as Sahara by Mekkanische Rose, Ker by Bogue Profumo, and even somewhat, the far drydown of Peety by O’Driu.  Fans of gentlemanly colognes, wet shaving, and the traditional grooming art of the barbershop will adore this one. 

 

 

 

Amber Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The original By Kilian Amber Oud is a refined take on a Western-style amber – leathery, woody, and ever-so-slightly-characterless.  There’s a whiff of campfire smoke at the edges, but its unique selling point is really its politeness.  An amber that merely hints at the spice and roughness of other ambers, and an oud that is non-existent.  I am always surprised at this scent’s popularity until I remember that it is the perfect solution for people who dislike both amber and oud.

 

The dupe gets the basic scent profile right.  But where the original is discreet, the dupe is faint to the point of being undetectable.  Oils are generally closer-wearing than sprays, so one expects the volume to be a bit lower.  But in exchange for quietness, there should be a certain level of richness to compensate, and this fails to deliver.  A nice aroma, therefore, but in a concentration more suited to a body massage oil than a perfume.

 

 

 

Amber Oudh (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Oudh is a waxy ‘coddled fruit’ amber with a chaser of rose and saffron for that essential taste of exotica.  Many a nose will interpret the astringency of the saffron or henna as oud, which is exactly how lower-end mukhallats achieve that oudy, medicinal feel without charging for the real stuff.

 

Credit where credit is due, Amber Oudh is no better or worse than any other ambery mukhallat on the low end of the scale.  It doesn’t read as overly synthetic, and I would recommend it quite happily as part of a beginner’s starter pack on mukhallats.  However, it doesn’t hold up to close inspection, collapsing quickly into the soapy white musk that seems to be the natural end of most Rasasi oils. 

 

 

 

Amber Paste (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Amber Paste is the breakout star of the Kuumba Made collection, garnering rave reviews and fierce customer loyalty from people who don’t even wear perfume on the regular.  The fact that Kuumba Made is sold in Wholefoods and other emporia means that it is accessible to broad cross-section of people.  There is something pleasingly democratic about the line, with Amber Paste flying the flag for the brand in a big way.

 

They weren’t kidding with the name, though.  Amber Paste is definitely a paste rather than an oil, its sticky texture making it more difficult to apply to skin than the other blends in the line.  However, the slight fussiness of application is more than worth it because this amber satisfies with its balance between dark, herbaceous topnotes, and golden basenotes.  There is even some similarity, briefly, between Amber Paste and that bellwether of ambers, Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens, although Amber Paste is less complex from every angle.

 

Amber Paste quickly settles into a powdery vanilla once the initial roar of resin and bay leaf has abated, developing a certain waxen blandness that makes it perfect for casual wear or for layering under more complex amber fragrances.  It may not satisfy the niche hound, but for everyone else, this is a great amber option.

 

 

 

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

 

Ambre Cuir (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Ambre Cuir (‘Amber Leather’) exerts the sort of soapy, traditional shaving-cream appeal that will seduce men nostalgic for the feel of the leather strap and hot towel against their skin.  Ambre Cuir proved to be the most praised Henry Jacques among the men of Basenotes during a 2018 Henry Jacques sample pass, and with good reason – it has one of the most natural opoponax notes I’ve smelled in oil form.

 

Opoponax is a rather medicinal-smelling resin that smells partially cool, like herbal shaving foam, and partially warm, with an intensely spicy, balsamic underbite similar to cinnamon and clove.  Here, the resin has been pulled in the direction of cool by way of lavender absolute up top and a stony frankincense-iris pairing in the heart.

 

Handsome and acerbic, Ambre Cuir smells old-school in the most elegant way possible.  Fans of Dia Man (Amouage) will likely love Ambre Cuir, as it possesses something of the same silvery, soapy refinement, and a similar way of grinding rough, sticky resins into a bone-pale powder using Florentine orris as grist.

 

 

 

Ambrecuir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

I would say that Ambrecuir is one of my favorites from the Sultan Pasha stable of mukhallats, but given the quality of his work, that is like throwing a pebble onto the beach and hoping to hit sand.  Ambrecuir is essentially a plush ‘white’ leather crème cut here and there with the sour, fruity funk of castoreum.  In theme, it riffs on the elegance of the contrast between the cool, powdered whiteness of orris butter and the rough blackness of varnished shoe leather as pioneered by Cuir Ottoman by Parfum d’Empire.

 

Where these fragrances diverge is in the drydown, when all traces of the creamy, iris suede have melted away.  While Cuir Ottoman goes on to develop a rich, powdery hay-amber accord that makes one think of brocaded liveries and pompadours of Versailles, the sour castoreum pulsing through Ambrecuir’s amber keep us firmly in the souk, pressed up against the heaving mass of bodies.  Indeed, fans of Rania J.’s Ambre Loup might appreciate Ambrecuir, as might lovers of Serge Lutens’ spicy Cuir Mauresque. 

 

Something to note here – a pleasingly antiseptic saffron darts in and out of Ambrecuir’s base, cutting the richness of the other notes like a knife worth’s of dried blood and iodine.  Without this spicy, medicinal note, Ambrecuir might have become as bloated as a corpse after a hot day in the river.  It is this balance of sweet and medicinal notes that gives Ambrecuir its curious delicacy and refinement.  The saffron-tinged amber also gives the mukhallat an ancestral link to the sternly vegetal, iodine-tinged ambers of Northern India, a category of fragrance that is one hundred percent sugar- and vanilla-free. 

 

A rich dulce de leche base brings it all home, though, turning away from Mother India and back towards Paris.  Anyone familiar with the ridiculously rich dried-fruit amber and benzoin duet in Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute may feel tears come to their eyes.  A gorgeous bastard child of leather and amber, Ambrecuir is for those who take their leather with a side of cream.

 

 

 

Ambre Narcotique (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre Narcotique will induce a state of bliss in anyone who loves thick, spicy labdanum bombs such as Amber Absolute, Ambre Sultan, or Ambre Loup.  It opens with the bitter, leathery aroma of labdanum resin, introducing an animalic dark chocolate note that gets my Spidey senses tingling.  From that point onwards, however, this pleasantly bitter note is masked by a thick sieving of dusty benzoin, sweet myrrh (opoponax), and vanilla.  If you love incensey ambers with spices, herbs, and rosy notes operating at a more subliminal level, then it doesn’t get much better than this.

 

 

 

Ambre Sauvage (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre Sauvage is a smooth-as-silk amber with a nutty, slightly plasticized leather undertone to balance out the sweetness.  In contrast to the dark, smoky incense of Ambre Narcotique, this amber showcases the buttery pleasure that is the marriage between a toffee-rich amber and a spanking new pair of leather brogues.  Not terribly complex, but like a caramel mocha latte, it goes down so easily it is hard to begrudge its simplicity.  Fans of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s L’Eau d’Ambre Extreme or Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114 will find their bliss here.

 

 

 

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

 

Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for even a sample of it.  Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further.  Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like unattainability, scarcity, and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it.  Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha has stepped in with his take on the original Tribute.

 

All the Âme Sombre variations revolve around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like smoke from the censer at High Mass.  This frankincense is surrounded by a very good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine.  The florals never succeed in speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense – they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like sunlight through a stained glass window.

 

In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco, ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres.  The bitterness is alleviated somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies away completely.

 

Âme Sombre Infusion Oud is the most expensive and opulent version of Âme Sombre.  It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly underneath the attar itself.

 

The Oud Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of pure oud oil).  The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften the essentially bitter character of the scent.  This version, although expensive and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute, and my personal favorite.

 

Âme Sombre Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now discontinued attar.  Âme Sombre Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed separately.  

 

Âme Sombre Grade I begins with an incredibly lush, lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with light and air.  Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the austere, pine-like frankincense and the sourish cedar.  Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the tone of the attar somber and serious.  Grade I is slightly darker, more phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion.  Grade I employs more of a focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.

 

Overall, Âme Sombre Grade I feels more Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern.  There is a fresh juniper note in the background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern forest’ tonality.  In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination.  It is also intensely powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.

 

Âme Sombre Grade II is more tobacco-focused than Ame Sombre Grade I and has a sharper rose element.  When compared directly to Grade I, it reveals a big-boned, souk-ish amber-rose combination not a million miles away from sweet mukhallat-style fragrances like Raghba, Lateefa, and 24 Gold.  Not that this style doesn’t have a rough-hued, sexy charm of its own, you understand.  It is just that nobody in their right mind would pay Sultan Pasha prices for the kind of thing that sells for $30-$40 on eBay for 100 milliliters shipped. 

 

The tobacco, powered by the super-powerful synthetic Kephalis, is dry, papery, and rather strident.  Unlike Âme Sombre Oud Infusion and Âme Sombre Grade I, Ame Sombre Grade II contains a small quantity of synthetic aromachemicals.  In some circles, this piece of information seems to have sunk this version of the attar as being low-quality or inferior to the other versions.  I would argue mildly against that categorization because, although it contains some synthetics, it does not smell terribly inferior in quality.  Admittedly, it does lack the smoky, aquiline mystery of the other two versions.

 

Still, you get what you pay for, and who knows, you might just be in the market for a sweeter, friendlier version of Tribute.  The severity of the original does not sit well with quite a few women, for example, so this version might be the right pick.  In short, Âme Sombre Grade II is a pleasing rose-tobacco blend that would work well for people who like Wardasina or any of the Lateefa or 24 Gold scents – somewhat loud, rosy ambers that project a clear message of affability from a distance, thus perfect for clubbing.

 

 

 

Anubis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Egyptian Kyphi, Egyptian Amber, Egyptian Musk, Darkness of the Dead

 

 

Kyphi is a type of compacted incense used by the ancient Egyptians, consisting of herbs, gums, resins, and woods powdered down into dust, bound with wine and honey to form briquettes of incense, and subsequently burned on ceremonial censers.

 

Kyphi differs from other forms of incense and bakhoor mainly in its inclusion of unusual aromatics such as mastic, juniper berry, turpentine (pine resin), calamus, and rush reeds, as well as its binding agents of honey, raisins, and wine.  Nowadays, scents referencing kyphi will normally use medicinal, bitter, or green resin notes that are not often seen in other types of incense.  They will often include a wine, honey, or raisin facet too.

 

Anubis opens with the same vegetable oil-like note noticeable in almost all the NAVA blends.  Once this dissipates, the bitter herbaciousness of the kyphi rises to the fore, mingling with a low key amber-resin accord for body, and an attractively musty, medicinal undertone.  True to the original raison d’être of kyphi, the blend smells purifying, albeit in a wispy, barely-there manner.  In other words, this is not a heavy or rich blend.  Its essential character is peppery and green – subtly bitter even.

 

Anubis does get sweeter and muskier as time goes on, picking up a not entirely unpleasant headshoppiness in the process (I assume that the Darkness of the Dead accord has something to do with patchouli).  Good, but I think I’d prefer this in an oil burner than as a personal fragrance.

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is one of Al Haramain’s bestsellers, and justifiably so.  A fabulously thick, potent oil featuring a fruity pink rose, creamy sandalwood, and sweet amber, it paints a picture of eastern exotica in very broad brushstrokes.  No oud, either real or fake, no matter what you think you may be smelling.  However, there is a woodsy, almost coffee-like note swimming around in the syrup that’s deliberately open to misinterpretation, so if you want to close your eyes and pretend, then who am I to say otherwise?

 

Attar al Kaaba is a great starter ambery mukhallat.  A simple, and accessible and quite lovely rendition of the typical ‘attar’ smell, it will do the trick when you want to smell exotic and alluring in a slightly ‘foreign’ way.  It is quite sweet, syrupy even, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased my samples of Maison Anthony Marmin, Hyde & Alchemy, Mellifluence, Kuumba Made, Rasasi, Mr. Perfume, Al Haramain, NAVA and Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics.  My samples of oils from Clive Christian, Abdes Salaam Attar and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands.  The Aloes of Ish and Henry Jacques samples were sent to me by two separate but equally kind Basenotes friends. 

 

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 Krystal Ng on Unsplash 

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Oud Oudy mukhallats Review The Attar Guide

Oudy Mukhallat Reviews: D-W

23rd May 2022

 

 

The oud reviews continue!  Reminder – we have moved away from reviews of pure oud oils (which are grouped and alphabetized here: 0-C, D-K, L-O, and P-Y) to reviews of oudy mukhallatsMukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled or compounded elsewhere. Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor).  Generally, mukhallats are viewed by Arabs and Persians as the perfect vehicle for oud oil.  Indeed, given the preference in the Middle East for rich, complex blended perfumes, oudy mukhallats might even be preferable to wearing the oud oil neat.

 

The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one.  Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).  The rose-oud mukhallat is the most famous type of oudy mukhallat in the world, providing the basic template for the thousands of Montale, Mancera and Armani rose-ouds that now populate the market.

 

But before you start reading, oud-heads and oud newbies, do check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.  Then read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.

 

 

 

Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan (Al Haramain)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

At this price point, which currently stands at about $23 per tola, there is zero chance that there is any real oud in the formula of Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan.  And yet, this does not stop this cheap little mukhallat from smelling authentically oudy.  Constructed from – I suspect – a robust core of oud synthetics bracketed on either end by tree moss, vetiver, amber, and some industrial smoke notes, Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan passes pretty convincingly as oud oil for much of its time on the skin.

 

The name Kalimantan is designed to pull our expectations in the direction of Borneo, the island formerly known as Kalimantan, a place famous for a style of oud that is sparkling, sweet, and green-resinous. The oud note in this does not resemble Borneo-style oud to my nose, but it does possess a sweet, non-animalic woody character that is pleasing.

 

The rubbery, almost cheesy facets of this perfume oil remind me briefly of the rubbery oud in By Kilian’s Pure Oud, a perfume based on the aroma of Laotian oud. But I won’t tie myself into knots pinning down the specifics of this oil, and neither should you – not at this price. Simply enjoy it for the illusion of oud oil it manages to pull off.

 

Sweet, resinous amber and a dank green vetiver note bring up the rear and extend the rubbery oud notes for as far as they will go. A cheap oil that manages to construct an oud oil aroma this convincingly with synthetics? It makes me wonder how many of the oud oils sold as pure are really that pure, when it is this hard to tell.  

 

 

 

Photo by Alexandra Kikot on Unsplash

 

Ghaliyah 85 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Ghaliyah 85 is yet another variation on the Ghaliyah attar theme, this time with the addition of a vintage Cambodi oud oil from 1985, myrrh, and a noticeably large amount of ambergris. I find this variation to be the most interesting and engaging of the Ghaliyah series, probably because none of the materials smell exactly of themselves, especially in the opening. There is a hint of mystery to the almost indistinguishable mass of oily florals, resins, and woods, all glossed with a slick of clear nail varnish, that first rises to greet the nose.

 

As the opening notes begin to loosen up, the oud comes out to play. The oud oil used here reminds me somewhat of Ensar Oud’s vintage Kambodi 1976 in that it smells as sweet as a regular Cambodi-style oud oil, but presents a far darker, weathered version of itself. Think less jammy red berries and more ancient wood stained magenta with sour plum juice, tar, and resin. The ghost of berries -the bittersweet twang of fruit skin and fruit mold, not fresh pulp – lingers in the grain of the wood. The oud is prickly and peculiar, a strange effluent from an industrial fire that is at once poisonous and narcotizing. 

 

 

 

Ghaliyah Hakusni (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Ghaliyah Hakusni is enjoyable because it combines many of the key features of the other attars in the Ghaliyah range, thus giving you the best of all worlds in one single oil. What it loses in focus, it makes up for in richness. There is the tarry, gasoline-tinged jasmine floral from Pursat, the creamy, musky champaca flower from Kacheri, the rich, aged berry incense smack of the Cambodi oud from 85, and the same myrrh, saffron, and rose triad seen in several of the Ghaliyah attars, in different combinations.

 

Thanks to a touch of birch tar, cade oil, and frankincense, Ghaliyah Hakusni displays a strong but not overpowering current of smoke. The smoke element is not the charred leather sort, but rather, the cleansing, fir balsam-inflected smoke from a forest fire where soaking-wet branches of conifers and spruce are being burned. The vaporous greenness of the smoke gives the blend a lift, freshening all the resins, oud, and tarry, burnt florals.

 

There is a purity and sincerity to most all the attars in the Rising Phoenix Perfumery Ghaliyah series, but Hakusni feels natural to the point of being crunchy granola. A swoon-worthy oud blend that will ease beginners in, as well as a clever microcosm of the entire series, I recommend it highly to those interested in finding a good gateway to the RPP Ghaliyah range.

 

 

 

Photo by KHAWAJA UMER FAROOQ on Unsplash

 

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

First, a piece of nomenclature: any attar bearing the word ‘Kaaba’ in its title refers to the famous black cube that stands in the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, around which the sea of Muslim pilgrims moves during the annual hajj, a special ritual called the tawaf. The pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj is the sacred duty of all adult Muslims, who must make the trip at least once in their lives. The Kaaba is there to protect a sacred black stone that was said to have been placed there by Muhammad in 605 A.D. Ghilaf is the Urdu word for the black and gold cloth that covers the Kaaba, literally meaning ‘sheath’ (Ghilaf seems to be analogous to kiswah, the Arabic name for the black cloth). 

 

Ghilaf is a clever name for any rose-oud attar because the cloth itself, with its band of gold threads richly embroidered onto a matte black background, is a good metaphor for the contrasts inherent to the classic rose-oud pairing. Like streaks of sunlight on black velvet, the brightness of the rose illustrates the darkness of oud, and the darkness of oud throws the brightness of the rose into relief.

 

In my experience, rose-oud attars are sublime only when two things happen: a high content load of superior raw materials, and a perfect balance between the light and dark elements of the blend. The first, in attar perfumery, will depend on how much the attar maker and his customers care about the quality of the raw materials. Some people prefer the modern horsepower of synthetics, even in attars, and therefore, there are attars that smell less natural (but more powerful) than others. Most small, artisan attar makers cater for an audience that cares deeply about the naturalness of raw materials. They go to great lengths to secure the best rose oil, the best wild oud, tincture their own materials, and so on, all with the purpose of simply setting the materials in the blend like polished jewels and allowing them to shine as nature intended.

 

The Rising Phoenix Perfumery is one of those small, artisan attar-making outfits that cares first and foremost about having the most beautiful raw materials to showcase in its blends. Ghilaf-e-Kaaba features a rare, steam-distilled Gallica rose otto that displays a bright, silky character – not as jammy or beefy as a Turkish rose, and not as lemony-sharp as a Ta’if rose. The oud is a wild Hindi oil from Assam, a forceful, raw-edged spice and leather affair that comes at you all guns blazing but later dies back to reveal a stately bone structure.

 

If great raw materials are a question of selection, then the second is a question of alchemy – that strange magic that happens when a talented attar maker knows what to do with his bounty. Balance in attars and mukhallats is more difficult to achieve than one might imagine, because of the way naturals behave, continuing to evolve and even deepen over time. In a way, rose notes are like citrus oils in that their brightness is volatile and changeable, while oud, while deeper, also has its own set of permutations to cycle through, from cowhide, to leather, to woodsmoke, to herbs, and so on. The attar maker must consider not only how each raw material will behave but when. 

 

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba is a surprise because normally, in rose-oud attars, one note dominates before giving way to the other. But with this attar, sometimes it smells like oud, sometimes like rose, despite the aroma being exactly the same from one moment to the next. From the sample, I smell a deep, fiery rose otto; on the skin, the first thing I smell is the pungent, slightly raw-edged Hindi oud. Moments later, although I can’t say that the attar has changed or evolved, I can suddenly smell the rose, but not the oud. At the rare times the two notes appear together, the blend smells excitingly coarse and strong, like a retsina wine, full of sour, woody tannins and turpentine.

 

Both the main raw materials used here are spicy and a bit fierce, so that sets the tone. The Gallica rose otto burns with a purity that could cut through cloth, and the Hindi oud, although smooth, has a feral edge reminiscent of just-cured leather skins. After a rough but exciting start, this very potent blend starts to relax, meandering along a languid path towards woodsmoke, dry leather, and woods tinged with the sour brightness of rose petals.

 

A custom blend of floral attars, labdanum, and benzoin is there to support the rose and oud from the base, but the drydown is not particularly ambery, sweet, or powdery. The resins are just there for ballast. In other words, this attar is single-minded; it doesn’t deviate from its central rose-oud script. Ghilaf-e-Kaaba is very Arabic in tone (obviously) but even if it does tread the centuries-old, tried and tested route of rose-oud pairings, the quality of the raw materials distinguishes it. It lasts forever and is phenomenally concentrated, with just one tiny drop required to keep a body pungently scented for twenty-four hours. This is a rose-oud attar for purists and those for whom excellent raw materials are a prerequisite.

 

 

 

Hajr Al Aswad (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Attars bearing this name (or a variation thereof) refer to the Black Stone at the center of the Ka’aba in Mecca and are said to pay homage to the unique smell of the black stone itself. If this attar is true to its inspiration, then the famous black stone must be fragrant with copious amounts of oud, roses, amber, and musk. Despite this lineup of heavy-hitting ingredients, however, Hajr Al Aswad is not overbearing. In fact, something attractively gauzy and light-wearing about its texture ushers it out of the Very Big Scent category and into the Everyday Easy Wear one – a plus for anyone who wants to smell discreetly exotic rather than loudly so.

 

The oud, unusually for oud, graces only the topnotes. It is clean and medicinal, with a fine aged wood character that adds a tone of gentle nobility. Its patina of old wooden furniture coats all the other notes in a fine layer of dust, tamping down noise levels further to a hush. Once the haze of oud lifts, a subtle duet of rose and musk muscles its way to the fore. Velvety and cushioned in feel, no one note dominates over another. The base is faintly ambery, but any sweetness is kept in check by the smoky sourness of the remnants of the rose and oud notes. Overall, Hajr Al Aswad is resinous, tart, and woody rather than vanillic or creamy.  Its sense of restraint will please anyone who likes the idea of a musky rose-oud attar but would prefer a sotto voce version.

 

 

 

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

 

Heritage Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

I walk into an old Chinese apothecary. At the back of the rather dark, dusty space, there is an ancient wooden medicine cabinet, the kind with hundreds of separate little drawers and compartments. The air around it is thick with the brown smell of old wood varnish that has broken down and seeped into the air. I open the little drawers and inside I find all manner of dried, desiccated oddities like dried elephant penis, unidentifiable dried herbs, and pieces of what looks like human ears.

 

Everything smells leathery, pungent, and aged. There is a hint of varnish, and something terpenic. The old Chinese man watching me explains that these dried and salted things can be used to cure all kind of modern-day ailments. It is an undeniably strange smell – medicinal, ancient, woody – but also clean in a spiritually rousing way. It is a smell more than a scent, an experience more than a perfume. It is not something that lends itself to easy interpretation, at least not with the tools of the Western mind. The effect of Heritage Blend is that of stepping off a sunny street into a darkened doorway and suddenly falling down a wormhole into a different time and place.

 

Later, a drier, cleaner woods accord moves into place, with the more familiar scent of logs splitting on an open fire, as well as sheaves of saddle leather being aired out in the hot, gluey fumes of the tannery. The scent slowly transitions from the spicy, medicinal sourness at the start to these sweeter, crustier accents of wood and leather in the base. 

 

This mukhallat is a great introduction for the Westerner to the mysterious smell that is oud. Heritage patently contains a quantity of the real deal, and for a beginner, it is a thrill to finally catch a glimpse of the material that so many Western firms spend peanuts trying to emulate using synthetics and nagamortha. Heritage doesn’t shock the beginner’s nose with an overdose of sour funk, however. Rather, it charts a gentle and meandering course through the neural pathways of oud, flanking the oud with other notes to draw attention to its main features: medicine, varnish, dust, wood, leather, spice.   


Texturally-speaking, Heritage is quite thick and brown. It has a powerful smell right off the bat, but it does not smell at all barnyardy or as animalic as one might expect. Supposedly, there is rose and quite a lot of it, but to my nose, this reads more as a potpourri-ish spice that adds depth to the leathery saffron. 

 

No single Western fragrance is similar in effect or overall smell to Heritage Blend. The closest are the pungent pomander fragrances that Diptyque used to put out in the seventies and eighties, like L’Eau and Eau Lente. Or possibly a fragrance such as Onda by Vero Profumo, which is equally sepulchral and resistant to interpretation. If you can want to experience the ancient, primordial-ooze attraction of real oud, but with the polish of a more complex perfume, then Heritage is an excellent place to start. 

 

 

 

Jewel Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

The story of Jewel Blend is the story of my own personal breakthrough with the scent of oud oil. To begin to appreciate the complex smell of aged oud, I had to reach back into the prehistoric part of my brain, unlock a little door, and just stand still for a while to let it all in. It truly is this oudy smell that marks the greatest difference between East and West, and all the cultural and memory associations in between.

 

In my case, appreciation did not come immediately. I did not find the aged oud in Jewel Blend at all easy to like or understand. In fact, I was so bothered by what I thought of as a hot, sour, rotting-wood smell that I couldn’t see past it. But it is a compelling smell, this aged oud, and I found myself testing it and re-testing it over a period of two weeks. Finally, it all clicked into place for me.

 

I must have tested Jewel Blend alone five or six times, just about scraping the bottom of my small sample vial, when I just one day decided to apply a tiny amount, let it rest, and not smell it too closely for the first hour. I applied a small smear to the back of my hand. And as I went about my business, small but persistent wafts of something deeply woody, warm, and spicy began to hit my nose.

 

When I put my nose closer to my skin, although I can’t say that the basic smell of aged oud had changed, something in me had changed so that I could now perceive the smell in a different way. It is possible that my mind simply became more open to the possibility of the unknown. Now what I was smelling was dark, mysterious, damp, woody, but also sweet and sour at once, and later, warm, full of spices and amber. I repeat this experience here in the hope that it might reach the eyes of someone who is also struggling with their first exposure to real oud oil. My breakthrough experience was incredibly important because it allowed me to finally experience the full beauty and complexity of oud oil.

 

The trick was in forcing my mind to disassociate the sour aroma of oud oil with negative aromas such as bile and cow shit, and train it instead to link its smell to that of good fermented things instead, like leather, fruit, pickles, tea, and matted hay. Freed from negative associations, the mind begins to make new connections and build a honeycomb structure of nice things to which it now defaults upon smelling oud. Resetting the trigger switch in the mind is crucial to opening it up to new experiences – just like with food.

 

After this Damascene conversion, I began to appreciate how Jewel moved seamlessly from this warm, sweet-sour, intensely woody, dusty, ancient-smelling oud accord to warm, salty amber without missing a step. In fact, the base seems to be a mash-up of their Amber Jewels and Royal Amber AAA blends, which is no bad thing in my book. More than anything, however, I appreciate Jewel Blend because it opened that door in my brain to allow me to properly appreciate oud oil in general. I dearly wish I had invested in a bottle before ASAQ reformulated all their oils in 2014.

 

 

 

Lanna (Mellifluence)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Lanna pairs a pungent Old School Thai oud oil with an aged patchouli oil for a full-on experience of rotting wood meeting rotting earth, whether you asked for it or not. It is a no-holds-barred approach to an oud mukhallat that works as long as you can stomach the stench of fermenting leather and barnyard filth clinging to every hair in your nostrils. Forget about the patchouli – it took one look at the oud and ran away screaming for Mother. Not for tender noses.

 

 

 

Photo by Caleb Shong on Unsplash

 

Mehndi Oud Imperial (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

One of the better oudy mukhallats I have come across. Though incontrovertibly dominated by oud, Mehndi Oud Imperial has been given a spicy lightness by way of hina attar and a golden sweetness by way champaca, rendering it a more multi-dimensional and exciting take on the oudy mukhallat theme than is usual.

 

The opening is pure Cambodi-style oud, pungent in its dried fruit and caramel intensity. But thanks to a rich assortment of other materials such as sandalwood and florals, the opening soon peels off into a variety of different tracks, ranging from smoky woods to creamy sweetness and the earthy sensuality of hina musk, the complex Indian attar distilled from over a hundred different aromatic herbs, woods, and spices.

 

Champaca and orange blossom add a certain balminess, but this does not result in the mukhallat taking on an overtly floral or feminine character. It is the smoky, tarry oud that reigns supreme here, supported by a spicy leather undertone and the lactic sourness of Australian sandalwood.

 

Mehndi Oud Imperial dries down to a dusty but debonair leather-oud combination with a pleasant smokiness running softly in the background. There is enough light and air between the molecules to allow you and other people in the room space to breathe. In fact, it is the rare oud mukhallat one might wear politely in a professional setting. Zero barn, one hundred percent class.   

 

 

 

Mukhallat Al Farisi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Translating directly to ‘Persian Blend’, this is a nuanced woody attar with a somber feel to it. It will likely appeal to people who prefer subtlety over loud perfumes, and by corollary, frustrate the hell out of people obsessed with the twin Gods of longevidee and sillaaaage. Although the first half is quite oudy in character, a calm woodiness that prevails in the end, making Mukhallat Al Farisi an excellent choice for office and formal wear.

 

Up front, there is a lot of saffron and wood, creating a dusty atmosphere redolent of ancient wooden furniture left to molder in the back of a storeroom. Despite the brief hit of wood varnish and glue vapors, the oud accent in Mukhallat Al Farisi is reminiscent more of a piece of oud wood than the oil itself. And though there is a hint of those famous Cambodi fruit notes, it is as dry as a tannic red wine. No friendly red berries or caramel-slicked juices running down the chin here.

 

The base is mostly sandalwood – probably Australian if the sour, lactic greenness is anything to go by. It reminds me somewhat of homemade yoghurt. My only real complaint here is that the complexity and depth of the first part tapers off too quickly, leaving behind a rather plain, generic woodiness to do all the heavy lifting in the second.  

 

 

 

Mukhallat al Quds (Al Haramain)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat al Quds is an example of how the major Indian and Arabian perfume houses often have both terrible and great perfumes within their own catalogue deliberately aiming for different segments of the market and levels of purchasing power.

 

So, where Ehsas by the same brand is dreck of the worst, chemical-smelling sort, aimed at young men lured into thinking that attars must be a step up from regular perfume by sheer dint of their (implied) exoticism, Mukhallat al Quds is a sublime rose-oud over sandalwood attar that quietly oozes class from every pore. And yet, Mukhallat al Quds sits side by side with Ehsas in the same catalogue, seemingly unembarrassed and unaffected by the proximity.

 

Mukhallat al Quds is excellent. Built around the marriage of a tart Taifi rose and a dark, dusty aged oud, its jagged edges has all been smoothed away by time and careful aging. What remains is a silky, dusty wood note that does indeed smell like ‘precious woods’, the cynical phrase used by modern niche perfumes in notes lists to describe any oud synthetic.

 

The vegetal spiciness of a saffron-tinged amber serves to rough up the smoothness of the woods somewhat, but really, the impression is one of an integrated whole – the dusty sourness of aged oud in balance with the creamy, narcotic sweetness of sandalwood. Highly recommended to fans of gentle, ennobling rose-ouds blends, as well as of the traditional rosy sandalwood attars of India.

 

 

 

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

 

Mukhallat Al Siraj (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Al Siraj (the ‘lamp’ blend) has officially been discontinued by Arabian Oud, and if you ask the staff at the London store, they will charmingly insist that it never existed. However, you can still find this beauty sold online (mostly on eBay). The notes are Laotian oud, Istanbul rose, amber, tobacco flower, and sandalwood. Al Siraj is the first attar I smelled that blew my mind and will therefore always occupy a high position in my list of favorites.

 

Whatever – probably holistic or more likely non-existent – amounts of oud have been used in Al Siraj come across as deliciously smoky and dry, with mercifully none of the animalistic sourness that can scare the bejeezus out of beginners. Despite the lack of funk in the trunk, the oud note is still a little, dare I say it, a bit dirty-sexy-money.

 

The oud is set atop a bain marie of warm caramel flecked with flakes of sea salt, and left to melt into sweet, smoky amber. Amid all this sweet smokiness, a bold Turkish rose swells up and gives it even more lushness. Beautiful, easy to wear, and toothsomely rich from top to bottom, there are few attars as rewarding to wear as Mukhallat Al Siraj. If I could find a steady supply, I might even wear it every day.  

 

 

 

Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.

 

It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness. 

 

The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.

 

In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.

 

 

 

Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

 

Oud Al Amir (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Oud Al Amir pairs a very fruity Cambodi oud with an achingly sweet river of honey, producing an aroma that runs perilously close to the scent of syrup-slicked canned strawberries. There is also a hint of doll head plastic. I don’t know, man. Somebody out there must enjoy this sort of thing.

 

 

 

Oud Cambodi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Not real oud, of course, and certainly not the pure oud distillation suggested by the name – not at this price point. But want a mukhallat that combines honey with incense, amber, and lamb fat? Then you’ve come to the right place. Oud Cambodi is bizarre and almost entirely wearable, a gourmand riff on oud with a savory grease twist in its tail.

 

There is a clue to this attar in its consistency. Slide the plastic applicator out and it forms thick, loopy strings like a spoon lifted out of the treacle jar. The initial hit is head-spinning, the friendly fruitiness of Cambodi oud jostling with a thick, syrupy amber, honey, and the smoke of High Mass. For a hot minute, this accord reminds me of the balance between the bitter, smoky resins and the cinder-toffee amber of Amber Absolute (Tom Ford), and my pleasure receptors go wild. The smoke, wood, dried fruit, and syrupy honey make me think of ancient European cathedrals, wooden pews, and fruitcakes eaten in medieval banquet halls.

 

But then the scent develops a lamb fat note that makes me feel like I am eating honey in a stall with a herd of sheep. This is not entirely unpleasant, I hasten to add. But the secondary aromas of animal fat, wool, and curd remind me that this is not a simple honey and incense amber à la Amber Absolute after all, but something darker and oudier in nature.

 

Taken simply as another entry to the genre of oudy mukhallats, Oud Cambodi immediately distinguishes itself as something a little off the beaten track. I recommend it to lovers of labdanum but also to those who love the scent or texture of goat-curdy Laotian oud. Fans of Oudh Infini by Dusita Parfums, for example, might also like this.

 

 

 

Oudh al Mithali (Rasasi)

Type: ‘oudy’ mukhallat

 

 

Rest assured that no actual oud was harmed in the making of this mukhallat. I was having difficulty pinning down Oudh al Mithali until it finally struck me that it was a blend of all the other mukhallats I have smelled at the cheaper end of the spectrum. It possesses a pleasant but slightly featureless aroma that’s vaguely exotic and ‘attar-ish’, backed by tons of soapy amber tinged with dull-as-dishwasher floral notes.

 

Essentially, it is a pastiche of orientalism cynically knocked up by an Eastern company for a Western audience. I have no doubt that a newcomer’s nose might find this exotic, and I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. But to someone with a bit of smelling experience under their belt, this sort of stuff is a waste of time and skin real estate. Take my advice – put your hard-earned money into something more interesting than Oudh al Mithali.

 

 

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

Oudh Cambodi Maliki (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Oudh Cambodi Maliki is a blend of mature Cambodi oud oil (aged for fifteen years), sandalwood, rose, and musk. That sounds as if it might be heavy but actually, it is a light affair, brimming with fruit juice flavors. For beginners or people who don’t want a too-dominant presence of oud in their blends, Oudh Cambodi Maliki is perfect.

 

The oud here has none of the spicy leather, hay, or funky barnyard notes present in other ouds. In fact, what I appreciate about this blend is that all the most approachable and delicious berry notes of the Cambodi oud have been magnified to the power of ten and placed up top to tempt the nose. The fermented facets of the oud oil are cleverly hidden behind the musk so that they emerge later and very slowly. The way the oud has been handled here is like the nurse who distracts you with jokes, so you don’t even realize that the needle’s already in your arm and five vials of your blood safely siphoned off.

 

Freshly applied to the skin, a basket of fruit flavors jostles for attention – fistfuls of glistening cherries, redcurrants, and blackberries suspended in a clear mint jelly. The aroma is sparkling, light, and as close to edible as one can get. Later, a clean woody oud note takes the center stage, but while it grows in oudiness, the animalic nuances are carefully managed. Aromatic mint and sweet berry notes continue to enliven the blend throughout the day. This is thoroughly acceptable for beginners and for those who are wary of full-on ouds.

 

 

 

Requiem (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

On the face of it, Requiem is a syrupy, animalic rose oud. But something in it proves poisonous to my lymphatic system, causing me to wheeze and my scalp to tighten uncomfortably at the back of my skull. Reactions like this are rare for me and are caused as often as not by a large dose of naturals, Indian patchouli and saffron oils in their purest forms being my latest (and most surprising) nemeses.

 

I will try to describe Requiem as best I can under the circumstances, so bear with me. It seems to be a rich, gouty mixture of fruity Cambodian oud, boyah (oil distilled from the pale, uninfected parts of the agarwood), frankincense, white ambergris, and a feral Hindi oud that is part piss-soaked straw, part freshly-tanned leather.

 

These more animalic elements are floodlit on all sides by a lush, fleshy rose composed using several different types of pure rose ottos and absolutes. The rose smells rather pungent but edible at first, introducing that push-pull tug in your mind between ‘eat me’ and ‘poison’. Then it is simply greasy, like toothpaste smeared onto a rug. There is also a bitter almond undertow that’s not helping dispel the image of the evil queen holding out a cyanide-tipped apple to Snow White.

 

The ending is dry, dry, dry – a bone-crushing combination of vague musks, woods, and amber molecules that reminds me somewhat of the base of Portrait of a Lady, at the precise moment when the berry-tipped rose is consumed wholesale by billowing gusts of acrid incense. I have no doubt that this would be stunning on the right person’s skin. On mine, however, it cuts like a whip.

 

 

 

Rihan Al Aoud (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

At around $250 per tola, Rihan Al Aoud is fairly priced for what I would consider a perfect ‘starter’ oud for women. Rihan is said to contain a blend of different oud oils from ‘Southeastern Asia’, a description that is so maddeningly non-specific that it must be deliberate – a bit of smoke and mirrors designed to gloss over what that blend of oud really entails. My guess is that Rihan Al Aoud contains a mix of plantation oud oils blended expertly with fillers like vetiver, nagamortha, resins, and possibly even some oud synthetics to create a blend that is far smoother and more perfumey than any mix of pure oud oils. 

 

In other words, perfect for the beginner, or a woman, who wants a taste of real oud, but you know, like, not really. There is nothing aged, balsamic, or animalic about the oud in Rihan Al Aoud. Whatever oud has been used here registers simply as a pleasantly smoky ‘buzz’ that clings to the scenery in the background. In fact, it doesn’t smell that much different from Black Agar, the oud synth commonly used to give commercial and niche perfumes the aroma of agarwood chips heated on a burner. Those familiar with Dior’s Leather Oud and Diptyque’s Oud Palao will have some idea what this note smells like. However, it must be noted that in Rihan Al Aoud the dirty, leathery aspects of the Givaudan material are missing completely. This is warm and smoky, but little else.

 

The smoked oud chip accord is further doped up with the fruity-floral mélange beloved of ASAQ in their female blends – a characterless blend of grapey jasmine, orange blossoms, and neroli, fluffed up with an ocean of white musk. This signature accord is so sweet that it almost always approaches pink bubblegum territory, but thankfully, Rihan Al Aoud applies the brakes just in time. Although the flowers are sweet, they are also at least juicy and vibrant, as if someone had sluiced the generic white floral mix with a glass of ice-cold orange juice.

 

Rihan Al Aoud would be a more than acceptable starter oud for women, or for male beginners who don’t mind flowers in with their oud. It smells good, and although it sure ain’t the pure oud blend advertized by ASAQ, it gives the nose a broad idea of what real oud smells like.

 

 

 

Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash

 

Rouh Al Aoud (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Rouh Al Aoud smells wonderful. Better still, as (supposedly) real ouds go, it is easy for a beginner to like and understand. This is a lightly-aged oud oil, blended with some spices, rose, and a touch of musk. What’s particularly appealing about Rouh Al Aoud is its balmy sweetness, created thanks to – I suspect – some unlisted vetiver and tonka in the background. This velvety accord is redolent of piles of sweet hay, pulverized nuts, and soft, nutmeggy woods. There is a brown butter aspect to Rouh Al Aoud that might appeal to fans of Chergui and the older Carons, like Nuit de Noel pure parfum.  There is nothing rotting, fermented, or barnyardy about the oud here.  And not being challenged to a fist-fight by a stinky oud means that the pleasure in smelling it is immediate and uncomplicated.

 

The texture of Rouh Al Aoud is notable.  At first, it is dense, sweet, and compact, like a tin full of compressed icing sugar, almond butter, and hay, with hints of rose and spices.  But when a kind of dustiness moves in to aerate the mix, the simultaneously creamy-syrupy-powdery ‘mouthfeel’ creates the delightful impression of biting into a marron glacé.  This isn’t the Pink Sugar kind of sweetness that will put most men off.  Rouh Al Aoud’s deep sweetness comes from the oud wood itself, the tobacco-ish tonka note, and the nutmeggy spices, rather than from flowers or Maltol.  This is guy- and gal-friendly.

 

 

 

Royal Private Blend (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Royal Private Blend is a limited edition run of two hundred quarter tola bottles, priced at close to $600 a bottle.  Is the juice worth the squeeze?  (Is it ever?)

 

Well.  Listen, it is undeniably high quality.  It contains what reads to my nose as a generous dose of Taifi rose oil, which gives the mukhallat a sharp, spicy green character and a rocket fuel-like forward thrust.  Unusually, the Hindi oud hides shyly behind the rose at first, refusing to exert its aquiline brutality and lending only a wash of antiseptic wood varnish.  There is nothing of the traditional Hindi oud profile here – no leathery spice, briny sourness, or fermented funk.  Instead, the oud note is clean and medicinal, as if scrubbed down hard with hospital bleach.

 

Saffron and Indian ruh khus (a pure vetiver distillation) add a beautifully dry, grassy spice to the balance, tethering the high notes of the rose and oud to the earth and making sure they don’t fly off into the ether.  Royal Private Blend is a beautiful if rather sharply-pitched rendition of the rose-oud theme and strikes me as being quite formal.  If you routinely wear a bespoke three-piece suit to work, then Royal Private Blend is the kind of thing you might wear to match. 

 

 

 

Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

 

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalid Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalid Blend is a winner.  A smooth but potent blend of heavily aged oud, amber, ambergris, spices, maybe a smattering of florals, and certainly some resins, it manages to present the bilious pungency associated with Hindi in such a suave, elegant manner that it would be churlish to resist, even if you’re not a Hindi fan.  Sure, the Hindi note is all the things it is famous for – hot, sour, oily, and leathery – but the creamy, balsamic backdrop effectively cushions its impact all the way down to the base.  The bittersweet, honeyed resin backdrop never tips the scent into sweetness, though. It is there simply to buff down the sharp elbows of the Hindi.

 

Countering the balsamic warmth of the woods and resin is a waft of natural ambergris, its silvery, cool-toned saltiness infusing ozonic air into the blend.  The ambergris also produces a subtly mossy, outdoorsy-green effect that works very well with the oud, pulling it firmly towards the masculine side of the scale.

 

The sillage is subtle, making it perhaps the best candidate of all the ASAQ blends for the suit-and-tie brigade.  It would appeal, I suspect, to the kind of person who doesn’t have to raise their voice to make themselves heard or respected.   Naturally, all this corporate-style elegance doesn’t come cheap.  Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalid Blend is priced at about $1,300 per tola.  But there is such a discreet refinement to this scent that I cannot help viewing it as the perfect pick for someone who rules with a quiet hand in the corporate world.

 

 

 

Sheikh Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

This is pretty much all oud and nothing but the oud, so help me God.  It broadcasts a message of raw, masculine power as effectively as Burt Reynolds’ hairy chest.  It is all man.  Forgive me, but as a woman, I need some sweet nothings whispered in my ear to make the medicine to go down.  I am not disputing the excellence of Sheikh Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Blend, just stating right off the bat that it is so not for the likes of me. 

 

Describing what it smells like tests the boundaries of my vocabulary.  The best I can do is to assert that it smells like rotting wood, primordial ooze, wet earth, bears in mating season, and the tears of the hundred lesser men.

 

I recommend Sheikh Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Blend to someone who needs to smell as objectionably male as they can, like the weedy accountant who has been handed the job of walking onto a half-finished construction site and telling thirty sweaty, muscled contractors that they’ve been laid off.  If you smell something like Sheikh Samad Al Qurashi Blend on someone, you instinctively drop to a submissive position.

 

 

 

Tohfa (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Tohfa is a perfectly-judged balancing act between the earthy funk of ambergris, the spicy heat of Taifi roses, and the smoldering leather jacket that is Hindi oud.  Animalic?  Hell yes.  But possessed of such polish that one would feel bad for not taking it out on the town every now and then.  It has verve, this one.

 

Apply a small dab and a wave of pure oud washes over you – a delicious, spicy caramel glaze studded with juicy red berries and dried fruits.  The mouth waters.  You can tell it is oud, but it is almost edible in its sugary sweetness.  Almost immediately, the smoking leather jacket notes hustle their way to the front, clearing away all the sugar and breathing its warm, sour Hindi breath all over you.  At the same time, a spicy-green Ta’if rose bubbles up like champagne, sweetening the oud for an intoxicating dance of sweet flowers and sour, smoky woods.

 

What I love about this mukhallat is its graceful twisting and turning throughout its progression, from sugar to sour, from roses to leather, and from the mineral, marine funk of ambergris to the steam-pressed starch of saffron.  For an oil-based perfume, it is remarkably non-linear, and therefore makes for a rewarding wear over the course of the day.  One of my personal favorites from Arabian Oud.

 

 

 

Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

 

Woroud (Amouage)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

An old world take on the classic rose-oud pairing, Woroud put the richest and most animalic of essences at the forefront, openly challenging the wearer to shrink back.  Featuring a boozy rose, sour oud, and a papery frankincense, this attar smells like the stale emanation from a centuries-old religious manuscript.  There is something magnificent and world-weary about this aroma, as if pre-aged for your smelling pleasure.  Woroud is highly recommended for those looking for a dusty, ancient-smelling rose-oud pairing rather than the sharper, brighter renditions.

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples:  I purchased samples from Amouage, Ajmal. Arabian Oud, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Maison Anthony Marmin, Mellifluence, and Al Haramain.  Samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Sultan Pasha Attars and Rising Phoenix Perfumery were sent to me free of charge by either the brand or a distributor.     

 

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 of oudy mukhallats in my collection, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

 

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Oud Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Oudy Mukhallat Reviews: A-C

19th May 2022

 

 

 

The oud reviews continue!  We are now moving away from reviews of pure oud oils (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-C, D-K, L-O, and P-Y) to reviews of oudy mukhallats.  As a quick reminder, mukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled or compounded elsewhere.  Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor).  Generally, mukhallats are viewed by Arabs and Persians as the perfect vehicle for oud oil.  Indeed, given the preference in the Middle East for rich, complex blended perfumes, oudy mukhallats might even be preferable to wearing the oud oil neat.

 

The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one.  Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).  The rose-oud mukhallat is the most famous type of oudy mukhallat in the world, providing the basic template for the thousands of Montale, Mancera and Armani rose-ouds that now populate the market.

 

But before you start reading, oud-heads and oud newbies, do check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.   Then read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.

 

 

Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash

 

Abdul Azeez Blend (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Abdul Azeez Blend is an extremely potent, masculine-leaning rose, oud, and musk mukhallat.  The quality of the rose is excellent but tainted somewhat by a fuzzy ‘steel wire’ synthetic that I suspect belongs to the oud component.  This twang of oud synthetics – dry and rubbery – will familiar to anyone who’s ever tried a Montale or a Mancera.

 

Thankfully, this glancing chemical taste seems to affect only the opening, quickly disappearing into the velvety folds of the rich rose and amber that swells up behind it.  The amber is confidently spiced, the rose exuberantly jammy, and there’s a liquid smoothness to the texture that reads like a Mexican dessert liquor – one of those that are golden in appearance but plummy-brown in the mouth.

 

The scent grows ever richer and more caramelized as it develops.  However, for the first hour, this oudy mukhallat reminds me uncomfortably of lower-priced Arabian blends that rely too heavily on woody ambers or synthetic oud to carry the weight of the fragrance.  For a premium-priced attar, this is not ideal.  To be fair, the sensitivity to this raw, dry oud note is possibly mine alone, and if you can take the band-aidy notes at the top of, say, Montale’s White Aoud, then you can take them here too.  Once Abdul Azeez Blend sheds its rather synthetic topnotes, it becomes a truly excellent rose oud with potency and charm in spades. 

 

 

Photo by Ömer F. Arslan on Unsplash

 

Al Bayt Al A’teeq (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Bayt Al A’teeq (meaning ‘the ancient house’ in Arabic) is a limited edition oil blend made by Al Shareef Oudh in close cooperation with a leading perfumery family in Mecca.  The aim here was to recreate the exact aroma profile of the oil used to scent the cloth covering the Ka’aba and the Black Stone.  Although I’ve never had the privilege and never will (being a non-Muslim), people who have been inside the Ka’aba itself have recounted the divine smell of the special oils mixed and rubbed onto the black cloth and onto the red bricks inside the structure.  Al Bayt Al A’teeq is a mukhallat that apparently recreates this special scent.

 

Al Bayt Al A’teeq is a great example of what Al Shareef Al Oudh does so well, which is taking a theme and interpreting it in the most authentic way possible, with little care given to appeasing Western palates.  The mukhallats and attars from this house all communicate a clear message of earnestness and sincerity.  In other words, blends and oils for the purists and the mystics among us, and not necessarily for the beginner or for the casual buyer looking for something sweetly, vaguely exotic.  These blends mean business – so you too had better mean business.

 

In Al Bayt Al A’teeq, authenticity has been placed high above smoothness, sweetness, and affability.  It is a ferocious blend of aged oud, musk, and ambergris, with no florals or amber at all to soften the blunt force of the animalics.  The result is a sepulchral, gloomy, but velvety blend that achieves the blackness of a starless sky.  It smells ancient, dusty, and a bit stale, like the exhalation of a tomb newly excavated.  Personally, I find it a bit suffocating, but it will appeal to people (especially men) who like their mukhallats authentically dark and serious.

 

 

 

Al Hareem (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Hareem showcases a particularly rare Bengali oud.  Bengali ouds are Hindi ouds, famous for being fiercely animalic, and indeed, the opening fizzes with a pissy, hay-like oud aroma that at first shocks and then beguiles.  A good Hindi oud reels you in on an attraction-repulsion mechanism – the hot sourness, the rotting wood, that stinking underbelly of a goat.  How can those aromas be so simultaneously repugnant and alluring?  That’s the mystery of pure oud.

 

Al Hareem follows this brutalizing but gorgeous oud opening with a mellow tandem of Turkish rose and Mysore sandalwood, the effect of which is the formation of a very traditional-smelling Indian attar cushion for that sour, animalic Bengali oud.  Al Hareem takes an age-old template – the traditional rose-oud-sandal mukhallat – and improves upon it by shoehorning the best, most luxurious materials into it.

 

In time, the soft red rose note is bolstered by other florals, particularly tuberose and gardenia, but the white florals never overwhelm or dominate the rose.  They are there simply to add to the creamy effect created by the musk and butter notes.  It is worth mentioning that there is a beautifully fragrant, nutty quality to the sandalwood in the base of this attar that’s particularly toothsome.  The final act is a sweet mélange of buttery woods, silky musks, cream, and roses, with only a trace of the woody sourness of the Bengali oud remaining.

 

I cannot recommend Al Hareem highly enough to people who are looking for a slightly traditional, but very soft and friendly Indian-inspired rose-oud-sandalwood attar to start out with, and who don’t mind spending a bit extra to get something that is made with high quality natural oils and absolutes.

 

 

Photo by Ren Ran on Unsplash

 

Al Khidr (Mellifluence)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Khidr uses a very unusual oud oil called Green Sarawak oud, which comes from oud trees grown in the Malaysian-owned part of Western Borneo.  All oud oil from trees grown on the island of Borneo, no matter their species or the region of Borneo where the trees grew, features notes that mark them out as Borneo oud.  They are all bright and vaporous in a freshly-cut-log kind of way.

 

In temperament, Borneo oud oils are eons away from the aroma profile of classic Hindi or Cambodi-style oud oils.  In fact, many Arabs find it difficult to accept Borneo oud as oud because it does not conform to their cultural expectations of how oud oil should smell, which for them is an aroma encompassing fermentation, leather, barnyard, hay, smoke, and spice

 

True to form, the Borneo oud oil used in Al Khidr is very green, clean, and tartly fresh.  There are hints of freshly-cut pears, apples, and herbs – notes also associated with Borneo ouds – as well as a sparkling solvent or glue-like high note.  (As it turns out, the scent of turps and nail polish remover is also a feature of Borneo ouds).

 

Al Khidr has a very pleasant flavor profile, balancing its silvery freshness with the murky, velvety depths one associates with oud oils in general.  This is the kind of oud that even beginners and those wary of ouds in general can immediately appreciate.  The oud is bracketed on either end by a grassy vetiver, smoky cade oil, lemon balm, and a whole host of fresh, crisp notes such as apple and cucumber, all carefully chosen to accentuate the rubbery cleanliness of the oud.

 

Al Khidr occupies a very earthy, balsamic tone from top to tow, sliding in minute increments from bright green at the start to dark green in the base.  There are other oud oils and Mysore sandalwood here too, but they are only there to deepen the emerald green brightness of the Green Sarawak.  For those looking for a balsamic oud mukhallat with clean green smoke or rubber notes, Al Khidr may prove to be worth your time.  It wears more like a hike through a pine forest than a trip to the Mosque.

 

 

Al Molouk Cambodi (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Molouk, meaning ‘the King’, is the name of one of Abdul Samad al Qurashi’s most revered blends, which in its original guise featured a blend of dark aged oud, Ta’if rose, amber resin, and wildflowers.  Unfortunately, in or around 2014, all the ASAQ mukhallats and attars were reformulated, and Al Molouk was badly affected.  Experts noticed that Al Molouk was no longer as natural-smelling as it once had been, and that the richness of the various components had been whittled down.  The composition had also been cheapened with a dose of woody aromachemicals to boost projection, a peculiarly modern obsession in today’s market.

 

But out of the misery of reformulation came a most interesting assignment.  The owner of The World in Scents, a Princeton-based seller of very high-end oud oils and attars, including those of ASAQ itself, asked JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery to create a mukhallat that recreated the former splendor of ASAQ’s Al Molouk using only natural raw materials.  The project proved a resounding success, with many fans claiming it was equal to, if not better, than the original Al Molouk.  Based on the success of the first Rising Phoenix Perfumery Al Molouk, JK DeLapp created a series of variations on the central theme, starting with Al Molouk Cambodi, which adds a very fruity, sweet Cambodi oud oil to the basic template.

 

The result is almost incandescently good.  Opening with the juicy, sweet red berries and raw honey of a Cambodi-style oud oil, Al Molouk Cambodi smells immediately like real oud oil but without the funky sourness that sometimes gives pause to the beginner’s nose.  In the place of sour rot and fermented woods, there is a calm wave of sweet incense powder that acts upon the oud to render it as fizzy as a just-opened can of Coca Cola.  Behind this comes riding up a big Ta’if rose, sweeter and fuller than normal thanks to the dollop of a vanillic resin – probably benzoin – that burnishes everything in a caramelized glaze.  It smells as sweet, full-bodied, and generous as one might hope for in any exotic, vaguely oudified perfume.

 

This is one mukhallat with child-bearing hips.  It finishes up in the embrace of a rosy amber accord that smells like a crème brulée sprinkled with candied rose petals, red berries, powdered sugar, and rose syrup.  Indeed, fans of modern niche, gourmandy ouds like Oud Satin Mood (Maison Francis Kurkdijan) or Oud for Love (The Different Company) will find this to be firmly in their wheelhouse.  Al Molouk is both a surprise and a welcome evolution of the basic model.  It is particularly well-suited to those who want a natural rose-oud mukhallat but don’t quite get along with the leathery austerity of more traditional oud blends.  It will press all the right buttons for lovers of creamy, opulent rose-oud ambers.

 

 

Photo by Markus Avila on Unsplash

 

Al Molouk Trat (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Trat is a border region of Thailand that produces a very specific kind of oud oil.  Trat oils traditionally have a syrupy, candy-sweet character that tends to disguise a piercingly animalic basenote.  Picture, if you will, a piece of wet, rotting wood covered in strawberry jam.  That is the Trat aroma profile.

 

Al Molouk Trat is true to the character of a Trat oil, in that it initially smells like a vat of sugar syrup smeared all over a raunchy leather jacket that’s been dragged through a barnyard.  And it is exactly this dichotomy between tutti-frutti sweetness and grubby smut that gets the brain’s pleasure synapses firing on all cylinders.

 

Compared to the other Al Molouk versions, the oudiness here is both darker and more assertive in its presentation, taking longer than usual to fade away into the softer rose and amber notes.  The sweet-and-sour syrup aspect of Trat oud is the main feature, and despite the initial hit of sweetness, this is a more traditionally masculine affair than Al Molouk Cambodi (which is a fluffy Middle Eastern dessert in comparison).  For all its jammy, treacly richness upfront, Al Molouk Trat showcases a far more animalistic oud than the other versions.  It is rugged, fermented, and a bit sour – more traditionally oudy in profile.  In some parts, it is reminiscent of a Hindi-style oil.

 

In the drydown, the rose and caramelized amber accords common to the other Al Molouk iterations arrives to take control.  If your teeth were clenched through the more animalistic portions of this mukhallat, this will be where you let your breath out and begin to enjoy the ride.  Conversely, if you prefer the rugged, leathery oud that hogs the heart of this mukhallat, then its sweet, creamy drydown might strike you as a cop-out.

 

 

 

Al Noukhba Elite Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

In terms of complexity, Al Noukhba represents a step up from the fabulous Jewel Blend.  But alas, it has a price tag to match, costing on average $1,300 per tola.  Still, Al Noukhba is very special indeed. 

 

The opening is almost shockingly animalic, with a blast of hot-sour-fetid woodiness that comes close to smelling like the bile that rises in your throat before you vomit.  To say that this could be challenging to newcomers to oud is an understatement.  In fact, I would recommend this blend only to people who have a bit of experience under their belts.  The opening lasts a fair bit on skin, but lean into it, and I’ll wager you’ll find Al Noukhba to be a deeply rewarding experience.

 

After the initial onslaught, the dark, hot-sour aroma of aged oud banks down, spreading out to allow the other notes to come to the fore.  However, the oud retains an assertive presence in the scent from beginning to end.  The extended run of the oud marks it out as quite different from Jewel Blend, where the aged oud lasts only for a couple of hours before giving way almost completely to the amber and ambergris beneath.  That in and of itself (somewhat) justifies the higher price of Al Noukhba.  When tested side by side, Al Noukhba emerges as a far deeper, drier, and darker scent.

 

Bubbling underneath the aged oud is something floral, a collection of notes which feel ‘pressed together’, a tarry brick of floral absolutes rather than fresh rose petals.  Al Noukhba is technically a rose-oud fragrance, but its oud is so dark and its rose so desiccated that it may puzzle anyone used to commercial or niche interpretations of the rose-oud theme.  Backing the floral ‘absolute’ is quite a lot of sweet amber and musk.  These accords add a nutty roundness to the scent that goes some way towards softening the darker floral and oud notes.  I’ve been informed that one female ASAQ customer buys ten bottles of this a year to smell as seductive as possible for her husband. Lucky man.

 

 

 

Al Shomukh (Amouage)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Discontinued, rare, and ruinously expensive when you do find it, Al Shomukh is a creamy but pungent rose-oud whose animalic bite certainly has not been dumbed down for a Western audience.  The opening of Al Shomukh features all the bile-duct sturm und drang for which Hindi oud is known.  However, the rich, smoky leather-like facets of the oud oil add depth and shading to the acid, thus giving it a supple roundness that takes the sting out of the experience.

 

For a beginner, Al Shomukh is challenging but not entirely off-putting.  Its funkiness is haughty, regal even.  The bleu cheese and truffles aspect of the oud oil may cause a momentary shiver of revulsion – the body saying no, most emphatically – but then, the nose finds itself wandering back to the same spot, hunting the scent like a truffle pig.  Al Shomukh is therefore a fine example of how pure oud can trigger the attraction and the repulsion reflexes simultaneously, creating an obsessive desire to smell it over and over again.

 

Touches of rose and a rather synthetic-feeling white musk bleed into the stark oud, feathering it out at the edges and helping to settle into the aroma of stale, ancient wood and long-cleared-out horse barns.  It is the smell of ruined libraries in the jungles, the yellowing pages of abandoned books curling in the moist brown fug of decaying wood spores.  There are hints here also of damp hay, barn animals, smoke, grass, and later – much later – a hint of fruit from davana, an Indian herb that smells like two-day-old booze, mint, and old leather Chesterfields.

 

I am impressed.  I am intoxicated.  It is impossible to guess from its stark, austere beginnings, but somehow Al Shomukh manages to work itself up into a rich, complex floral oud that smells more like an entire landscape than a mashing together of two or three raw materials.  It transcends its individual components, therefore, driving an arrow straight into one’s emotional solar plexus rather than allowing you to loll about in polite admiration mode.  Al Shomukh leans masculine because of the blunt focus on the oud and musk, but it is completely wearable by a woman.  It is not as heavy or as opulent as Tribute or Badr al Badour, but its sillage is still significant.

 

 

Photo by Alexander Kirov on Unsplash

 

Arabesque Noir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Arabesque Noir is a dark rose-oud blend with a significant saffron note that lends it the ‘aged’ leather mien of an old briefcase or piece of wooden furniture left to molder in a closed-up room.  Medicinal, woody and heavy, the oud anchors the base, giving it the same decrepit glamor as the facades of storefronts in Havana.

 

The woody sourness of the rose-oud combination makes it a perfect choice for men who are looking for a masculine take on the rose-oud theme, or even just for people who like the acrid but exciting ‘freshly tanned leather’ aroma of saffron.  Leathery and battered, Arabesque Noir would also be ideal for people who spend lots of time in old second-hand bookstores, thumbing through books so old their yellowed pages threaten to crumble in their fingers. 

 

Arabesque Noir is ultimately reminiscent of Swiss Arabian Mukhallat Malaki, another dusty saffron-rose-oud mukhallat, but far better quality.   In the far dry down, a pleasant surprise lurks – an animalic, dark musk teeming with all sorts of skanky secretions such as hyraceum, castoreum, and civet.

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Attar al Kaaba is the base attar embroidered upon in Ghilaf-e-Kaaba, which will be reviewed in the next chapter, but it is distinctive in and of itself.  The oud and rose elements of the blend play out very differently in Attar al Kaaba than in its big brother.  For one, the oud in Attar al Kaaba is darker, more shadowy, and perhaps even a little sinister, while the rose is both sweeter and more winey.  It is a great example of how the essential elements in a blend can be altered or substituted with a different quality of material, creating a completely different effect.

 

Attar al Kaaba also differs from Ghilaf-e-Kaaba by being sweeter and plusher.  It is a very straight-forward rendition of the rose-oud theme, but done so well and with such high quality, natural-smelling materials that the result is a pleasure to wear.  While I admire the artistry and perhaps greater evolution in Ghilaf, I find Attar al Kaaba to be friendlier.  It would make for an excellent starter rose-oud attar for the beginner, provided that the beginner is interested in naturalness over effect and is willing to pay a higher-than-average price.

 

 

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

 

Attar AT (Tauer Perfumes)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

I hadn’t understood how big a role that cultural misappropriation, or rather the perception of cultural misappropriation, played in the evaluation of attars until I read a comment on a Basenotes interview I did with JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, which read as follows: ‘Looking forward to trying it and appreciate the perspective on Attars, but also giving the side-eye to another American appropriating an other’s work and culture and claiming he knows better and can do better.’

 

The commenter is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.

 

This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West.  I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the East simply because they originated there.  This is rubbish, of course.

 

First, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West.  I would estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about five to ten percent of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery.  Unfortunately, however, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is always going to be tempted to find them amazing even if they are not.  Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.

 

Second, it is not the where (the East) that counts, it is the who.  In my experience, the best quality mukhallats out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing.  Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.

 

I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is quite often Westerners, and specifically Western artisans, that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials.  They are taking the Western propensity for precision to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.

 

And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group.  In a way, it is a natural fit – Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending a mukhallat) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.

 

Attar AT is excellent work.  It succeeds both as a mukhallat and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner.  It contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East.  Attar AT opens up as pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.  But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes.  The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus.  There is no Tauerade.  It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear.  A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.

 

As an aside, it is funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud.  I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather.  However, at a distance and at certain points of the mukhallat’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil.  In general, I think it is fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.

 

Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour.  It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note.  If you know the sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose.  The dusty woods in the base only confirm this impression.  There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.

 

As a mukhallat, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter.  It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much.  However, longevity is excellent.  So far, so standard for an attar.  People will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT – my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic.  The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.

 

Masculine?  Yes.  I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky.  Attar AT is more evocative of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone.  This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.

 

Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them.  Overall, this is a great masculine attar (well, mukhallat) for a very reasonable price, and another entry to the genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentic or authentically good.

 

 

 

Aurum D’Angkhor (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Aurum D’Angkhor is special.  Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty.  It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances.  But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that’s the color that comes across in this blend.  Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.

 

The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling.  This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic.  It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud.  However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie.  One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood.  I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe.  In other words, I’m fine with it.  You very well may not be.

 

The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine.  Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang.  The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin.  In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.

 

The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins.  The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense.  Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods.  Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.

 

Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk.  There’s a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, almost granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances.  Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum.  However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.

 

 

 

Ayuthia (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Is there such thing as an oud chypre?  This may well be the first.  The first note out of the bottle is most definitely oud – a wave of wet, rotting wood, mixed with woodsmoke, camphor, and sharp fruit.  However, this settles quickly, segueing into a dry, woody heart with lots of grounding patchouli, green leaves, and bitter oakmoss.

 

Although never sweet, the earth and wood notes are made rounder with a hint of something soft and giving, like vanilla.  Not enough to make it sweet, just to sand off the edges.  The other notes pay homage to the oud, which is clearly the star note in the blend.  The Chanthaburi oud oil vibrates thickly in every fiber of this mukhallat.  Lightly smoky, it sews a thread of fermentation through the fabric of the blend.

 

Though oud is the main driver, the base develops a velvety green dampness that is very forest floor-ish.  The inky oakmoss note expands to meet the mossy mintiness of a Borneo-style oud, completing the picture.  Hours later, the mineral salt of the oakmoss and the smoky woodiness of the oud melt away, leaving only the lively bitterness of camphor on the tongue.

 

Who could wear this?  Honestly, anyone with a pulse.  More subtle and subdued than pure oud oil, Ayuthia’s supporting cast of notes has a tenderizing, civilizing effect, smoothing away any rough or animalistic edges.  It is fresh, green, and woody, with a friendly touch of smoke and camphor – wearable in almost all situations.  In short, Ayuthia is superb blend for oud fans who want a break from the unrelenting intensity of the pure oud experience, as well as anyone who respects oud but can’t see themselves ever wearing it neat.

 

 

Photo by Thoa Ngo on Unsplash

 

Badr al Badour (Amouage)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Badr al Badour is an opulent mukhallat based on a mixture of real oud oils (one from Cambodia, the other from Myanmar), rosa damascena oil, ambergris, and a touch of sandalwood.  It sounds like a simple affair, but it goes to prove that a sort of alchemic magic occurs when raw materials with flawless bone structure meet, fall in love with each other’s exquisiteness, and decide to procreate.

 

The opening features a classic rose-oud combination, drawn up using a rather dark, medicinal oud note and a citrusy, geranium-tinted rose.  So far, so traditional.  But slowly, as the oil warms up on the skin, the Burmese oud oil comes to the fore and it is then that you notice the lightly sour, almost fetid breath of real oud wood.  Peppery and dry, with nary a hint of sweetness to soften it, it is the pleasantly stale woodiness that escapes from old wooden trunks when you open them after years of neglect.  The scent is a reminder that oud is wood that’s fighting to live through an infection and only partially succeeding.  A smell half dead and half alive.

 

There is, for the average Westerner, a moment of repulsion, but fight it.  After the repulsion comes fascination.  There is a reason aficionados describe the smell of real oud as a compelling type of smell.  The salty funk of ambergris breathes life into the sour, dry oud mélange from beneath, bequeathing a round warmth that has nothing to do with sweetness.  I would describe this mukhallat synesthesically as pink gold with a silvery-gray oud heart, a clump of ashes nestling in the folds of a tightly-furled rosebud.

 

The citrusy rose of the start gathers in richness as the day wears on, perhaps due to the ‘creaming’ effect of the sandalwood.  I have seen the rose in this described variously as a Bulgarian rose and a Taifi rose, but its sharp, peppery quality leads me to believe that it is definitely Taifi.  The rose, in fact, strikes me as being somewhat similar in tone to that of Abdul Samad Al Qurashi’s Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous.  The rose softens as the day goes on, becoming sweeter and fuller in body.

 

Overall, this is an unusually prismatic scent for an oil – different notes seem to come forward and then recede over the course of a wearing, allowing others to take their place.  At times, the scent seems to focus almost exclusively on the dry oud, at others the rose nudges forward to cast a sweet, rosy netting over the oud, and occasionally, everything but the salty warmth of the ambergris drops back.  This makes for an endlessly rich and varied wearing experience throughout the day.  Badr al Badour is a mukhallat to be savored for every minute it is on the skin.

 

 

 

Baghdad (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

If you are looking for an excellent rose-oud mukhallat for a price that won’t hurt your wallet too much, then look no further than Al Faransi’s Baghdad.  On my skin, the note pyramid is slightly inverted, with the sour, leathery Hindi oud striking my nose first, even though it is a heavy basenote.  The oud smells authentic, but not so animalic as to cause concern for more timid noses.  It is a battered, worn leather case set upon gently smoking woods – exotic and alluring, but not particularly challenging.

 

The rose, which emerges right on the heels of the oud, feels complex and ‘worked out’.  Heavily peppered and saffron-ed at first, it fleshes itself out into a huge, purplish explosion of jamminess, spice, and smoke, underscored with an emphatic flourish of fruit rot.  The rosy sturm und drang splutters out in a bath of sandalwood for a finish not a hundred miles away from the cream soda-ish last moments of Amouage’s Rose TRO.

 

Sounds amazing, right?  It is.  But – and this is a big but (and I cannot lie) – Baghdad exhausts all its resources within the space of a few hours, plunging from an amphitheater-sized presence in the first hour to a mere whisper of smoke and roses by the third.  This shouldn’t necessarily bother people looking for a quality rose-oud option on the cheap, as its reasonable price means that one can simply reapply throughout the day.  But it is a factor to consider.

 

If pressed, I would say that Baghdad is my very favorite from the Al Faransi brand, with Hind running a close second.  Baghdad leans masculine, but the classic smoky rose and oud pairing is so universal that I cannot imagine women not wanting to wear this one too.

 

 

 

Cambodi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

A simple but highly satisfying affair, Cambodi Attar combines an affable Cambodi oud oil with excellent Indian sandalwood for a result that showcases the best in each.  The Cambodi oud oil dominates the first half, rich in a berry-caramel stickiness that suggests leather without featuring any of the stale off-notes associated with modern Cambodi-style distillations.  It is an approachable oud oil note, one that even beginners will find accessible.

 

The drydown is pure Indian santalum album, in that it is aromatic, buttery, and treading that fine line between sweet and savory.  Rising Phoenix Perfumery’s sandalwood is truly beautiful, and it is worth getting a couple of their attars purely in order to experience its handsome, rugged warmth in the tail. 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples:  I purchased samples from Amouage, Arabian Oud, Maison Anthony Marmin, Mellifluence, and Tauer Perfumes. Samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Sultan Pasha Attars and Rising Phoenix Perfumery were sent to me free of charge by either the brand or a distributor.     

 

 

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 of oudy mukhallats in my collection, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Oud Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: The Different Styles of Oud

4th April 2022

 

 

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 styleTo 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.

 

 

 

Hindi-Style Oud

 

Photo by Nilotpal Kalita on Unsplash

 

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.

 

 

 

Cambodi-Style Oud

 

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.

 

 

 

Borneo-Style Oud

 

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

 

Photo by Ridho Ibrahim on Unsplash

 

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

 

Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash

 

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
  • Resinous
  • 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

 

Photo by Marcin Kaliński on Unsplash

 

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

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

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

 

Photo by Alexander Kaunas on Unsplash

 

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

 

Photo by afiq fatah on Unsplash

 

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

 

Photo by ardito ryan Harrisna on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

Oud Synthetics

 

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

 

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

 

Photo by Xiaolong Wong on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

[i] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3609-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-ensar-of-ensar-oud

[ii] https://ensaroud.com/product/hainan-2005/318

[iii] http://blog.agaraura.com/malaysia-oudventure/

[iv]http://www.firmenich.com/uploads/files/ingredients/marketing-sheet/perfumery/OUD_Perf_V2_Feb_15.pdf

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Oud Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does

31st March 2022

 

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 Part I of this Oud Primer (The Challenges of Oud) while you’re at it.  

 

Part II of the Attar Guide’s Oud Primer looks at all the factors that influence the aroma of oud oil.  These include species, geographical region and microclimate (terroir), manner of cultivation, and, last but certainly not least, distillation methodology.

 

Some factors exert more of an influence than others, and the extent to which a factor exerts its influence varies with each oil.  However, all have a role to play in the final aroma, regardless of the largeness or smallness of their role.

 

Think of it as a slice of genoise sponge with chestnut cream.  Tasting it, it is impossible to know which individual ingredient is responsible for the delicious flavor.  But you instinctively know that it is not the eggs, nor the sugar, nor the nuts alone that are responsible, but an alchemy that transcends the individual elements.

 

 

Photo by Alex Lvrs on Unsplash

 

 

Taxonomy

 

 

Let’s get taxonomy out of the way first.  The genus is the family of any tree that produces the oleoresin known as oud.  Only two genuses of trees in the world produce this oleoresin: Aquilaria and Gyrinops.  Gyrinops and Aquilaria are so closely related that biologists used to categorize them as one single genus, but for now, they remain separate.  Within the Aquilaria and Gyrinops genuses, there are many different species.  The Aquilaria genus consists of twenty-one different species of trees[i], while the Gyrinops genus consists of nine[ii].  (Since species-level taxonomy is an ever-shifting thing, treat these numbers as approximate rather than as absolute).  

 

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

 

Within the Aquilaria genus, the most important species of oud-producing trees are the A. Crassna, the A. Agallocha, the A. Malaccensis, the A. Hirta, and the A. Sinensis.  There is also the rare Aquilaria Yunnanensis, a species that comes from China and produces very fine oud oil, but is nearing extinction and will not be available in the future.  So, when you hear people mentioning Crassna this or Malaccensis that, they are talking about oud oil that comes from a specific species of the Aquilaria tree.

 

Within the Gyrinops genus, the most frequently-mentioned species of tree are the G. Decipiens, G. Caudata, and G. Walla species.  Well, I say ‘frequently mentioned’, but unless you are knee deep in the oud world, it is unlikely that you will have ever stumbled across any mention of these species.  They are less well known than the Malaccensis and the Crassnas of this world.  The species of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees each produces a slightly different type of aroma in the oud oil.  Crassnas are generally fruity, for example, with notes of berries and figs an intrinsic characteristic of the species. 

 

The aroma differences between the species are subtle, though.  An Aquilaria Malaccensis compared to an Aquilaria Crassna is like a lemon compared to a lime, in that although they smell and taste subtly different to one another, you can still tell that they are both citrus.  Just like you can tell that Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, though different varieties of wine, belong to the same family.

 

 

Geographical Region & Microclimate (Terroir)

 

 

The region in which a tree grows is an important indicator of how oud oil will smell.  Not because oud oil recognizes country borders but because of the different microclimates in those regions.  For example, oil distilled from resinated wood grown in the steamy jungles of Papua smells very different to oil from trees in Assam, in Northern India, even if the trees come from the same species.  Roughly speaking, this is the concept of terroir.

 

Photo by Paul-Vincent Roll on Unsplash

 

Terroir is the total effect of the natural environment on the oud.  Here, ‘environment’ is understood to mean the microclimate – the combination of physical terrain, humidity, temperatures, water quality, wind conditions, and air purity unique to a specific place.  Terroir was a concept that grew up around wine, but it has now been expanded to include any crop whose character is shaped by the place in which it has grown.  In addition to wine, examples of crops influenced by terroir include coffee, chocolate, chili peppers, tea, and tobacco.

 

And oud, of course.  Plant one Aquilaria Sinensis tree in Borneo and another in Vietnam, and because of the differences in micro-climates, soil, air pollution, exposure to natural or man-made viruses and traumas, and even the quality of the local water used for distillation, the oud oils produced from these trees will likely smell slightly different from one to another, even though they come from the same species.  Some consider terroir to be a more significant factor in determining how an oud oil will smell than its biological species or genus.  In other words, nurture over nature.  It is likely to be more complicated than that, however.  Oud oils are reflective of a great many factors, of which terroir is just one.

 

The following terms describe the most common terroirs in the oud world: Cambodian (mostly written as ‘Cambodi’), Indian (also called Hindi, Bangladeshi, or Bengali), Malaysian, Indonesian, Papuan, and Borneo (formerly Kalimantan).

 

Less common geographical denominations of oud oils are Laotian, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, and Chinese.  The boundaries between what is considered a genuine terroir (referring to a specific place or microclimate) and a style of oud (referring to the hand of man steering the aroma in one direction or the other) are complex and ever shifting.  The matter of terroir versus style will be discussed in detail in the next chapter of the Oud Primer.

 

 

 

Manner of Cultivation

 

 

There are two main categories of cultivation of agarwood: wild and plantation.

 

 

Wild Cultivation

 

Photo by Mike Blank on Unsplash

 

Wild oud cultivation, as the name suggests, means agarwood trees growing wild in the jungles of India and the Far East, with no human intervention beyond harvesting.  Wild trees develop the oleoresin that we call oud in response to a naturally-occurring fungal infection.  Oleoresin production in wild trees can be triggered in response to any external trauma, including invading insects, strafing of the bark by harsh weather that opens up ports in the skin, volcanic eruptions, and even bullets.

 

There was an interesting theory floating around a while back that kyara – the most prized type of resinated wood from very old trees in Vietnam – might in fact have originally been formed in response to the trees being struck by hails of bullets during the Vietnam war.  A young scientist conducted tests on trees in the region that had seen heavy fighting during the Vietnam War.  He found that bullets embedded in the grain had sulphurized over the years and it was these trees that yielded the best Kyara[iii].

 

The temptation to believe this story is strong, perhaps because it suggests that the most extreme beauty in life arises from the most extreme trauma.  Unfortunately, the idea is more romantic than credible, given that genuine Kyara is much older than the timeline suggested by the scientist: over a hundred years compared to the fifty-odd years since the beginning of the Vietnam War.

 

There is very little wild oud left, however.

 

First, because at an 8% inoculation rate the natural occurrence of oleoresin in wild Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees is low to begin with, meaning that oud hunters are looking for eighty infected trees in every thousand trees.

 

Second, because deforestation driven by the need to clear land for livestock or cash crops means that wild agarwood trees are getting mowed down too.  As Trygve Harris notes, deforestation is happening all over Southeast Asia despite the presence of agarwood trees rather than because of them[iv].  Couple a naturally hard-to-find resource with high niche market demand and in-country competition for land, and that CITES classification of agarwood as an endangered species begins to make sense.

 

 

Plantation Cultivation

 

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

 

The only viable alternative thus far to the fast-disappearing wild oud is plantation cultivation.  On plantations, agarwood trees can be grown under controlled conditions.  As opposed to wild trees, which are infected by natural viruses, bugs, etc., trees grown on plantations are artificially infected with the fungus that makes them produce oleoresin. In other words, the infection rate is controlled.

 

The trees are inoculated using one of three methods, as follows: (i) stripping off a section of bark, wiping the fungus on with a stick, and then replacing the bark, (ii) poking (infected) bamboo sticks into drilled holes in the trunk, or (iii) injecting the tree with a syringe of a chemical fungus.  The resin will begin forming soon after the fungus is introduced.

 

The incidence of infection and subsequent development of oleoresin on plantations is 100% compared to the 8% in the wild.  One might argue that nature does best when left to her own devices.  But realistically, man cannot leave well enough alone – especially when it comes to a resource as vital to the economy as agarwood.

 

Artisan oud distillers also do not use or encourage chemical inoculation.  Instead, they instruct their farmers to cut holes into the tree and wait for natural, airborne fungi and bugs to infect the tree.  Oud oil distilled from agarwood inoculated in this manner is called organic oud, to emphasize that only natural inoculation methods were used to produce the oleoresin, not chemicals.

 

Typically, farmers under contract to deliver a cash crop to the big perfume houses and distributors will begin to harvest the trees for oleoresin between six months and three years from the date of inoculation[v].  This is in marked contrast to wild trees, where the oleoresin may be anywhere between twenty to a hundred years old when it is harvested.  It also differs from the harvesting of organic farmed oud, because artisan distillers are careful to only use wood from trees that are already fully-grown, i.e., between twenty and forty years old.

 

There are huge advantages to plantation cultivation over wild oud.  First, oud oil from plantation-grown trees can be produced in reliably large quantities, because the infection rate is a hundred percent.  Second, the quality and smell of the resulting oil is consistent, due to the species, microclimate, and cultivation techniques being the same from tree to tree.  Plantation oil therefore removes the two main problems the commercial perfume sector faces when using pure oud oil, which are replicability and scalability.  Sustainability also means more income for local farmers, as well as less physical danger and livelihood insecurity for the hunters who go into the jungles to search for wild oud. 

 

Houses that use plantation oud are Mona di Orio, The Different Company, Maison Francis Kurkdijan, Dusita, and Fragrance du Bois, the latter a brand that owns its own sustainable oud plantation in Thailand.  Most of the artisan distillers, like Ensar Oud, Agar Aura, FeelOud, Al Shareef Oudh, and Imperial Oud, also distill organic plantation oud oil, alongside their stock of wild oud oil.  For any brand who stakes its reputation on high quality products, it is crucial to be able to monitor and control keys parts of the farming, harvesting, and distilling process. 

 

However, there are also disadvantages to plantation-cultivated oud.

 

First, there is the crucial matter of aging.  The oleoresin harvested from plantation trees is very young, and in terms of scent, can never be as beautiful or as spiritually moving as oleoresin that has been growing in a wild tree for ninety years.  Think a young, rough Retsina versus a mature Burgundy. 

 

Second, many connoisseurs report that plantation oud oil is not nearly as satisfying to wear as wild-crafted oud because it contains some off-puttingly sour or metallic characteristics, probably connected to how the trees were inoculated.  Of course, this is not the case for most artisanal organic oils, which are produced in a specific way to avoid these off-putting characteristics.

 

Trygve Harris notes that the younger plantation wood ‘is ok.  The oil can be adequate.  And this is what people want, this farmed agarwood.  It is the only possibility now anyway as the wild wood is gone.  Here in the Gulf, the quality is also much lower — even some people who can buy what they like have changed their taste or made do with what is available’[vi].

 

Plantation oud oil is generally most valuable in the setting of exclusive commercial perfume where it is used as one note among many, rather than for wearing neat on the skin.  The importance of plantation oud to the niche and commercial perfume sector cannot be understated.  For wearing neat on the skin, however, it is best to stick to either wild-crafted oud oil or artisanal, organic oud oils produced by individuals or brands that you know to have rigorous quality control or in situ management of the farming process.

 

 

 

Distillation Methodology

 

 

The quality and oleoresin content of the wood that goes into the still is only one part of the equation.  The other part is distillation technique.  You might have the best oud wood in the world but ruin it through hasty distillation, dirty equipment, poor knowledge, or lack of skill.  Conversely, a gifted distiller will be able to wrest an astonishing range of nuances from a still filled with low-to-medium quality oud wood.

 

All of the following factors will affect how the oud oil smells, and can therefore be experimented with to produce different results:

 

  • the length of the pre-soak
  • force-aging (exposing the oil to air)
  • maturation in the bottles
  • the mineral content of the distilling water
  • the materials of the still (copper versus steel)
  • the quality of the tubing (clean versus dirty, rubber versus plastic), and;
  • the cooking temperatures in the still.

 

 

For example, technically, you could take wood from Malaysia or the island of Borneo and turn it into an oil that has all the characteristics of a Hindi (animalic, smoky, fermented), all through simple adjustments to the distillation methodology such as lengthening the soak times, using steel drums, cooking at high temperatures, and force-aging the oil.

 

Similarly, a skillful distiller, under direction from an artisan oud producer such as AgarAura or Ensar Oud, can coax kyara-like nuances from wood that, while excellent quality, is neither from an Aquilaria Sinensis tree, nor even from Vietnam.  In a way, distillation is a bit like alchemy – turning wood into gold.  Or, in the wrong hands, into lead.

 

 

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! 

 

Photo: Two pieces of wild Borneo agarwood in my collection, photo my own (please do not use without crediting me)

 

 

[i] http://www.oud-selection.com/blog/know-different-species-aquilaria-trees/?locale=en

[ii] http://www.gaharuonline.com/gaharu_species.htm

[iii] http://agarwood.ensaroud.com/war-the-bizarre-origin-of-kyara/

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

[v] http://blog.agaraura.com/malaysia-oudventure/

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

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Oud Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: The Challenges of Oud

29th March 2022

 

Oud-heads and oud newbies, be sure to 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.

 

 

In Part I of the Attar Guide Oud Primer, we are going to cover the main challenges you are likely to encounter when getting to grips with oud for the first time.  In addressing those challenges here, I hope to offer both my sympathy to the beginner – it is a tough segment of the oil market to penetrate – as well as some practical suggestions on how to navigate those challenges so that you get the most out of your oud journey.

 

 

Challenge 1: Where to start?

 

 

The first challenge that beginners face is not knowing where to start.  A casual search of the Internet will turn up everything from pure oud samples and oudy mukhallats from the big Indian and Emirati brands to all manner of perfume oils with the word ‘oud’ in them.  And that is before we start counting all 16,708 Western niche perfumes that feature the note, from Versace Oud to Black Aoud by Montale.

 

The key thing here is to determine the basic parameters of your interest in oud early on.  Look at oud as a food pyramid that’s been divided into food groups (or oud groups, if we’re going to commit to the analogy).  Below is a list of the main oud groups.  Read this list and decide for yourself which category you are most interested in exploring.  Knowing where to start is half the battle.  Because, once you know what you are really interested in, you can start narrowing down your options and zoning in on the specific products you think might meet your needs.  And conversely, ignore all the rest.

 

 

(F)Oud Group 1: Artisanal Oud

 

Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

 

This oud group represents the 100% pure oud oils produced by artisan oud distillers.  Being completely pure, they represent the ‘clean food’ on the food pyramid, like broccoli or spinach.  Because of the expense of production and limited-run production, these oils are the most expensive.

 

Although they might at first appear challenging, these ouds are the most nutrient-dense of the oud groups.  Consuming them cleanses the system and sets up a baseline that will help you identify the quality and purity of all other ouds you test thereafter.  If we’re going to well and truly Michael Pollan it, this is ‘eating around the edges of the supermarket’ where all the real food is stocked, not the food products.

 

 

 

(F)Oud Group 2: Big Brand Oud

 

Photo by Edson Saldaña on Unsplash

 

This oud group features all the oils by the big Emirati brands such as Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, Arabian Oud, etc.  While these oils contain real oud (past a certain price point), they are rarely pure oud oil from one single distillation.  Rather, they contain either (i) a blend of many different oud oils from various sources (wild and plantation), or (ii) a quantity of pure oud that has been stretched out by a range of fillers, synthetics, and naturals to accentuate and elongate the scent of the oud oil used in the blend.

 

Correction: In the original edition of this post, I mistakenly lumped Ajmal in with the other Big Brand oud producers.  Mea culpa – I really should not have.  For generations, Ajmal has owned huge agarwood plantations in Assam, Northern India, and have access, therefore, to an almost limitless supply of oud oil of consistent quality and volume,  Ajmal can therefore afford to put real oud into their mukhallats and issue oud oils that are un-mixed with fillers and other oud distillations (unlike the other brands mentioned). 

 

Indeed, a distiller-artisan friend, who kindly reminded me of this and corrected me, paid to run three Ajmal pure oud oils through GCMS testing.  One was Saif al Hind, an oud oil from the brand’s mass market line of ouds, which comes in a beautiful crystal bottle and costs $150 per quarter tola (3ml).  The other two oud oils were from Ajmal’s premium line, specifically a limited Edition collection only available at Ajmal’s two Eternal boutiques in Dubai.  All three oils were confirmed by GCMS testing to be 100% pure oud, as well as superb quality, containing high percentages of agaraspirol, the main ‘flavor’ compound in oud oil responsible for its odor (equivalent to ambrein in ambergris, santalol in sandalwood, and citronal and geraniol in rose). The other Big Brands’ oils, on the other hand? About as pure as the driven slush, to paraphrase Mae West. 

 

Big Brand oud oils have a lot going for them.  Their scent corresponds closely to what most people (especially the Arab market) understand as that characteristically oudy smell, and they can be reproduced with reliable consistency.  In this bracket, it is the overall oudiness of the scent that marks an oil out as high quality rather than its purity.  Because they are muscular and sold in significant volumes, these oils are the protein of the oud world.

 

 

 

(F)Oud Group 3: Oudy Mukhallats

 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

 

This oud group represents mukhallats that mix oud oils with other oils, resins, and materials.  The oud oils in oudy mukhallats are sometimes pure oud oil, but often, they contain oud synthetics or other woody oils.  Oudy mukhallats are available in both oil and alcohol-based formats.

 

Quality varies widely in this segment.  In general, the size of your wallet will dictate exactly how much real oud you get.  Some oudy mukhallats such as Ajmal’s Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq or Sultan Pasha’s Al Hareem contain real oud and are true masterpieces of mukhallat perfumery.  Blends at the lower end of the market, like Rasasi’s Amber Oudh, are made with synthetic oud and are far simpler and rougher.

 

Because quality and raw material integrity vary so widely in this category, oudy mukhallats are the carbohydrates of the oud world.  The high quality examples are the good carbs, analogous to whole-wheat sourdough, amaranth, quinoa, and other whole grains.  The cheaper mukhallats are the ‘bad’ carbs, like white rice and pasta.

 

Having said that, sometimes you just need to inhale a plateful of pasta.  No judgment here, buddy.  I’m not Jillian Michaels.

 

 

 

(F)Oud Group 4: Commercial Perfumes with an Oud Note

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

This oud group is for all alcohol-based spray perfumes that feature an oud note, as opposed to oud as an actual material, meaning that they are made using oud synthetics.  This category covers most of the commercial perfume market, including brands such as Montale, By Kilian, Mancera, Gucci, Versace, and Tiziana Terenzi.

 

These perfumes represent the very tippy top of the food pyramid, where is where the USDA lists all the foods that, while fun, have little nutritional value.  Commercial oud perfumes can be as upmarket as artisanal brown sugar crystals (the By Kilians, for example) or as plain as white sugar (some of the Montales).  If you have been eating clean, i.e., consuming only pure ouds, then the capacity of the sugar group to satisfy your palate starts to wane.  But then again, the adrenalin rush of a white sugar oud can be tremendously satisfying.  Just beware the second-day chemical hangover.

 

 

 

(F)Oud Group 5: Commercial Perfumes with Real Oud

 

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

 

This oud group represents all the alcohol-based perfumes that contain a small quantity of real oud, usually plantation-grown oud oil from Laos or Thailand.  This includes brands such as Mona di Orio, Di Ser, Fragrance du Bois, Areej Le Doré, Maison Francis Kurkdijan, Dusita, and The Different Company.

 

These perfumes cost a lot of money, are very exclusive, and are aimed at a tiny segment of the niche market.  They are usually very complex perfume compositions that give the wearer an entirely different experience than that of wearing pure oud oil neat on the skin.  These are roughly equivalent to the oils and fats section of the food pyramid, meaning they are rich, luxurious, costly, and intended to be used sparingly to add flavor to your diet.  

 

 

Challenge 2: Lack of Access

 

 

When I say lack of access is a challenge to exploring oud, I mean lack of access to (1) objective information and reviews, (2) samples, and, crucially, (3) a consistently available product.  The lack of access in these areas is a not insignificant barrier to exploring the world of oud.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many beginners throw in the towel based on the lack of objective reviews or the difficulty of obtaining samples.  Oud anything is expensive, and only wealthy people can afford to bet $500 on a quarter tola just because the vendor says it is great.  Heck, I wouldn’t buy a fridge under those conditions.

 

Let’s talk about lack of access to objective information and reviews first.  The world of artisanal oud is very small, with a handful of vendors selling to a handful of informed oud customers.  Reviews of oud oils that can be found on vendor websites and on popular oud for a such as Gaharu and Ouddict tend to be short on descriptive detail that might make sense to a beginner and long on flowery language that extols the virtue of an oil without telling the beginner exactly what it smells like.

 

Because of the relatively small size of the artisanal oud community, oud vendors are thrown into direct contact with their customers, resulting in a slew of reviews that are either overwhelmingly positive, for fear of giving offense or harming a personal relationship with a vendor, or negative in a very personal way, which happens when a relationship with a vendor has soured.  The effect of this on the beginner is to make them question the reliability and objectivity of the information out there on any given oil.

 

Likewise, objective reviews for the ‘pure’ oud oils released by the big brands (Ajmal, ASAQ, Arabian Oud, etc.) are few and far between.  This is not because anyone is afraid of offending the vendor with a negative review.  After all, the big brands are as far removed from their customers as Guerlain and Chanel, and therefore do not care if somebody on the Internet doesn’t like them.  But the top oils from the big Emirati brands are so expensive and difficult to sample that few are in the position to try them.  And the wealthy private collectors of oil legends do not write reviews.

 

Confirmation bias is also a problem.  With samples for most oud oils being either extremely expensive or just plain unavailable, many people just buy blind on the word of the vendor.  And when one has spent thousands of dollars on one tola of oil, the temptation to justify the purchase with over-the-top praise is irresistible.

 

When scanning reviews for any product, it is important to filter the review through what you know to be the reviewer’s experience or biases.  In the oud community, this background noise takes longer to pick apart, often showing up as an impenetrable tangle of information, hurt feelings, and personal vendettas that can defeat the beginner.

 

The lack of objective reviews for oud oils, attars, mukhallats, and so on is one of the main reasons why I decided to write this Guide.  Hopefully, you will find this Guide to be a good resource for objective reviews of what an oud oil smells like.  Although I know some of the oud vendors personally, I am not a member of the oud world, either online or off.  And because I don’t have skin in the game, you can trust that I’m giving you an objective review.

 

These days, more and more perfume bloggers are now taking on this corner of the perfume world, populating the Internet with more objective, detailed reviews of specific oud oils, attars, and mukhallats.  Hard-core oud fans might see this as encroachment into their small community and might even deride these reviews as the product of people who don’t have the necessary knowledge or experience.

 

They are wrong.  Writers who have a solid background in reviewing perfume can easily turn their focus to oud and make a good job of it too.  Mainstream bloggers are not personally invested in the oud game and can therefore to be more clear-sighted and objective in their reviews.  Furthermore, they are arguably better equipped than most to describe what an oud oil smells like.  Read blogs such as Kafkaesque, Perfume Posse, and Persolaise for detailed, insightful reviews on specific oud oils and attars.  Search for threads on Basenotes and Fragrantica that discuss oud and look up specific oils in the review sections.  Be as informed a buyer as you possibly can, so that even if you are forced to make the odd blind buy here and there, you are not going into it completely unprepared.  

 

Lack of access to samples is a huge barrier to beginners.  The big brands such as Ajmal and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi do not sell samples of their top oud oils.  And with a tola (about twelve milliliters) of a top oud such as ASAQ’s 150-year old Kalakassi or a Thaqeel costing at least three thousand dollars, if you can find it, the lack of samples becomes a real problem.  The same lack of sampling options also applies when it comes to their oudy mukhallats and attars.

 

Most of the small-batch, pure oud artisans, on the other hand, do sell samples.  That is because these are all modern young people with a keen sense of where the real market for artisanal oud lies, which is online.  They understand the value of samples to their business model.  But still, the samples are expensive.  To a beginner, the sticker shock of these teeny, third-of-a-gram samples will seem immense.  You will either get over it and take the plunge or give up entirely on the artisanal oud segment of the market.  It is that simple.

 

But if you are determined to explore the world of pure oud, then it is vital that you establish a baseline early on in your journey.  Baselines are important not only in terms of training your nose to recognize a certain quality of oud oil, but also to familiarize oneself with the different styles and regions of oud.  A sampler of nine different oud oils from Ensar Oud typifying certain regions or styles will set you back four hundred dollars or so.  Expensive?  You bet.  You will be eating beans on toast for months.  But if that one sampler helps you to sort all other subsequent oud oils into poor, good, and superior quality, and to establish what style of oud you prefer, be it Hindi or Cambodi-style, then that is surely money well spent.

 

Oud is not the kind of area that repays false economy.  So, rip that plaster off, grit your teeth through the sting, and get that sampler.  Ensar Oud is just one example; AgarAura, Al Shareef Oudh, Imperial Oud, and FeelOud are all reputable artisan oud distillers who sell individual samples and sample kits online.

 

Lastly, the oud world suffers from a lack of access to a consistently available product.  If you confine your search to oud oils from the big Emirati and Indian brands, then you have no problem, because these brands blend their oud oils with other essential oils, farmed oud oils, and fillers to achieve a perfectly consistent and replicable result.  In other words, the Thaqeel you buy in Dubai one year will be the same as the one you buy the next year in London.  Furthermore, you rarely have to worry about it becoming unavailable to buy.

 

But there are no such guarantees in the world of artisanal pure oud oils.  Releases are small-batch and limited, meaning that once an oil from a specific distillation runs out, that is it.  It is no longer available for purchase, unless you can find it on the resale market where it is likely to be marked up by at least 50% from the original release price.  The danger is if you hesitate to buy a particular oil or wait the two or three weeks it might take you to buy a sample and have it shipped to your address, it might already be sold out by the time you decide to invest.

 

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is huge in the artisanal oud world and contributes to the pressure to panic-hit the buy button without knowing what you’re getting yourself into.  Vendors, naturally enough, tend to stress the rarity and ‘limited availability’ angle to nudge the community into buying.  Even as a beginner, the temptation to buy it now is almost unbearable.  Adding to the pressure is the fact that the very limited nature of artisanal, wild-crafted oud oils contributes to their re-sale value.  Certain oud legends are re-sold for close to ten thousand dollars per tola.  It is at this point that most beginners will feel tempted to blind buy purely as a financial investment, in much the same way as some investors lay down stocks of gold.

 

But at the most basic level, the danger is that of falling in love with a sample of a specific oud oil and then never being able to buy it because it is sold out, or because the tree that produced that oil is now gone.  How to overcome the worry over not having access to a consistent product?  My only advice is to learn to value the transitory nature of the most beautiful things in life.  William Blake’s poem ‘Eternity’ sums up the necessity of this approach:

 

“He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”

 

 

Challenge 3: Understanding the lingo

 

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

 

The world of oud discussion is a fascinating one, but largely impenetrable to the beginner.  Much of this has to do with the amount of exotic words and descriptors in use.  The oud community thrives on a sub-culture of language that is unique to them alone, complete with linguistic short-cuts, acronyms, and insider terms so densely knotted that it feels like finding yourself in a foreign country with nobody to translate for you.   When I first started researching the world of oud, I remember stumbling across descriptions such as ‘this oil displays all the jungle greenness of a Borneo, but it also has Maroke features’ and ‘zero barn’ and wanting to tear my hair out.

 

My path towards clarity involved lots of reading, as well as interviewing some of the oud artisans involved in the scene.  With some of the basic terminology tucked under my belt, I had the key to begin decoding the rest of this strange language.  But this process of understanding the language of oud took time and patience, with hundreds of hours spent trawling through a byzantine warren of old threads, website blogs, and useless arcana to find information.  I want to help the beginner circumnavigate that process by laying out the basics of what I learned

 

I will include a full glossary at the end of this Guide. But here are a few key words or phrases that are essential to understanding the vocabulary specific to oud.

 

 

Oud / Oudh / Aoud / Jinko (Jin-koh) / Aloeswood / Eagleswood / Agarwood / Gaharu

 

These are all names for oud wood, derived from different cultures and languages.  For example, the Japanese use the word jin-koh to describe oud wood (literally meaning ‘sinking agarwood’), and oud is gaharu in both the Malay and Indonesian languages.  Agar is what the Indians call it, originally a Sanskrit word for oud wood.  The Arabs say ood, which is the closest written approximation of the more guttural-sounding word they actually use.  In Arabic, the word ‘oud’ simply means wood.

 

 

Dehn (Dahn) al Oud

 

Literally translating to ‘fat of the wood’, this is the Arabic term for oud oil (differentiating it from the wood).

 

 

Bunkwood

 

Bunkwood refers to the parts of a piece of wood that do not contain any oud resin.  Bunkwood is pale and clean, just like any log of wood split open.  The parts of the wood infected with oud resin looks dark brown, black, or yellow, and has an oily appearance; this is the valuable part.  Unscrupulous distillers will sometimes load up a still with bunkwood as well as the resinated wood to stretch out resources.  But in general, most will follow the industry practice of carving away the bunkwood so that only the resinated wood remains.  The resinated wood that remains is dark in color, or densely striated with threads of black, brown, or even dark yellow oleoresin.  Once the bunkwood has been removed, the resinated wood can be carved for beads, burned as incense, or, of course, distilled to make oud oil.

 

Boya

 

Boya, or so-called ‘white oud’, is the name of oil distilled exclusively from bunkwood. It is not oud oil per se but distilled from the uninfected parts of the wood around the oleoresin, it can be said to be oud-adjacent.  

 

 

Sinking-Grade Agarwood

Photo: My own photo of the two small pieces of sinking-grade Borneo agarwood I own (vintage stock)

 

Sinking-grade agarwood wood simply means there is enough oud resinoid present within the structure of a piece of wood to make it sink in water rather than float.  When oud wood is carried out of the jungle, it is still wet thanks to the natural moisture content of a living tree and ambient climate conditions like rain, mist, and humidity.  The wood is laid out to dry before being soaked and distilled.  When dried, a piece of wood can lose up to fifty percent of its original, water-logged weight.  But resin is heavier than wood and will sink.  If the piece of (properly dried) wood then sinks in water, it is the resin in the wood that makes it sink, not the water content.

 

Some unethical sellers will sell fresh, wet (un-dried) wood as sinking grade agarwood, and in these cases, it is the weight of the water still present in the wood that makes it sink, not the resin.  But most merchants are ethical enough or at least mindful enough of their reputations to properly dry out their wood before marketing it as sinking grade wood.  In general, the term has little real value or meaning because all properly-dried, resinated wood will sink in water anyway.  So, if you see this term bandied about when buying oud oil, just remember that it is just marketing.  The term ‘incense-grade’ (see below) is a far more solid indication of quality than ‘sinking-grade’.

 

 

Incense-Grade Agarwood

 

Incense-grade oud wood refers to a piece of wood that is heavily and evenly resinated throughout.  In basic terms, incense-grade means agarwood that is good enough to burn as incense, not just use to distill oud oil.  This is the highest quality of oud wood.  When carved to remove traces of bunkwood, you are left with a piece of wood that can be broken into shards for burning as incense over burners.

 

This grade of wood is sold for very high sums to collectors and the big incense consumers in the Middle East and Japan.  The Arabs heat the wood as incense directly over burners to scent their homes, clothes, and hair.  The Japanese use it as a powder in incense sticks and cones for home use and in Kōdō ceremonies.  The Chinese prize incense-grade wood from the jungles of Cambodia as the best, and use it to carve ornaments, beads, and necklaces for ceremonial use. 

 

There are also private agarwood collectors who pay huge sums of money for a piece of well-aged incense-grade wood from an Aquilaria tree.  These pieces might be vaulted or used for display purposes, but in reality, very little is known about how wealthy buyers use it.  Ask anyone about Kyara or Kinam and you will soon learn that there is a market for it that values these pieces of wood as highly and as secretively as a Picasso.

 

Incense-grade wood is generally not used to distill oud oil, because it is considered too valuable.  Instead, lower grades of resinated wood chips and logs are generally used to fill a still.  However, there are some artisan producers such as Ensar Oud, FeelOud, Imperial Oud, and AgarAura that require their distillers to use a generous proportion of incense-grade wood in the still if the oil is to be an extra-special one.

 

 

Soil Agarwood

 

Soil agarwood refers to logs or shards of resinated agarwood that have fallen onto the ground and, due to the passage of time or other factors like construction works and felling in the area, become covered in earth, and eventually buried.  As one might imagine, decades of aging and the moist soil conditions can produce wonderful pieces of agarwood, even kinam-level pieces, that are evenly threaded with dark, aged, or almost crystallized oleoresin.  This agarwood can be unearthed from the soil and used to make agarwood dust that can then be used in incense or heated gently on a burner.

 

Soil agarwood is found in Indonesia and Vietnam, but it is only in Vietnam that the rarer kinam soil agarwood pieces are sometimes unearthed.  Indonesian soil agarwood is inferior and used to make a cheap dust to bulk out incense blends.  Vietnamese soil agarwood is often of very high quality.  There are three types of Vietnamese soil agarwoods – yellow, red, and black – each classified according to the predominating color of the resinated wood[i]

 

 

Hindi, Cambodi, Thai, Malaysian Oud

 

I go into detail about each of these terms in Part III of this Oud Primer.  But for now, it is enough to say that whenever you see a regional or country name attached to an oud oil, it means that that the oud oil typifies the general style, terroir, or aroma characteristics associated with that region.  Think of these names as being equivalent to wine names – a Chianti, a Burgundy, a Chilean, a Californian, and so on.  Wines are all made from grapes, but differences in soil, climate, terroir, and growing conditions mean that the variations are quite significant.  Similarly, oud oil varies widely from region to region, species to species, and terroir to terroir.  Yet all oud oils possess a certain core oudiness that links them back to a common origin material.

 

 

Aquilaria

 

Aquilaria is the name of a genus of oud-producing trees, of which there are 21 sub-species of trees, such as Aquilaria Sinensis, Aquilaria Malaccensis, Aquilaria Crassna, and so on.  One will often see a specific oil referred to as a Crassna or a Malaccensis – those are simply sub-species of the Aquilaria family tree.  There is a second genus of oud-producing trees, called Gyrinops, which has nine sub-species of oud trees such as Walla and Caudata.  For some reason, these names are less common in the oud community, and one usually learns about them only when specifically digging for information.  Each species has minute quirks and variations that exert an effect on the final aroma on oil distilled from them.  However, the effect of the species on the final oil is not as strong as terroir or style.

 

 

Kyara and Kinam

 

The words ‘kinam’ and ‘kyara’ (used somewhat interchangeably) are grading terms generally taken to denote the highest quality agarwood from the Aquilaria Sinensis species that originated in China.  Sinensis is the Latin word for ‘Of Chinese Origin’.  Rather confusingly, Aquilaria Sinensis also grows well in other areas, such as Vietnam.  In fact, the very best kyara traditionally comes from Aquilaria Sinensis trees in Vietnam. 

 

There is some disagreement over what makes a piece of wood kyara or kinam, in grading terms.  Some argue that it must come exclusively from wild Aquilaria Sinensis trees that have been allowed to reach full maturity (at least eighty years old but closer to over a hundred for preference) in Vietnam.  Others argue that it can come from an Aquilaria Sinensis tree grown anywhere, like China or Borneo, even India, and that it is the quality alone of the wood pieces – their density of hard, packed resin – that matters more than where the tree grows or how old it is.

 

In the quality-over-region argument, the prime factor that makes a piece of wood kinam is that the wood from which the oil comes is of unusually high quality compared to the rest of the wood found in that area.  This usually translates to dense, hard-packed oleoresin with a texture approaching crystallization and a deep brown-black color, evenly spread throughout the wood. 

 

There is a further distinction to be made between kyara and kinam that might be useful to keep in mind:

 

  • Kyara, when used as a description for an oud oil, is usually taken to mean that the oil faithfully reproduces the special aroma of high quality (kyara) oud wood chips being smoked gently over a burner.  The Kyara aroma may be described as rich, green, and incensey (as well as pure).

 

  • Kinam (written alternatively as Ky-nam, Kynam, and Qi-Nan), when used as a description for an oud oil, means that the oil comes from densely-resinated, aged oud wood that is of the highest quality, and is superior to even the top grades of oud wood generally found in that area.  It is more a description of a grading system than a description of aroma.

 

  • But occasionally, the word kinam is used to describe a tone that is very sweet, rich, and perfumey, basically the oud equivalent of vintage Coco parfum by Chanel.  Kinam implies the same ‘completeness’ one senses in the Chanel perfume.

 

 

In summary, the word kyara is the highest level of incense-grade agarwood but can refer also to its aroma when heated.  The word kinam is a more general descriptor of superior grading quality, in comparison to other agarwood from the same region.  Of course, nowadays, with genuine kyara or kinam wood being so rare and expensive, both words are more marketing terms than anything else.  Often, oud artisan producers as well as the big Indian and Arabian attar companies will name one of their products ‘Kyara’ this or ‘Kinam’ that to signal extraordinarily fine quality compared to other products in the same line or house.  Oud artisans also produce oils that are said to have kinam- or kyara-like qualities to them, like the pure, green woodsmoke of kyara chips, or the rich, perfumey characteristics of kinam wood.  Oils bearing these names stand out as being special and boast a price tag to match.

 

In general, though, if you buy an attar or oil bearing the name kyara or kinam, be aware that it is very unlikely that any genuine kyara or kinam was harmed in its making (Di Ser’s Kyara is the rare real deal, but it is not an oil).  It will, however, likely be superb quality and superior to even the best oils in that brand’s range. 

 

 

Mon-Koh

 

Loosely translated, Mon-koh is the Japanese word for ‘listening to incense’ and is important during a Kōdō ceremony.  The Mon-koh method involves burying a hot coal under ash, poking a small hole to allow heat to penetrate gently, and placing a small mica place over the duct, on top of which the oud chip will be smoked.  This method heats oud chips in an extremely gentle and slow fashion, allowing for maximum enjoyment of the oud chip as incense. In oud oil terms, the term is used to describe the soft sweetness of smoke from an oud chip burned in the mon-koh manner.

 

 

Maroke

 

Maroke is a style of oud oil from Indonesia characterized by its dark, jungly, and humid-rainforest notes, as if the wood has been distilled from rotting branches taken from the depths of a jungle after a monsoon.  Considered by many to be the original oud experience, Maroke oils are highly variable in quality, with many examples adulterated with paraffin, chemicals, or motor oil.  Steer clear of eBay when investing in a Maroke, and stick to reputable, artisan sources such as Ensar Oud, AgarAura, etc.  When you do find a good example of a Maroke, however, expect a soaring oud experience with the sort of elemental pull that makes the wearer think of virgin forests and primordial beasts.  Oud oils with a Maroke character may feature any of the following: dark color, humid, jungly tones, earthiness, hints of eucalyptus and mint, wood rot, and tropical swamp notes. 

 

 

Challenge 4: Oud Itself

 

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

 

You’ve done all your reading.  You’ve invested in a sampler.  Now you find yourself staring at the tiny vial in your fingers, which are perhaps trembling in anticipation.  Carefully, you ease the stopper out of the sample vial and swipe the brownish goo on the back of your hand, or in your beard, or behind your ears.  And then you wait.

 

When the aroma hits you, it comes in waves.  It is so concentrated that you feel a whole forest’s worth of earth, wood, leather, and animal droppings has been squeezed into one tiny drop.  It is both familiar and unfamiliar.  It catches you off guard, stirring up ancestral memories that lie dormant in the far off corners of the human brain.

 

Or at least that’s the Hollywood version of how your first oud experience is supposed to unfold.  But for many, myself included, there’s a breaking in period while your nose adjusts to a new normal.  I compare it to a Westerner eating natto or kimchi for the first time – some will adapt immediately, their taste buds expanding and glowing as one ingests the first bite, while yet others will recoil at the unfamiliar texture or the extreme funk that goes hand in hand with fermentation.

 

Nobody can ever tell you which kind of first experience you will have with oud.  You might struggle with it or ‘get’ it straight away.  Either way, it is useful to have a few parameters in mind while opening that vial.

 

Fermentation is the core flavor component of oud oil.  If you already like the umami flavor and scent of foods such as century eggs, natto, pickles, fermented bean curd, smoked teas, dried fish, and so on, then it is likely that you will find the aroma of oud more accessible than most.  The smell of fermentation can manifest in different forms, from wood rot (wet, decaying wood) and fruit spores (decaying berries) to compacted hay (rich in animal droppings and urine), pickles (sour, bilious-sweet), moldy plastic (the stale gust of air from a long-unopened plastic lunchbox) or partially-cured leather (raw leather, tannery smells).  If you focus on unpicking the aroma, you will probably be able to identify the type of fermentation you are smelling.

 

Oud oils are often described as being ‘barnyardy’.  But oud oils never smell like straight up slurry.  If you concentrate hard, you will be able to sort the barnyard funk into its constituent parts like dry hay, wet hay, leather, woodsmoke, animal fur, and soiled straw.  Think of the collected smells of a barnyard rather than actual urine or feces.  Obviously, much will depend on the style of oil you are testing.  Hindi-style ouds are traditionally more barnyardy than Cambodis, for example.  Much will also depend on the level of exposure you have had to strong, natural ‘countryside’ odors when growing up.  For some, a love of oud will be immediate and natural.  For others, it may prove to be a long learning curve.

 

Not all oud oils are funky, by the way.  Some smell green, clean, woody, vaporous, fruity, floral, or caramelic, depending on the style and terroir of the oud sample.  But focus and among your samples, you will always be able to pick out a strain of fermentation – some at very low, almost undetectable levels, some ferociously strong.  This is what experts call the core oudiness.

 

That initial wave of sour, biting fermentation does indeed die down to reveal other aromas.  Wait it out and train your nose to zone in on the other notes that can appear, such as berries, honey, caramel, dry wood, dry hay, fine leather, medicine, flowers, green herbs, and camphoraceous notes.  There may also be a smooth, drawn out base of rich leathery, smoky notes.

 

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! 

 

Photo: A piece of wild Thai agarwood in my collection, photo my own (please do not use without crediting me)

 

[i] http://www.kyarazen.com/soil-agarwoods/