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Chypre Sultan by Ensar Oud

11th August 2022

 

Always brave, I think, for a perfumer to set their cap at making a chypre in this day and age.  Most falter not because they can’t find an oakmoss replacement or the low-atranol stuff, but because they are so focused on getting the moss element right that they miss the whole point of a chypre in the first place, which is that abstract, kaleidoscopic richness, that sweet-and-sour balance that makes your mouth both salivate and shrivel up a bit.   Good chypres feel murky and on the knife edge of bitter to me – a mysterious conflagration of forest floor and a miso-based tare that took hours to make.  

 

Chypre Sultan feels like a real chypre because it treats the chypric model (bergamot, moss, labdanum) more as a suggestion than a straitjacket.  Bergamot?  Forget bergamot, too stuffy, let’s put yuzu in instead.  Labdanum?  Booooring.  Tends to take over.  Put in the quietest of sandalwood instead, creamy and substantial enough to anchor the scent.

 

In playing fast and loose with the rules, Chypre Sultan successfully captures the mysterious umami character of chypre that eludes the grasp of others.  The opening is winey and dark, a dense carpet of forest floor notes – minty wet moss, woods, artemisia, hay, sage, perhaps even a touch of rubbery myrrh – which give it a distinctly medicinal tinge, similar to Tiger Balm.  It wears like the deepest green velvet this side of Scarlet O’ Hara’s curtain dress.

 

Naturally, being an Ensar Oud creation, Chypre Sultan is kitted out with the most exquisite medley of natural oud, castoreum, and musks, which weighs down the flightier herbal and citrus notes, and creates the ‘pea souper’ murkiness so essential to a chypre’s character.  It is so thick that I can almost taste it at the back of my mouth.

 

The castoreum alone is extraordinary – leathery, almost burnt in its dryness, and in conjunction with the minty-vegetal tones of the (genuine) oakmoss, distinctly savory in tone.  The musk element is not animalic or heavy-smelling in and of itself.  In fact, it seems to be there only to give the castoreum and oakmoss this buffed-out, diffused ‘glow’ effect.  Imagine burying your nose in a man’s leather jacket and then walking around in a ‘head space’ cloud of those same molecules all day long.  This feels like that.

 

Surprisingly for such a dense, winey stew, I can clearly smell the jonquil.  Jonquil is a type of daffodil (narcissus) that smells like hay but also quite like jasmine under some conditions.  At some point, the sweet, sunny wafts of hay and jasmine begin to shake loose of the darker backdrop, and the effect is like a sudden shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom of a medieval forest.

 

Bear in mind that this floral effect is really subtle.  There is, however, a moment when the savory (almost celery-like) oakmoss meets the jonquil, and I think of Vol de Nuit.  It is a similarly ‘long simmered greens’ train of thought that connects the two.  But of course Chypre Sultan is an indie-artisanal perfume, while Vol de Nuit is a perfume made in the grand manner of French classical perfumery, so both the finish and the intent are very different.  Chypre Sultan is, naturally, far richer, more pungent, and rougher around the edges than Vol de Nuit.   

 

But there is a distant link, nonetheless, and you might be the type of person who prefers the raw authenticity of the natural ouds, musks, or oakmoss that an artisan outfit can offer.  Chypre Sultan is Vol de Nuit if she got up from her table at Le Cinq, delicately wiped her lips on the Irish linen napkin, and disappeared off into Fontainebleau forest to roll around in the muck and the hummus and the animal carcasses, only to emerge naked ten hours later with nothing more than a smirk and eyeliner smudged all over her chin.  

 

There is only one slightly difficult moment for me, and that is when all the minty herbs and hay-like florals fade out, leaving only the surround system of the castoreum, musk, and oud to play out their slightly gloomy brown tune.  Without the distraction of the fresher notes, the oniony-sweat nuances of oakmoss, complete with that slight over-stewed celery tea note, start to wear on me a little.  However, the rich, rubbery castoreum, musk, and oud step in to smooth this over and it steadies itself, finishing out the day (and this is a serious all-day kind of thing) in a softly murky, leathery-foresty haze that hovers rather than ‘sits’ on your skin.

 

I am hard-pressed to say what Chypre Sultan might be compared to, because a perfume by an oud artisan like Ensar Oud is always going to be on a different level of pungency and purity to a commercial perfume.  So, allowing for the sheer ‘apples and oranges’-ness of the comparison, I suppose that Chypre Sultan reminds me a little of Diaghilev (Roja Dove) in terms of the bitter, foresty greenness and masculine-leaning character.  However, Diaghilev has a stouter floral core and, being a commercially-produced rather than artisanal perfume, lacks the leathery castoreum-musk depth of Chypre Sultan.

 

Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI) is also a fair comparison, but is much sweater and creamier, its florals appearing almost powdery in comparison (Chypre Sultan is a powder-free zone).  The Vol de Nuit linkage is but a fleeting impression and probably a figment of my overactive imagination; Dryad (Papillon) is another possibility because of its costus note. 

 

But in fairness, Chypre Sultan is far less classical in structure than these two fragrances, and in its ‘brewed up in a wild jungle’ intensity, comes closer to the tannic, crunchy-organic Peruvian Amazon experience that is Carta Moena 12|69.  In terms of murkiness, complexity, and that ‘Chinese meal’ completeness you get with a good chypre, it drifts along the same orbit of Kintsugi (Masque Milano) without smelling like it at all.  Either way, Chypre Sultan is very much its own thing, and that thing happens to be a force of nature chypre.

 

 

Source of Sample:  Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee).  I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world.  The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash 

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Aquilaria Blossom by Areej le Doré X Agar Aura

26th May 2022

 

 

Aquilaria Blossom is an exciting new collaboration between Russian Adam of Areej le Doré and Taha Syed of Agar Aura, both oud artisan distillers and perfumers of repute in the oud and mukhallat community.  Russian Adam is something of a pioneer for the oud community in that Areej Le Doré was the first brand to make a commercially successful breakthrough from pure oud distillation into the bigger market of niche spray perfumes.  In doing so, he opened new doors for the rest of the oud artisan community.

 

And now it seems that Russian Adam is once again forging new market pathways both for his own brand and others, this time with a marketing strategy known as collaboration, a partnership-based strategy that expands the commercial reach of both partners, cements reputations, and deepens the customers’ feeling of engagement and authenticity associated with the brand.  Areej le Doré’s first collab was with Sultan Pasha Attars on Civet de Nuit (review here). 

 

For us consumers, the important thing is to understand what we are getting in terms of value added.  How are the two styles of the two collab partners different, or similar?  Why does a collab between them make sense, both for them as artisans and for us as the people who end up buying and wearing this perfume?  For readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with the respective styles and signature ‘moves’ of Taha Syed and Russian Adam, let’s take a closer look at them individually before examining the end result of their collaboration, i.e., Aquilaria Blossom.   

 

Taha Syed of Agar Aura is a famous artisan oud distiller, with a reputation roughly at the same level of Ensar Oud (they are fierce competitors).  Though unfamiliar with his mixed media work, I have tested and reviewed two of his pure oud oils for my oud series here and here (I purchased both samples directly from Taha).  The common thread I found in both ouds was that his style is deceptively clean and minimalist, eventually revealing very complex substrata.

 

But Taha is also famous for his support for the idea of using fractionated compounds of oud oil to ‘build’ a more complete or compelling aroma.  In oud distillation, as in any essential oil distillation, the quality of the aroma of the compounds in the distillate varies according to many different factors (read here for more detail), one of which is the timeline at which the distillate is ‘pulled’ out from the still. 

 

For example, in ylang, the distillate produced in the first hour of distillation is known as Extra, with the grades of First, Second, and Third following in sequential order.  The descending order is generally thought to correspond to a descending quality, though lack of standardization in the essential oil distillation business makes this extremely difficult to verify and is often purely conjecture.  I am not sure that fractioning is that precise or quantifiable a tool.  But what it does allow for is a bit more room to play for the artisan who is distilling the oil.  

 

The upshot is that at each stage (or ‘pull’) of the oud distillation process, the distillate possesses some characteristics that customers find desirable and some that are less so.  The artisan’s job is to figure out how to amplify the desirable traits and weed out the less desirable ones.  What Taha Syed is known for doing is separating out the oud distillate into individual compounds and then putting them back together in a way that fits with the idea he holds in his head.  If the customers love the smoke and leather notes of a particular style of oud oil, but not the more sour, abrasive ones, Taha can separate them out and discard what he doesn’t need.  A retrofitting of sorts[1].  Apparently, this is now a quite common approach in the pure oud distilling world. 

 

Russian Adam, on the other hand, is probably best known for the Areej le Doré perfumes, many of which I have reviewed here on this blog.  His perfume compositions tend to be baroque, retro-styled florientals that lean hard on rare raw materials (oud oil, real deer musk, genuine ambergris) but stop short of making them the entire point of the exercise.  The result is often as pungent as its constituent raw materials, but you would never mistake it for a simple distillate; these are clearly perfumes.

 

Interestingly, his pure oud distillation work under the Feel Oud banner tends to be far more experimental.  Read through my pure oud oil reviews (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-CD-KL-O, and P-Y) to see reviews of Russian Adam’s pure oud oils and you’ll see what I mean.  From runny Brie to green curry oil and jasmine, his oud oils are perhaps the quirkiest and most playful I’ve seen in what can be a very po-faced genre.   

 

So, without further waffling on, how does Aquilaria Blossom – as a collab between two oud artisans who also happen to be self-taught perfumers – fare both as a fragrance and as a representation of two quite different artistic styles?

 

Let me start by saying that Aquilaria Blossom surprised me by its lightness and its simplicity.  Now, never were two words more guaranteed to make the Basenotes boys sweat than these, so let me clarify.  When I say ‘light’, I mean that texturally, it wears as thinly and elegantly on the skin as an Hermès silk scarf (compared to, say, an Aran sweater).  This isn’t the bulky ‘stacked to the rafters’ scent experience we are used to from Areej le Doré.  It wears on the skin in the same way as Dehn Oud Ateeq (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi) does, which is to say a sheer but durable wash of scent on the skin.

 

And when I say ‘simplicity’, I mean that this isn’t a perfume that crowds in so many notes and accords that all you smell is a thick mud of absolutes.  It remains legible, uncluttered  – no squinting required to make out what it is that you’re smelling.

 

Don’t know about you guys, but those are both positives in my book.  It certainly makes the scent easier to describe.

 

The TL;DR:  Aquilaria Blossom is a fresh, spicy scent that pairs a juicy floral-tart citrus accord with a fine-grained, horsey leather (most likely the result of that ‘touch of oud’ promised in the notes list), bracketed by an ambrein-rich resinousness that seems to build from nowhere about six hours in.   

 

The feature-length movie version: A one-two punch of a tarry citrus and a pop of (briefly) gamey oud opens the scent with a dramatic flourish, holding court in that vein for quite some time.  The citrus accord, pithy with bergamot and aromatic-woody with yuzu, is bitter but also balmy, with a waxy perfumeyness that brings to mind orange blossom.  If you’ve ever had those strange Japanese gummies that taste both citrusy and floral in the mouth (think Diptyque’s Oyedo), then you have an idea of what this smells like.  For the record, this is the only even vaguely floral part of the scent, for me at least.  

 

A note on the oud (or ouds) used.  They are not specified and maybe not even the point.  But I do wonder if Taha Sayed use compounds of different ouds at various points of the perfume’s composition to highlight an effect he wanted and discard the rest.   For example, the briefly animalic pop of oud at the start might be a fractionated compound of a Hindi oil, because we get the spicy hay and leather notes of a Hindi but none of its depth or range.   And while the faint undercurrent of sour berries and stale radiator dust that soon develops under the skin of this opening might point to a Cambodi, who really knows, because there sure ain’t any caramel. 

 

Whatever it is, the main effect of oud is to start building a lightly gamey leather accord that stretches all the way from the top of the scent to its basenotes.  The citrus notes eventually fall off, as they do, but when they do, you don’t lose any of the freshness initially created by them, largely because the leather that the oud whips up is so elegantly thin.

 

Ambergris sometimes adds this wonderfully silty, horsehair muskiness to a composition.  Combined with the oud in Aquilaria Blossom, I find this produces the impression of being in a tack room, the air thick with the scent of saddles freshly taken off heated horseflesh.  A touch of castoreum (beaver butt) adds to the soupy animal warmth.  Yet, the doors of this putative tack room have been flung open to let the fresh smells of flowers and hay in from the fields.  And maybe someone peeled an orange an hour ago, its volatile skin oils still staining the air.   

 

‘Aquilaria Blossom’ is so-named for what both Taha Syed and Russian Adam imagined what a flower growing out of an Aquilaria tree might smell like.  But despite the listed magnolia and neroli, the only floral touches I perceive are brief and upfront, worked into the perfumey bittersweetness of the citrus notes in the opening.  Thankfully, the neroli doesn’t go soapy on me, or perhaps it does and all I end smelling is saddle soap, which is the only way I take my soap in perfumery anyway.

 

The ending really does come as a bit of a surprise.  It shows up right when everything else is winding down, but unlike that one drunk guy who shows up at 3 am, it is most welcome.  One by one, all the other notes seem to get siphoned off into a golden cloud of glittery resin particles, anchored by a rubbery licorice myrrh, and thickened only slightly by a subtle (thin) vanilla.  The ending, like the rest of the scent, feels deliciously sheer.  This is a scent where all the molecules are spread out and have ample room to breathe. 

 

In the end, how much of Taha and how much of Russian Adam actually got into Aquilaria Blossom?  I think the light, minimalistic structure is more Taha than Adam, but then I haven’t smelled any of Russian Adam’s fresher, more citrus-forward perfumes, like Chinese Oud (though his Limau Hijau under the Feel Oud banner is very citrus-forward) and I only know Taha’s work through his pure oud oils.  All I can say with confidence is that Aquilaria Blossom has none of that heady, musky floriental thickness of body that we are used to in Areej Le Doré releases.

 

Is it possible that two oud greats came together and created….a freshie?  Maybe!  Russian Adam is an innovator and this is possibly him shaking things up.  Aquilaria Blossom is fragrant and aromatic, woody and bright.  It lingers on the skin and in the air but feels like no weight at all on the skin.  But that’s not to say that its simplicity is, well, simple.  I’m reminded of the line in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he says “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / I am large, I contain multitudes”.  Aquilaria Blossom is relatively simple and straightforward.  But it too contains multitudes.  Multitudes of hay, ambergris, spice, citrus peel, and wood rot all tucked away neatly into one long thin line of leather.

 

 

Source of sample:  A 2ml sample sent to me free of charge by Russian Adam (I paid customs).   

 

Cover Image:  Photo, my own, of Aquilaria Blossom sample next to piece of Wild Thai agarwood for scale.  Please do not distribute, circulate or use this photo without my permission.

 

 

[1] For example, on the Agar Aura website, Taha describes his technique for Berkilau Hitam, a discontinued oil, as follows: ‘Berkilau Hitam is the pure isolated base-note fractions of the agarwood extract (and approximately 6 times higher in quality: Berkilau raw materials). This is pure wood, resin, and smoke. These are the same aromatic fractions that most people associate with actual burning agarwood, Fractions which are either missing altogether in many oud oils, or extracted using inferior distillation techniques. Scientifically speaking, this oil literally consists of only the heaviest, densest, richest aromatic compounds found in agarwood (read: darkest smelling)[1].’ Interesting, no?

 

Attars & CPOs Oud Oudy Concentrated Perfume Oils Review The Attar Guide

Oudy Concentrated Perfume Oils (CPOs)

25th May 2022

 

 

Wrapping up the oud reviews!  First came the reviews of pure oud oils (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-C, D-K, L-O, and P-Y), followed by reviews of oudy mukhallats (grouped and alphabetized here: A-C and D-W).  But now we move on to the final category – concentrated perfume oils that have an oud note or theme.  

 

Quick reminder: Concentrated perfume oils are very different in intent and construction to attars or mukhallats.  CPOs are simply perfumes in an oil format, a category that spans everything from ludicrously bougie niche perfumes and American indie oils to drugstore roll-ons and dupes.  Read more about how CPOs differ from attars and mukhallats here.  

 

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 Mousum De on Unsplash

 

004 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 004 opens with a mentholated suede note decorated with an antiseptic buzz – probably the ‘oud’.  The opening is distinguished by the same vegetal cardamom note that gives both Tom Ford’s Oud Wood and Dzongkha by L’Artisan Parfumeur their distinctive edge.  Cardamom is a material that seems to offer both a green, cooling freshness (like celery, or cis-jasmone, in fact) but also a lively lemon and black pepper heat that jives well with exotic woods and other spices.  In Oud Wood, the function of the cardamom texturizes the putty-like creaminess of the woods that lie beneath.  And that happens to be the role it also plays here, in No. 004.

 

Underpinning the green cardamom and medicinal oud is a creamy, tonka-driven suede accord that is, again, similar to that of Oud Wood, albeit mintier and fresher, as well as less luxurious in texture.  Given the price difference, however, it is well worth looking into No. 004 as a cost-effective means of getting your Oud Wood on without shelling out Tom Ford bucks.  It is not quite a dupe, but it is close enough to satisfy.  I am willing to bet that layering No. 004 under Oud Wood would at the very least extend Oud Wood’s wimpy performance on the skin.  

 

 

 

 

Aseel (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Aseel is a potent rose-oud fragrance with a soapy white musk doing most of the heavy lifting in the background.   The opening is dominated by the metallic sharpness of rose geraniol and the taunting acidity of saffron.  The sharp medicinal twang of the Montale oudy aromachemical is clearly recognizable here: lovers of Black Aoud and Aoud Musk might want to check this out.

 

The rubbery oud, the saffron, and the green rose are all stacked up front, like boobs in a Wonder Bra.  The denouement, as it so often happens in these cases, is a disappointment – a vast expanse of clean, cottony musk and little else.  It smells like laundry detergent straight from the bag, but also exotic in a broad, Disneyfied way.  Eventually, the roar of the musk dies back somewhat, allowing a scratchy rosy amber to peek through.  My husband wears it.

 

 

 

 

Attar al Oudh (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Our Attar Al Oud enhances the wild, natural complexity of sustainable agarwood/oud oil with exotic swirls of dark musk, bone-white sandalwood, and dry amber.

 

 

Attar al Oudh is a very simple blend of the Alkemia oud note with musk and amber.  The oud note that Alkemia uses in all its oudy blends is dusty, woody, and ever so slightly urinous.  Summoning the scent of warm hay in a stable, it smells earthy and natural, but not objectionably animalic.  I like it a lot.

 

A fudgy musk and amber duo in the base smoothes things over even further, making for a pleasurably laid-back experience.  It smells less and less like oud as time wears on, and more like the milky-sawdusty suede found in both Tom Ford’s Oud Wood and Tuscan Leather.

 

Nothing too wild or exciting, in other words.  However, it is precisely this bland smoothness that makes Attar al Oudh such a good entry-level perfume oil for those a little wary of oud in general.  Sadly, its lasting power leaves something to be desired.  It starts out rich and creamy but whittles down to a mere shadow of itself within the space of a few hours.  Mind you, people say the same about Oud Wood and that costs about ten times more than Attar al Oudh.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Chris Boese on Unsplash

 

deadofnight (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

deadofnight is the oud ‘soliflore’ of the line.  All of the Strangelove NYC fragrances have oud in them, but deadofnight and fallintostars are the only ones that feature it in a big way.  Those with no experience of real oud oils might need a minute here to gird their loins, because this right here is the real stuff.  None of the cheesy, soupy barnyard funk of real oud has been toned down or mitigated, so the initial onslaught is truly animalic.

 

But give it time to settle and the scent soon reveals a butter-soft rendition of leather that will have you crooning. What I appreciate in this fragrance is that it manages to be both dark and fresh at the same time, the watery greenness of violet leaf lifting the oud out of its brown gloom, aerating it a little, polishing it up for polite company.

 

There is a smidge of rose and amber to soften the impact of the oud, but overall,  deadofnight is neither sweet nor floral.  It employs an almost single-minded focus on exploring and bringing out the complexities of the oud, particularly its green, suede, and soft leather facets.  

 

Like all of the Strangelove NYC fragrances, it is rather linear, focusing on a simple exposition of top-notch raw materials. I said once in a review of Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio that the total effect was ‘as if the perfumer held a dried tobacco leaf up against the sunlight, slowly turned it around in her hands, and captured each of its changing colors and smells in one small bottle’, and that’s how I feel the materials have been treated here.

 

 

 

Deep Forest (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Deep Forest is a rose-oud honed into supermodel leanness by a leathery saffron note.  Like all saffron-dominated compositions, it has the potential for harshness, but steps back at the last moment, leaving only the pleasantly acerbic taste of a young, tannic Riesling on the tongue.  Elegant, woody, and restrained, this is a rose-oud fragrance for those whose constitutions are too delicate for the brutish sex appeal of most balsamic-smoky rose compositions.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

 

Egyptian Temple Oudh (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A more intense Oudh that softens over time on the skin. Egyptian Agarwood Oudh is represented here and it is recommended for first time Oudh enthusiasts to inhale from the bottle softly or fan the open bottle toward you with your hand to catch the nuances of smoking embers, dried honeycomb and sandalwood.

 

For a community not overly concerned with the veracity of indie marketing, even the keenest of NAVA fans had trouble swallowing the company’s rubbish about sourcing oud from their ‘very own plantation of Aquilaria trees in Egypt’, a country whose arid climate is diametrically opposite to the humid, semi-tropical one required for the cultivation of Aquilaria.  The company must have realized that this was one fiction too far for their customer  base, because after the first series of Icons came out, NAVA hastily shifted their sourcing narrative to an oud plantation in Northern India, where they pay for the distillation of Hindi-style oils.

 

What, then, of the original Icon oud, espoused here by Egyptian Temple Oudh?  Honestly, it is pretty good.  It even smells authentically oudy, especially at the start, with all the nuances of smoke, rubber, wood rot, and beaten-up leather present and accounted for.  It does not contain any of the characteristics that might mark it out as a Hindi or a Cambodi, but instead projects a core ‘oudiness’ in a very broad, generalized sense.  It is not sour or animalic, but sweetish and woody, i.e., perfect for a beginner’s palate.

 

My sole criticism of the scent is that the oud accord is laid out in one single layer up front, with little depth or development past the first smoky blast.  Barring this little signpost of inauthenticity, Egyptian Temple Oudh generally bears up well under close inspection.  It is pleasant to wear, authentically ‘oudy’ in aroma (albeit in a rather generalized manner), and its sweet amber base serves to ‘normalize’ the whole affair for those who are a little nervous about oud.

 

Likely, the oud effect of the oil is arrived at through a clever mix of oud synthetics and inexpensive oud oils from the souk, themselves a mix of natural oud filled out with other essential oils, synthetics, and liquid smoke.  Yet, if the aim here was to recreate the smell of real oud, then Egyptian Temple Oudh gets pretty darned close.  Highly recommended, as long as you can still find it and are willing to pay the steep price, beyond which you might as well purchase a squib of real oud oil directly from an artisan distiller.  

 

 

 

 

Fantasmes (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Fantasmes features the same sort of creamy-dry wood character as in Wood Gardens but presents a sprightlier take.  Its chorus of peru balsam, oakmoss, citrus, and geranium introduces a minty, balsamic freshness that lifts and separates the woody notes, allowing us to view and admire their musculature in more detail.  The total effect of Fantasmes is of a masculine chypre like Pour Monsieur fighting its way out of an oudy mukhallat.  That might sound strange, but there’s something so nailed about Fantasmes that it would be curmudgeonly to object.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Jocelyn Morales on Unsplash

 

Fumé Oud à la Vanille (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Crushed tonka beans, woodsmoked amber, and bourbon vanilla aged with oud wood.

 

 

This is essentially the Alkemia oud note swirled into a very creamy vanilla and the house smoke layering note (sold separately as a layering note and used in Smoke and Mirrors).  It is wonderful, and the only full bottle of Alkemia perfume I would buy for myself since the untimely demise of Bohemians en Voyage.

 

Both creamy and dry, Fumé Oud à la Vanille lays out a perfectly balanced tonka bean accord into which the astringent oud note can burrow quite comfortably.  Soft, round, and nutty, this is a great perfume both for those who fear the sharp animalism of oud wood and those who prefer smoky vanillas over the sugary kind.

 

If Fumé Oud à la Vanille were a person, it would be the French foreign exchange girl who shows up to a party wearing the softest, most buttery leather coat ever before proceeding to charm the pants off everyone in the room, including the other girls. 

 

 

 

 

Guerlain Songe d’Un Bois en Eté (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The use of cumin in fragrances needs an expert hand.  In the hands of Thierry Wasser at Guerlain, for example, the cumin in Songe d’Un Bois en Eté smells warmly animalic, like a particularly lived-in oud that transmits an unmistakably sensual vibe.   In less expert hands, cumin can smell unpleasantly like body odor.  Most dupes tend to lay the cumin on thick in a desperate attempt to mimic more complex or expensive animalic accords in the original fragrance, and unfortunately, this is a prime example.

 

Other than the harsh cumin, whereas the original heads straight for the deep, smoky woods and jasmine, the dupe smells bright and citrusy-sharp in the topnotes.  The original feels hot and dry, the dupe harsh and metallic; an exposed light bulb hanging from a string compared to the Tiffany lamp of the Guerlain.  In other words, save your pennies for the real deal.

 

 

 

Photo by Yogesh Rahamatkar on Unsplash

 

Hellcat (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A dark and ferociously sexy blend of Black Oud, Black Musk, Labdanum, and spiced Pipe Tobacco blended with a seductive purr of Black Opium. 

 

The black oud cited in the scent description is probably a reference to Black Agar Givco 215/2, a synthetic Givaudan specialty base used to replace real oud oil in a composition.  I have smelled this material in isolation, and it smells great – smoky, balsamic, and a little sweet, like amber.  Unfortunately, whatever honey or spice notes the perfumer has added to give the oud note an animalic purr just make the blend smell sharp and borderline unpleasant.

 

It would, in fact, be fair to say that Hellcat smells like a urinal puck, only not nearly as nice.  There have been reports on Fragrantica that this blend is one of those selective jobbies that works with the skin chemistry of only thirty percent of those who try it.  Well, either I am part of the unlucky seventy percent or Hellcat is just plain awful.  You try it and tell me which it is.

 

 

 

 

Hidden Lodge (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dry Wood Blend, Oud, Woodsmoke, Spices, Castoreum (Botanical Interpretation) 

 

Summon your inner lumberjack!  Solstice Scents excels in smoky wood scents, and Hidden Lodge is no exception.  It possesses a dry, golden radiance that calls to mind both an indoors type of wood (a log cabin) and an outdoors one (conifers, fir, oak).   The oud note is subtle, adding only a tinge of fermentation to the central cedar-oak axis, while the castoreum just lengthens the wood’s smoky shadows.

 

Hidden Lodge is not animalic or fleshy in any way. It is simply a good smoky woods blend.  A bit plain, admittedly, but sometimes, that is just what the doctor ordered.  I see this working on people with an active lifestyle that revolves around camping and hiking. 

 

 

 

 

Memo Shams Oud (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The dupe and original are deeply unalike in the beginning.  The original is a dry, peppery affair that smells like oud chips smoking over coals in a cedar cabin, fresh ginger root, and benzoin, a sheep fat labdanum coursing underneath. The dupe, on the other hand, smells immediately of wet, pulped newspapers and ground nuts.

 

As time goes by, the resemblance to the original strengthens somewhat, but the dupe remains rather weak and inert, never fully fluffing up onto the smoke cloud of resins that defines the original.  There is no sillage, no pleasing ‘thickness’.  The radiantly dry smoke of the real Shams Oud is sorely missed.

 

Crucially, the dupe seems to also be missing several key raw materials or components, most notably the bodacious, toffee-like sweetness of real labdanum, the papery dryness of benzoin, and the smoky soot of frankincense.

 

In dupes of resinous fragrances such as Shams Oud and Amber Absolute, I find the key difference to lie in the swaddling, thickening effect of resins (labdanum, myrrh, frankincense, benzoin).   When these resins are removed or watered down in the dupes, they leave a perceptible hole in the fabric of the scent, its texture invariably ‘reedier’ by default. Sadly, this is the case here.

 

 

 

Photo by Suvrajit 💭 S on Unsplash

 

Oud (The Spirit of Dubai)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

The Spirit of Dubai’s take on oud is exactly how I think most people expect oud to be, which is as ferociously animalic and foul-smelling as a soiled cow yard.  Naturally, not all real oud smells like this, but it is important to note that many customers in the Middle East do not think of it as real oud unless it does smell like this.

 

The central dilemma of any luxury perfume house wanting to crack the market with an authentic oud fragrance is probably as follows: (a) wrap the oud up in flowers, fruit, and sandalwood in an attempt to make the medicine go down with well-heeled, genteel Western clients, or (b) go balls to the wall with an authentically cheesy, barnyardy oud and just hope there are enough Middle Eastern customers (or enough well-heeled, genteel Western clients who are up for a bit of a dare) to make it worth the investment.

 

With Oud, The Spirit of Dubai has obviously gone for option b.  It frames a pungent, cheesy, quasi-fecal natural oud oil with a massive synth support that buttresses the oud from either side, the equivalent of using a smoke machine to fill a cathedral with dry ice.  Within seconds, one’s nostrils and immediate surroundings are invaded by a pressing wall of bilious funk that smells like a cow’s prolapse.

 

It is, clearly, something that one might hesitate to wear in public.  Few of the other listed notes make it out alive from behind this wall of murk, not because they are not there, but because the noxious cloud of chemical and real oud is so dense and all-encompassing that it is difficult to make out the shape of more delicate notes such as lime, pear, rose, or lily of the valley.  The synth structure is massive – overwhelming even.

 

Thankfully, given time, the piles of liquid slurry on the bar floor dry out and morph into the shape of a dry, smoky leather. Oud then takes on a tailored, almost fresh elegance that could not have been predicted during the barbaric assault of its opening.  It meanders for hours along this track, a dark, dry leather with incense smoke wafting up from beneath.  But its chemical heat signature never quite departs the scene.  It remains at a low simmer beneath the surface, like a Duracell bunny on his drum, muffled under a blanket.

 

Price-wise and funk-wise, The Spirit of Dubai’s Oud is in the same ballpark as Frederic Malle’s The Night.  Both are aimed at the haute luxe segment of the buying market and both are built around a core of real oud.  The real difference is in the use of synthetics.  The Night is more naturally built and attar-themed, whereas Oud embraces the synth-driven performance and structure that is so popular among luxury buyers these days.  Hair-splitting aside, these are clearly brothers from another mother.

 

 

 

 

Oud 27 (Le Labo)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The eau de parfum of Oud 27 smells like rotting wood and sour plastic, with a scalpy smear of costus thrown in for good measure.  Most perceive Oud 27’s opening to be a little offensive (Luca Turin calls it ‘pornographic’), but it accurately mimics some naturally-occurring facets of real oud oil.  Specifically, it reproduces the scent of necrotic decay brought about by the fungal infection that consumes the healthy parts of wood, turning them into oleoresin.  Oud 27 exaggerates this rot by a factor of ten, projecting it onto a huge canvas like in an open-air cinema.

 

The sour wetness of the aroma gradually dries out over the course of a wear, slowing evolving into a sweet, musky wood scent that smells like pulped cedar chips and sawdust at the bottom of a freshly-cleaned hamster cage.  As the scent settles, it becomes easier to identify the individual components of the composition, namely a red berry note, saffron, cedarwood, and a salty, almost hammy guaiacol.  A fun ride, sure, but perhaps not the easiest fragrance to slap on and forget about it.  Ain’t nobody going to be wearing Oud 27 on a first date.

 

The oil perfume version of the eau de parfum fares well, perhaps proving that the oil format is the more natural medium for anything oudy.  It sidesteps the plasticky, feral screech of the eau de parfum’s opening completely, instead easing you in with an oily, vegetal taint that increases incrementally rather than slapping you around the face.  The oil is very fruity compared to the eau de parfum, which makes it sweeter overall.  The shock factor of the oil is perhaps a five, compared to the nine of the eau de parfum.  Less porno, more PG.

 

 

 

 

Oud Violet Huile de Parfum (Fragrance du Bois)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The oil counterpart to Oud Violet Intense, the brand’s eau de parfum, Oud Violet Huile de Parfum, is the rare example of a Fragrance du Bois scent that smells like it actually contains some oud.  The oil puts the surprisingly animalic oud up front and center, before dunking it in a bath of creamy tonka and freshening its breath with black pepper and mandarin.   In a Le Labo-style twist, there is no violet in the composition, the name presumably referring to the dulcet, velvety texture of the tonka drydown.

 

The perfume performs a balletic leap from peppery, spicy freshness to creamy leather without missing a step. It feels rich but light, a dusty chocolate warmth filling the air pockets between nuggets of smoking resin and tonka bean crème.  Oud Violet Huile de Parfum is my personal favorite of the Fragrance du Bois line-up because it is elegant and rich, but also places real oud oil at the center of the composition.

 

In tone, Oud Violet Huile de Parfum reminds me a lot of Mona di Orio’s Oud Osmanthus, particularly in its rich, ‘soaked’ leather-and-civet treatment of the oud theme.  Both compositions feel grandly upholstered, as if they belonged not to the modern era but to the drawing rooms of a Henry James novel.  An aria of antiseptic, woody sourness flits through the scent to keep all the sweet, almost candied elements firmly in check.  Every single note here fits together as tightly as a lock and key.

 

 

 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

 

Shaikah (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Shaikah is my pick from Al Rehab for a perfume oil that gives you the thrill of the East for pennies.  Although clearly not made from any real rose or oud oils, Shaikah briefly pulls off such a convincing impression of an authentic rose-oud that I recommend it specifically to beginners who want to see a trailer of the genre before deciding to sit through the movie.

 

Shaikah is not a replacement for better quality oils, of course.  But it gives you a pencil sketch of the real thing and is therefore invaluable to people who want a taste of the East without committing too much time and money.

 

The opening of Shaikah is sharply antiseptic, sour, and although not overly animalic or dirty, may prove a little offensive to noses not used to the smell of oud.  The oud note is plonked down rather unceremoniously beside the rose and left alone to do their own thing, uncushioned by the usual Western airbags of vanilla or sugar.  The rose is green, cutting, and bloodily metallic; the oud note chemical, medicinal, and austere.  It is a fight to the death and both are wearing knuckle-dusters.

 

The sparring notes eventually pull themselves into a shape that works, the ancient pairing of rose and oud proving once again to be the most logical combination in perfumery.  It is not sweet or creamy, but in its bluntness, achieves an authentically loud exoticism that one can well imagine billowing out from under the robes of men and women all across the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

Sultan Al Oud (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

A glance at Sultan Al Oud’s name might have you trembling in anticipation of a full-on oudy onslaught – but relax.  This is a soft, inoffensive essay on woods that is incredibly easy to wear and won’t have anyone in your immediate vicinity wrinkling their noses.

 

The perfume derives most of its force from a creamy vanilla in the base but gains auxiliary interest by way of the same soapy green cardamom note that features so strongly in Tom Ford’s Oud Wood.  The texture of the oil resembles lather from a luxurious shaving soap, but other than this, there is nothing to sway it in the direction of one sex or the other.  In fact, like Oud Wood, Sultan Al Oud is as smooth and as featureless as a Ken doll.

 

Later on, Sultan Al Oud smoothes out into a clean, rubbery woods accord that, when paired with the bland vanilla, recalls those great Lattafa cheapies Raghba and Ameer al Oudh, minus the chemical screech of their synthetic oud.

 

Highly recommended as a gateway into the whole ‘oudy’ arena, because although it contains not even a drop of oud, Sultan Al Oud still manages to convey a convincingly oudy aroma.  It is on the dapper side of wearability, so it won’t scare the horses.

 

 

 

 

Tom Ford Tobacco Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The dupe opens with a sickly cherry-licorice note that does not feature anywhere in the original.  Although I personally find the original slightly too rich and dry to wear more than once in a blue moon, there is no denying that it is an impactful fragrance, stuffed to the gills with whiskey, peat, honey, campfire, woods, and amber.  The dupe fails to capture either the texture or the basic notes of the original.  It’s not looking good, right?

 

This dupe is an advertisement for why you should always wait it out just in case there is a surprise development.  Four hours on, and the dupe settles into a fantastic rendition of Tobacco Oud, complete with the incensey, burned-sugar amber heart successfully transplanted from Amber Absolute into Tobacco Oud.  This accord is shot through with streaks of toasted tobacco, honey, and some kind of golden liquor.  This kind of dupe gives me whiplash – terrible start, wonderful finish.  However, I have to rate this as firmly average because I am not sure how many people would have the patience required to sit out the uninspiring first half.

 

 

 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

 

Velvet Roses & Oudh W for Women (Perfume Parlour)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 


Dupe for: Jo Malone Velvet Rose & Oud

 

 

There is a dankness in the dupe absent in the original, and the original is jammier, darker, and more velvety.  But nitpicking aside, this is a close dupe.  Both pair a sweet, rich rose note with a creamy coffee-praline note and a surprisingly smooth synth oud for a result that seems to be the baby bear’s porridge of rose-oud perfumes.

 

The best feature of the original is that it is sweet without being candied, and creamy without being heavy.  This quality is replicated to perfection in the dupe.  The original is darker, thicker, and fuller, especially in the rose department.  The dupe also falls behind on projection, sticking much closer to the skin.  But honestly, if you don’t have the money for the Jo Malone but love the smell, then the dupe gets you two thirds of the way there for a fraction of the cost.

 

 

 

Wood Gardens (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Wood Gardens features the usual triple-stacked pyramid of notes but what it all boils down it is a happy marriage between two partners of top-shelf quality – an oud oil that is meltingly soft and deep, with all the sepia-toned mystery of agarwood but none of its grunge, and a sandalwood with the creamy, incensey heft of a true Mysore.

 

At the edges, saffron enhances the supple, leathery side of the oud, while vetiver and vanilla emphasize the nutty, grass-fed creaminess of the sandalwood.  But nothing distracts from the central effect of oud and sandalwood.  Although technically a concentrated perfume oil rather than a true attar, Wood Gardens illustrates the essential selling point of traditional attar perfumery, which is allowing the most exquisite of raw materials to melt into each other and doing nothing much else than making the introduction.  Wood Gardens is worth crawling over hot coals to smell.

 

 

 

 

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 Hyde & Alchemy, Al Rehab, Alkemia, NAVA, Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics, Solstice Scents, Le Labo, Perfume Parlour, Amouage and Mr. Perfume.  Samples from Strangelove NYC and The Spirit of Dubai were sent to me free of charge by the brands. The Henry Jacques and Fragrance du Bois samples were sent to me by two different (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 William Bout 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)

 

Cult of Raw Materials Oud Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: P-Y

13th 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 the different markets that consume it.  Also, 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.  Also, don’t miss Pure Oud Reviews: 0-CPure Oud Reviews: D-K and Pure Oud Reviews: L-O.

 

This section contains reviews of pure oud oils[1] only. Review sections for oudy mukhallats[2] and oudy concentrated perfume oils[3] are forthcoming.

 

 

Photo of pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

Port Moresby (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Papuan (Gyrinops)

 

 

Port Moresby is one of the most lauded oud oils ever to be produced by Ensar Oud.  Distilled from stock of older, more densely-resinated trees of the Gyrinops species from Papua, the oil displays an interesting dichotomy.  On the one hand, it features all the usual green, vaporous, and almost sparkling facets of steamy Papuan oil, and on the other, it smells aged, buttery, and round in the way that some aged oils do.

 

Therefore, what one smells on the skin immediately is green and tart, like the skin of unripe green mangoes, mint, and basil cordial, but also deep and smooth, like a well-aged plum brandy.  And it is this juxtaposition that makes Port Moresby such an intoxicating wear.  This oil is reputed to replicate the smell of green kyara chips being heated on a burner.  I wouldn’t know if this is accurate or not, but based on smell alone, Port Moresby certainly is a mesmerizing experience.

 

There are no off-putting sour or barnyard notes in Port Moresby.  You are delivered directly to its core of vaporous green woods, with that subtle current of hot buttered leather, oiled antique furniture, and red wine pulsing beneath.  It puffs away on the skin calmly and quietly, its own little forest world unfurling on your hand and gifting you with a piece of portable Zen in a fretful, unkind world.  It is oils like Port Moresby that remind you why essential oils are so commonly used for healing, meditative, and spiritual purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash

 

Purple Kinam (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Purple Kinam was distilled from very high quality pieces of Malaysian Malaccensis by a skilled distiller who works almost exclusively with kinam wood.  Ensar commissioned him to distill this particular oil as a sort of experiment to see if it was possible to wrest the flavors of a kinam oil from non-kinam wood.  The result is, as even the distiller himself agreed, so high quality – kinam -that it justifies the name of this oil.  (The word kinam, when used as a grading descriptor for an oud oil, usually means that the oil comes from densely-resinated, aged oud wood that is of the highest quality, superior to even the best oud wood found in that particular geographic area).

 

Kinam is generally understood to mean oil from wild Aquilaria Sinensis trees that have reached full maturity (over 80 years old) in Vietnam, but as with Purple Kinam and Qi Nam 2005, Ensar seems to be on a mission to prove his theory that kinam-quality oils can be produced from any type of wood (including Malaccensis) and in any region, as long as you have a distiller who knows what he is doing.  In other words, he believes that kinam oils can be produced through the magic of alchemy – a skilled distiller turning metal into gold.

 

And the result, Purple Kinam, is indeed very beautiful.  Though keep in mind that I have never smelled kinam and therefore have no true baseline against which to judge.  It is a clean oud oil with absolutely no funk or dirtiness. There is even a floral (rosy) and citrus hue to its golden shallows.

 

An undertone of mustiness and stale lunchbox lurks in the upper registers, but even this aspect is pleasant.  Lightly vaporous, the oil first emits high-toned fumes of wood, glue, solvent, and grain alcohol boiling in open vats, before settling down to a smooth, light finish.  In many ways, it reminds me of the fine-grained woodiness of Borneo 2000 or even Oud Yusuf, indicating that this oil may possess some aspects of the Borneo aroma profile.

 

Purple Kinam is placid and easy to wear.  I recommend it to anyone looking for an entry point to oud.  Its light, clear golden texture and vaporous quality also qualifies it as a rare oud you could wear to work.  If I could afford it, I would buy this oil to wear every day, as there is an easy-going, sunny grace to it that suits the daylight hours.

 

 

 

Pyrex Nepal (Blend) (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Mixed

 

 

Pyrex Nepal, a blend of various oud oils, initially doesn’t smell like oud oil at all.  Instead, it charts a course between the flavor profiles of green curry oil, jasmine, and melted plastic, switching out one flavor for the next each time the nose returns to the skin, confused and searching for meaning.

 

It is a disorienting but not unpleasant experience.  Pyrex Nepal is the kind of thing that makes me shake my head in admiration, not only at the intrinsic variability of oud oil but at the skill of artisan distillers like Russian Adam who are unafraid to push for a result that might annoy the hell out of oud purists.  I am by no means a traditionalist, so I quietly cheer for this lack of deference and for these odd, boundary-expanding experiments.  But if you are a traditionalist, tread carefully with this one.

 

Given an hour or two, Pyrex Nepal settles into a more recognizable shape of oud, with a plasticky, green, and airy quality that is quirky as hell but still recognizably oudy.  Underneath, there stirs a powerful undertow of cumin, for that touch of heated female flesh.  

 

Overall, Pyrex Nepal reminds me somewhat of the acidic, cumin-flecked woods of Al Rehab’s Khaliji and several of the woodier Le Labo fragrances.  It is certainly oud oil, but all its usual references have been thrown askew, asking the wearer to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.  An unsettling experience, but highly recommended. 

 

 

 

Qi Nam 2005 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

Qi Nam 2005 is a rare Chinese oil that was the predecessor to the famous Ensar Oud Royal Kinam.  In pure oud circles, the words ‘kinam’ and ‘kyara’ are generally understood to denote the highest grade of agarwood, a particularly resin-rich, packed, dense piece of oud wood from the Aquilaria Sinensis species that originated in China.  But kyara or kinam agarwood can also be found in other species and in other geographical areas, such as Vietnam (home to the most revered kyara).

 

There are heated arguments over what makes a piece of wood kyara or kinam.  Some argue that it must come exclusively from wild Aquilaria Sinensis trees that have reached full maturity (over 80 years old) in Vietnam, but others maintain that it can come from an Aquilaria Sinensis tree grown anywhere, like China or Borneo, or even India, as it is the quality of the wood pieces – their density of hard, packed resin – that matters more than where the tree grows.  In the quality-over-geographical location argument, the prime factor that makes a piece of wood kinam or kyara, therefore, is that the wood from which the oil comes is of unusually high quality compared to the rest of the wood found in that particular area.

 

Royal Kinam was released by Ensar Oud under that name to denote its superiority over all other oud oils, even within the Ensar stable itself.  Subscribing to the view that kinam simply means top-notch, aged, heavily resinated wood from the Aquilaria Sinensis species – no matter where the tree was grown – Ensar sourced a batch of Chinese-grown A. Sinensis wood to undertake this particular distillation (and make his point).

 

And actually, it makes sense to look for Aquilaria Sinensis – which translates to ‘of Chinese Origin’ – in China.  However, given that Aquilaria Sinensis is itself extremely rare and almost extinct in China, only a tiny amount of Chinese oil from a piece of China-sourced Aquilaria Sinensis could ever be produced.  In fact, the small quantity of Royal Kinam produced was quickly sold out on the Ensar Oud site and is now only available if a private collector decides to sell.

 

I have never smelled Royal Kinam, but its predecessor, Qi Nam 2005, is an experience I would wish for everyone new to the oud genre.  In some ways, it is redundant to provide a description knowing that this oil is not available for purchase.  On the other hand, my description might prove useful to buyers in terms of what they might expect if they come across an oil described as ‘kinam’ in their journey.

 

Qi Nam 2005 initially smells like a piece of Reblochon cheese flash-grilled till runny and drizzled with acacia honey – a restrained but ripe aroma full to the brim with sweet, savory, sour, and umami flavors all rolled into one.  This unbearable ripeness of being is quickly over, the oil settling into cruise control within minutes.  The main body of Qi Nam 2005 is redolent of a dark and supple piece of leather, a fantastically gloomy and pleasing aroma that reaches back to tickle the far corners of the brain.  There is nothing raw, animalic, or rotting about this aroma at all.  It slides out of the bottle perfectly aged, all its edges smoothed down, fully-formed, and reading Voltaire in impeccable French.  Compared to a young Grana Padano for grating, this is a 36-month-aged parmesan cheese so rich in nuance that the only respectful way to savor it is by allowing tiny silvers of it to melt on your tongue.

 

There is a lovely sense of completeness to this oud.  There are no sticky, honeyed red fruits or green tree sap or sour, rotting wood – no one accord that jumps out to identify it as belonging to one region or another.  Aside from a slightly antiseptic topnote, it is not medicinal in character.  It does not correspond to any one style, but man, it has style.

 

Qi Nam 2005 is a mellow essay on the pleasures of deep brown woods and old leather.  Picture a battered leather chair in a professor’s office that has sat there for generations, quietly absorbing nuance upon nuance over a period of four decades.  Worn to a silken thinness over time, the leather exudes the quiet aroma of privilege.  There is something spiritually comforting about Qi Nam 2005, but not in a distracting way.  Wearing it would simply be conducive to having a happy, productive day.

 

 

 

 

Royal Seufi Oudh (Arabian Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Like George Clooney, Royal Seufi Oudh is greatly improved with age.  Seufi is a word that vaguely implies something reserved for royal use, thus the name of this oil suggests both quality and the use of Hindi oud oil.  However, the blend and aging of the oil has made it so buttery that it is difficult to identify any Hindi characteristics at all.  It could be Hindi, or a mixture of Hindi with other oils, including Laotian and Cambodi – but really, who knows?

 

Honestly, this is so nice that I don’t care, and neither should you.  Its fifteen years of aging has created an impeccably smooth mélange of creamy, woody notes that retains all of its depth of its pedigree and none of the raw, dissonant stink of younger Hindis.  It has a glossy caramel-like texture, and the barely-there sweetness of long-cured meats and leather.

 

But first, you notice the fruit.  A wave of berry flavor bubbles up joyously under the nose like champagne – sweet red cherries, pears, and luscious blackberries.  The initial effect is that of breaking down a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in the mouth, really getting deep into the mouth to activate those salivary glands.  The fruit melts away into a rubbery leather note that gets ‘burnished’ and more supple with time.

 

There is a slightly creamy plastic facet here that reminds me of the Laotian oud used in Oud Velvet Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdijan, as well as a hint of goat curd.  However, these aspects simply add an interesting textural dimension to the buttery leather of the oud.

 

 

 

Photo by Jonas Hensel on Unsplash

 

Semkhor – Wild Hindi – First Fraction (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi (wild)

 

 

Imperial Oud was fortunate enough to get their hands on a portion of wild agarwood excised from the few remaining wild Aquilaria trees in Northern India not shipped directly to the Emirates for sale in the Arab market.  Semkhor Wild Hindi – First Fraction, an oil distilled in situ by a local distilling partner on behalf of Imperial Oud, is the glorious result.

 

Distilled from wild trees on the border between Assam and Manipur, this is an unmistakably Hindi oil.  But to my nose, it is different  (in a good way) to many of the Assamese or Hindi oils I have previously smelled.  First, though there is the fiercely pungent, hay-like twang of a traditional Hindi up top, it does not take on the heavily fermented odor of wood that has been left to soak until it rots, falling apart into foul-smelling water.

 

Instead, the leather-hay notes here are bright and clear-gold, like raw honey, with a tantalizing hint of air-dried fruit and dark cocoa playing second fiddle.  There is a smattering of a dry spice – hot black pepper crushed with clove or cinnamon – sifted over the bright hay and leather notes.  There is a nugget of fermentation, writ small, in the fabric here too, but this is the pleasing sourness in a bite of kimchi, rather than the foulness of compacted dung. 

 

Everything in Wild Hindi is playing at low volume, so it reads as subtle and almost light on the skin.  The sour barnyard funk of a traditional Hindi is missing in action, which, in all honesty, will get the hardcore ouddicts scratching their heads or worrying at their beards a little.  But it would be an excellent oil with which to indoctrinate beginners into the Hindi genre.  As someone who is not tremendously keen on the famous Hindi funk, this is one of a handful of Indian oils that I myself would wear without hesitation.  Beautiful work.

 

 

 

Singgalang – West Sumatran Wild (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Indonesian (Sumatra)

 

 

Singgalang is a Sumatran oud oil, distilled from wild resinated A. Microcarpa trees, a little known species of Aquilaria.  There is something quixotic about this oil.  It is hilariously impolite and refuses to stay within the lines.  In fact, it is more a physical sensation than a smell, especially in the opening few minutes before the oil settles.  A tiny smear of the oil unleashes a tidal wave of putrefying fruit and cheese so overripe it threatens to leap over the table and slap your face.  A layer of cloying dust clings to the back of these garbagy foodstuffs, a clove-like spiciness that tickles the nose.

 

However, once the intensity of the opening begins to bank down, it becomes easier to pick out individual notes.  These include, to my nose at least, a bright curl of citrus peel, camphor, and a hint of apricotty osmanthus.  Once fully ‘broken in’, Singgalang coasts along in a middle register of core oudiness – smoky and chewy, with a good balance between sweet and tart.  In the far drydown, it creams up again, albeit minus the rotting fruit and cheese overtones this time.  The creaminess here is vanillic and clean.

 

Singgalang is a striking and unusual oil.  It is definitely one to put on the test list if you like assertive flavors like decaying fruit and cheese in your oud.  However, although the creamy leather drydown is gorgeous, you do have to appreciate the cheesiness of Laotian-style oud oil to like this in its entirety, and I really do not.

 

 

 

Sinharaja – Ceylon 2016 (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Sri Lankan, with some elements of Borneo and Chinese style

 

 

Sinharaja is a Sri Lankan oud oil distilled from incense-grade wood, which means that only the best quality agarwood was used to fill the still.  This oil is interesting because, to my nose, it displays the characteristics of two different terroirs (or styles) in one.  The first is a bright, clean, almost minty island-style profile (Papuan or Borneo), which then folds into the second profile, namely the spicy fur-leather profile common to Chinese oils.

 

The opening is bright with delicate, smooth plum and grape notes, backed by a tannic wisp of lapsang souchong tea and the green, vaporous quality of a Borneo or Papuan oil.  As the oil develops, it flips the usual trajectory of an oud oil, becoming more rather than less animalic.  Past the sparkling topnotes, therefore, Sinharaja darkens in tone, picking up a plethora of stale, earthy, and leathery nuances, as well as a sullen backdrop of dusty spice – cloves, cinnamon, and saffron.

 

Clove is a note that can be animalic in its own right.  It is dusty, metallic, slightly cloying, and ‘oniony’ in aroma profile.  However, a current of steamy tropical fruit nuances moisten and smooth out the spice, tucking it seamlessly into the next phase of the oil’s development.  Once Sinharaja settles into its final form, you will notice that it has pulled out of its rather challenging phase of pungent leather and spice, and mellowed into a smooth, sweet woodiness that is kind of to die for – lightly smoky, aged, but not dusty or dry.  The animalism of the spicy leather fades into the ether, leaving you with the whisper of wood moistened with plum wine and tart, red cherries.  Very nice work. I would recommend Sinharaja to people specifically seeking a non-linear oud oil experience.  Intermediate level, for sure. 

 

 

 

Photo by Ripley Elisabeth Brown on Unsplash

 

Sutera Ungu (Agar Aura)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Distilled from wood from the Terengganu region of Malaysia, Sutera Ungu displays both characteristics from the fruity Crassna and the typical Malaysian structure.  Cutting past all the gobbledygook, what this means is that there is a complex series of shifts from top to bottom, often separating into two layers – smoke on top, and fruity leather beneath.  Agarwood from the Terengganu region is said to be particularly perfumey and rich, a theory borne out by this particular oil.

 

Immediately, I can smell smoke and fruited wood, backed by a smoky incense quality.  Once the Goethean drama of the opening settles a bit, it is possible to discern subtle little gradients of color and tone.  There are waves of freshly-stripped bark, clear furniture polish, green apple skin, and fermenting dried fruit, all dispersed within a boozy vapor akin to dried fruits soaking in brandy for Christmas pudding.  You get all this and more, filtered through a haze of incense smoke.

 

As pure oud oils go, this is perfumey in the way of an older Chanel extrait, and I am thinking of vintage Coco Parfum in particular here (something about the rich fruits in brandy feel).  In the heart, the smoke parts to reveal an earthy myrrh note, old wooden chests, and, darting through the darkness, the reddish iodine snap of pure saffron threads soaked in oil.  None of these materials exist in Sutera Ungu as notes, you understand, just their nuance.  

 

But the show is not over just yet.  In a whiplash move, the oil circles back on itself to the dry, incensey woodsmoke that greeted the nose in the topnotes.  Sutera Ungu is a rich, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable Malaysian oil experience from top to bottom.  It is both an oud oil and a proper perfume in its own right.

 

I highly recommend Agar Aura oils to beginners because they are exceptionally smooth, light-to-medium weight in terms of darkness and possessed of a depth of flavor that does not sacrifice legibility. 

 

 

 

Tawau Al Awwal (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian and Borneo and maybe a bit of Hindi thrown in for good measure

 

 

 

Tawau Al Awwal, a blend of oils from wild Malaysian and Borneo trees, provides an interesting jumping off point for discussing the difference between oud ‘terroirs’.  Borneo ouds are green, woody, and vaporous, with a creamy vanilla mouthfeel in its lower register.  Malaysian oils are often darkly smoky up top, and smoothly leathery underneath.  A further clue to the way this oil develops lies in the species of wood from which it was distilled, namely, Microcarpa, a low-yielding species that has intrinsically animalic characteristics.

 

So, with all of that information in the pot, how does Tawau Al Awwal actually turn out?  Interestingly, while it displays facets of both Malaysian and Borneo terroirs at different stages of its development, the opening notes clearly recall the spicy barnyard notes of a classic Hindi profile.  Confused yet?  I wouldn’t blame you.  But bear with me.

 

It helps if you look at Tawau Al Awwal as a feral child with absolutely no control over their tongue.  In the opening moments, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a Hindi oil fresh off the still.  It is monumentally animalic, with the pungent miasma of stinking leather, barnyard waste, and soiled hay roiling off the skin two minutes into application.  It also smells sourly dusty and stale, like clothes folded away while damp and not shaken out for six months. 

 

This unexpected ‘Hindi’ phase lasts for an objectionably long time.  But towards the end of the first hour, there appears a very nice smoke aspect that ennobles the barnyard honk somewhat, mopping up the worst of those wet, fecal leather notes.  It becomes drier and smokier as time goes on, and dare I say, far more pleasant to wear.  The smoke notes are associated with the Malaysian profile of agarwood, so that fits.  However, there is no sign of the characteristic Borneo notes at all until far down into the base when a faintly vanillic creaminess appears, as well as camphor, mint, and herbs.  This minty creaminess never fully subsumes the smoky, dirty leather notes, but it does soften the harsh roar of the opening.

 

Although I personally find Tawau Al Awwal a bit too unhinged to wear with pleasure, I admire the adventurous spirit with which Russian Adam distills his oils.  He is unafraid to tinker with the boundaries familiar to us and is cheerful about the dismantling of sacred cows.  He is not reverential, which can only be an advantage to people looking for an oud experience that colors outside the lines.  Tawau Al Awwal is an excellent example of how innovation and taking risks can pay off.  Specifically, it demonstrates that you can distill wood from one terroir in such a way as to make it mimic the characteristics of a completely different terroir.  I like the cut of his jib.

 

 

 

Photo by Prchi Palwe on Unsplash

 

Thai Leather (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi-style Crassna grown on Thai Plantation

 

 

Thai Leather, made from organic oud wood grown on a plantation in Thailand, has the fruity Crassna vibe of most Cambodi-style oils.  This makes sense since the majority of Thai plantation trees are Crassna.  What that gives this Thai oil its character is a core of gummy fruitiness that smells like a pan of apple caramel boiled hard to leave a layer of compressed fruit leather.  The official description for this oil notes that it is not fruity, but, baby, I beg to differ.  It is balanced by the sourish leather notes beneath the caramel, but some fruit is clearly present.

 

In the case of Thai Leather, the fruit/sugar element smells like green apple caramel.  This layer of sweetness disguises a smooth, smoky leather note that emerges after the first hour.  It is not animalic or challenging in the slightest, but there is a pleasant hint of sourness to the leather, which acts as a necessary counterbalance to the fruits and caramel.

 

In the far drydown, the fruity leather note grows slightly grimier, like a leather saddle that’s been sitting on a sweating horse for miles.  To my nose, it smells quite similar to the far drydown of some sambac jasmine oils.  This nuance is not disturbing or unpleasant, and in fact, lends a grungy sort of gravitas that’s sorely missing from the affable topnotes of fairground caramel apples.

 

 

 

 

Thai Pa Pa Kea (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna (wild harvested in Thailand)

 

 

Thai Pa Pa Kea is a special distillation from one of JK DeLapp’s distillers in Thailand, who also happens to be the royal oud distiller for the Thai royal family.  Given this distiller’s access to some of the premium pieces of agarwood on the market, he was able to source wood from a wild, 190-year-old Malaccensis Crassna tree in Thailand, and used to it distill a single batch of oud oil.  He offered a small amount to JK DeLapp, which is how this rare oil came to be offered through Rising Phoenix Perfumery.

 

So, what does an oil from one-hundred-and-ninety-year-old wood smell like?  Immediately, the aroma is very strong and diffusive, far more so than Rising Phoenix Perfumery’s other oils.  It contains all the fruity hallmarks of a classic Crassna but is much smoother and rounder.  It smells like a rich, golden pear that has been fermented for years and then deep-tissue massaged into a piece of wood.

 

There is a hint of sourness at the start, although this comes across as tannic – flower petals floating on black tea – rather than ureic.  A soft fur-like note flits at the corners of the aroma, adding a touch of drama.

 

Mostly, though, Thai Pa Pa Kea is pear leather with a golden oolong tea nuance in the background.  It is syrupy and thick, with a distinctly furred texture, but not at all dark in tone.  Three hours in, the fruity brightness dims a little, allowing a smooth honey nuance to slot into place.  Strong and sweet in a clean, bright manner, Thai Pa Pa Kea will please those for whom projection and volume is as important as the oil’s actual aroma.

 

 

 

Photo by Andres Vera on Unsplash

 

Thai Roast (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna grown on Thai Plantation, Seattle coffeehouse style

 

 

Thai Roast is an interesting experiment on how you can alter the basic aroma profile of oud oil through tweaks to the treatment of the wood prior to distillation.  Wishing to imbue the oil with the aroma of black coffee, JK asked his distilling partner to char the wood prior to distillation.  This gave the wood – and its resulting oil – an intensely dark, almost burned aroma similar to that of fossilized amber and burning frankincense.

 

Weirdly, Thai Roast truly does smell like coffee.  It has the smooth, dark-roast effect of coffee beans ground by an experienced barista in front of you.  Many oils and perfumes claim to capture the smell of fresh, dark coffee, but they mostly fall apart in the details.  This does not.  As far as authenticity goes, Thai Roast batters all other coffee scents into the ground.  A dab of this will jolt you awake as surely as a double espresso.

 

Delving deeper into the coffee aroma, some individual facets begin to take shape, including charred, dry wood, bitterness, smoke, hot metal, licorice, and dark chocolate.  It is a peculiarly intense experience, and truth be told, one that has the potential to tire your nose out very quickly. 

 

But then, I notice something unusual.  Take your nose away from the coffee, then return it, and suddenly your nose now discerns the coffee aroma as a knot of frankincense and myrrh smoldering softly on a priest’s censer.  What was once coffee is now something less prosaic – High Mass.  This switch in perception swings the wearer 180 degrees from the coffee shop to the gloomy insides of a church after mass, incense lingering in the air.

 

If this is what the future of plantation looks like, then it gives a glimmer of hope as to what can be achieved through creative distilling.  One criticism might be that Thai Roast smells nothing like a pure oud oil.  And to be fair, it really does not.  However, as a coffee-resin distillation, it more than succeeds.  Thai Roast will be of value to anyone interested in the world of possibilities opened up by tinkering around with distillation style. 

 

 

 

Thai Suede (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna grown on Thai Plantation

 

 

Thai Suede is similar to Thai Leather, described above, but there are three key differences in how they evolve on the skin.  First, the fruity caramel this time around is more red berries, peaches, and plums than the green apple-magnolia vibe of Thai Leather.  Second, the tone is denser, with a winey, fermented depth missing in Thai Leather.  Lastly, the suede core of Thai Suede is accompanied by a slightly synthetic smoke note, something that is not noticeable in Thai Leather.

 

That is not to say that Thai Suede contains synthetics, but that there is a note suggestive of modern smoke or leather aromachemicals.  This is probably just a feature of the wood from which the oil was distilled, or even the materials or mineral content of the water used in the distillation, but it is worth mentioning.

 

 

 

Tigerwood Royale, Tigerwood 1995 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Tigerwood is so-called because of the densely resinated ‘tiger’ stripes of oleoresin that run through certain heritage stocks of wild Malaysian agarwood.  The story behind this is that Ensar came across a distiller who had distilled these Tigerwood oils, one in 2001 (the Tigerwood Royale), and the other further back in 1995 (the Tigerwood 1995).

 

Tigerwood Royale, although younger in age than the 1995, is actually a much deeper, more resinous scent than the 1995, thanks in part to the much higher grades of tigerwood that were used for the distillation.  But both oils are roughly similar, sharing a certain evergreen freshness at their core, as well as a very classic Malaysian aroma profile.

 

Both oils open up with a very medicinal scent, which remains remarkably intact despite many years of aging.  The aroma that develops in both cases is robust, earthy, and oudy to the core, meaning a very classic profile of notes and nuances (leather, woods, greenery, incense).  The texture of both oils is silky thanks to the many years of careful aging.  However, the two tigerwoods diverge on some key points, and it is important to talk about them here.

 

First and foremost, Tigerwood Royale has a salty funk to it that makes me think of heavy deer musk or ambergris tinctures, whereas Tigerwood 1995 stays clean all the way through.  Tigerwood Royale also has a furry sourness that carries a whiff of the barnyard more characteristic of Hindi oils than Malaysian oils.  

 

Tigerwood 1995, on the other hand, follows up on the medicinal brightness of its opening with a heart that is very green.  It is heavy on the camphor, mint, and forest-like sappiness of some Borneos.  Although the oils diverge in the heart, the drydowns bring them back together, united in an almost creamy oudy-leather drydown with nuances of camphoraceous woods peeking out every now and then.  Personally, I find Tigerwood Royale too animalic to enjoy, and both Tigerwoods deeply masculine, so they are not my favorites from Ensar Oud.  (Keep in mind that I am female and my tolerance for animalics is quite low compared to the average oudhead).    

 

 

 

Photo by Ethan Rheams on Unsplash

 

Trat Jam (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Trat (Thailand)

 

 

If you have ever travelled in the former Yugoslavia, then you have probably been offered fruit juices as a refreshment.  These gusti sokovi are so thick you could stand a spoon up in your glass.  Trat Jam smells exactly like these homemade cherry, pear, and plum juices taste – dense, grainy, and sweet.  It teems with an autumnal richness that approaches that of a thirty-year-old sherry.

 

Trat is a border region of Thailand, and oud oils from this region tend to be fruity in a treacle-ish fashion that can get old quick (some accuse Trat oils of possessing a bubblegum-like flavor).  But Trat Jam, while indeed very sweet and very fruity, has a dark, textured tonality that balances out the syrup and renders it suitable for adults.  Along with the plummy flesh of the stone fruits, therefore, you also get the slightly furry, bitter skin of the fruit and a suede-like mouthfeel.  A richly saliva-like honey note swims languorously in the background.

 

Normally, distillers will soak Trat wood in water for a minimum of one week to introduce some sour, rotting aromas to counter all that berry jam.  But Feel Oud wanted a distillation of un-soaked wood, thus setting free an over-the-top cornucopia of red, winey cherries, plums, and apples.  Friendly and approachable, this oil is first date material.  Highly recommended to people who love gourmand fragrances, fruit, and all things harvest-related.  Although you can wear oud oil in all seasons, this one just cries out for autumn and long scarves and even longer walks in the park, kicking over piles of fallen leaves.

 

 

 

Yunnan 2003 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

Yunnan 2003 comes from a very rare distillation of the revered Chinese agarwood (a collector’s item) and this batch is, at the time of writing, now almost twenty years old.   Even before applying, I notice the aroma of unripe apricots and their tannin-loaded skins, tart and fuzzy but also distinctly fruity.  This scent reminds me keenly of osmanthus absolute, an impression that only deepens when I apply it to warm skin and its immense coils of leather and cow barn aromas are released.

 

It is immediately and intensely animalic, with a barnyard muskiness vying with leather, tallow, and goat hair for attention.  In fact, wearing Yunnan 2003 made me realize that some oud oils can masquerade as genuine deer musk. They share a dark furriness and an aroma so thick that you feel you might reach out and touch it with your fingers.

 

The opening to Yunnan 2003 makes me feel like I am standing in the middle of a herd of cattle in a shed, packed tight with the scent of warm, breathing animals, their fur, compacted hay and straw, mixed in with two weeks’ worth of piss and shit.  To a certain extent, your reaction to the first half of Yunnan 2003 will depend on the sort of upbringing you have had, and specifically if you have ever spent time on a farm.  

 

There are some high notes present in the swell of darkness, however, most notably the pleasant scent of peach, black tea, and citrus peel.  The balance of the fetid fur-and-fat notes with these delicate fruit and tea notes is fantastic because it makes you feel like you’re being served tea and scones by three-piece-suited waiters – even while there is a cow chewing the cud noisily over your shoulder.

 

Yunnan 2003 fades gently over the course of the day, getting smoother as time goes on.  The tone is tenebrous and somber – not dark exactly but certainly shadowed, austere, and a little forbidding.  In the far distance, there is the siren call of resin.  Zero sweetness, however.  Yunnan 2003 has one of the most enjoyable (and protracted) dry downs in the oud business.  A head-spinning experience, for sure, and one that is exclusively for the brave and the already initiated.  Beginner beware.

 

 

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:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Imperial Oud, and Kyara Zen.  I purchased all Agar Aura samples myself directly from the Agar Aura website. 

 

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 pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

[1] Oud oils are pure essential oils (or ruhs), distilled directly from shards of agarwood loaded into a still. They have not been tempered, diluted, or mixed with any other material.

[2] 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). 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).

 

[3] The reviews of oudy CPOs will cover all of the (mostly Western takes on) perfume oils with a headlining oud note. Concentrated perfume oils are not attars or mukhallats, partially because of their construction but also because the objective of the whole exercise is different. Read how exactly here. People wear mukhallats for reasons of religion, culture, and tradition, while people wear perfume oils just to smell great or to tap into a specific image or fantasy.

Cult of Raw Materials Oud Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: L-O

11th 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 the different markets that consume it.  Also, 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.  Also, don’t miss Pure Oud Reviews: 0-C and Pure Oud Reviews: D-K.

 

This section contains reviews of pure oud oils[1] only. Review sections for oudy mukhallats[2] and oudy concentrated perfume oils[3] are forthcoming.

 

 

 

Photo of pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

 

Layth (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi with a Chinese distillation ‘edge’

 

 

Layth is an unusual Cambodi, for several reasons.  First of all, it was distilled from actual Cambodian A. Crassna agarwood, as opposed to wood from other species or other regions, to give it a deliberately recognizable Cambodi style (fruity, caramelized, medicinal, bright, jammy, etc.).

 

Second, it was distilled in China using Chinese methods of distillation, which traditionally focus on drawing out the medically-useful properties of the material being distilled.  In other words, the focus here is all on the traditional healing properties the Chinese believe agarwood to possess rather than its inherent aroma properties.

 

The Chinese medical-therapeutic angle bears out in the topnotes of Layth, which feature the special medicinal funk of old Chinese apothecaries, complete with dried monkfish, raw musk pods, and pungent herbs.  This dusty (and pleasant) medicinal opening is brief, giving way almost immediately to an explosion of luscious red berries and figs, pulsating as violently as an insect infestation in an arm.  The fruit is bright, loud, a little plasticky, and above all, exuberant.  It is a pleasure to let this friendly little pup of an oil clamber all over you.

 

Layth has a slightly salty undertone that cuts the density of the berry-fig onslaught and gives the caramel a lascivious edge.  This is how all good Cambodis should be, i.e., medicinal, fruity, honeyed, and ultimately, as friendly as a toddler.

 

 

 

Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

 

Limau Hijau (Blend) (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: mixed

 

 

Limau Hijau is a blend of oud oils.  Its opening runs acidic, in a sly nod to the citrus hinted at in the name.  Once the brightness tamps down a notch, what emerges is a scent profile that is remarkably similar to the scent of several high-end Western oud fragrances such as Le Labo Oud 27 and Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie.  In other words, a pleasantly stale leather accord dipped in industrial solvents, glues, and tanning agents and then left out overnight to dry.

 

This pleather aroma is hot and vaporous, emanating slightly gassy, high-pitched fumes.  If you love Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie but want the same aroma in oud oil format, then give Limau Hijau a shot.  One criticism I would have of this oil is that it is quite light and one-dimensional.  Once the plasticky leather, solvent, and diesel fumes die back, there is very little in the way of depth or base.

 

 

 

Low Quality Thai Oud (Al Haramain)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai

 

 

Forgive the name.  Obviously, there is no such thing as Low Quality Thai Oud in the Al Haramain stable, unless companies have suddenly started to use total honesty in marketing, in which case we can expect to see ‘Generic and Less Tasty Coca-Cola Knockoff’ and ‘Slightly Chemical but Perfectly Serviceable Handsoap’ appearing on our supermarket shelves any day now.  The sample came to me marked thus, so this is what I am calling it.  A better detective than me might be able to figure out which oil this actually is.

 

In any case, it is not nearly as bad as the name implies.  It is a Thai oud oil that initially hits you with a sour, animalic aroma before revealing a jammy fruitiness at the core.  I am guessing that, being a Thai oil, it was distilled from the A. Crassna species of agarwood.  The berry tonality, although definitely present, is less exuberantly sweet than a Cambodi-style Crassna and there is something metallic in the background.  So far, so Thai.

 

To my Plebian nose, this oil is actually quite pleasant to wear.  It is not overly barnyardy.  However, it is not at all polite in its initial stages and will surely be off-putting to innocent bystanders.  Therefore, newcomers to pure oud oil or even to oud mukhallats would be wise to sample before buying.  If you can find the one I’m talking about, of course. 

 

 

 

Malay Penyulingan 2004 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Malay Penyulingan 2004 is one of the standouts of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery pure oud oils.  A vintage Malay oil, it comes ready-formed with a hit of smoke smeared onto a core of softly barny leather.  Once the smoky, green aura of the topnotes bank down, the barnyard elements seem to swell in size.  It is not massively dirty or anything, but there is definitely an undertone of freshly-mucked out goat stalls to contend with.

 

The core of Malay Penyulingan 2004 is warm, leathery, and above all, smooth.  The buttery texture is pinched here and there with touches of stale dust that cling to the nostrils.  The soft leather notes deepen and become muskier over time, taking on a fuzzy, soft-focus animalic quality.  But it has none of the fecal sourness associated with more barnyardy oils.  The drydown is deeply smoky, leathery, and balmy, with a satisfyingly ‘chewy’ texture.  

 

 

 

 

Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

 

Malaysia Classic (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysia

 

 

Malaysia Classic is hands down my favorite of the Kyara Zen-curated oud oils.  If oud oils possess a color equivalent to their olfactory profile, then Malaysia Classic would be a deep green.  Typical to many good Malay oils, it opens with a damp forest vibe, full of wet soil, juicy black bark dripping moisture, pine, camphor, sweet woods, and a swipe of smoke.  It is immediately transportative, taking me to the depths of a medieval forest after a tropical rainstorm.

 

Malaysia Classic develops in a pleasantly complex manner typical of a good Malaysian oil, namely an earthy, sweet, foresty top that settles into a layer of woodsmoke, and finally, into a layer of steamy, tropical woods and fruit.  It is a satisfying oil to wear, because it is such an immensely wholesome smell.  It smells like taking in a lungful of air during a hike in the woods and feeling the cells in your body fill up with centuries of sap, smoke, soil, and dampness.  Wearing an oil like this is what allows us to tap into more primal, unconscious connections with the natural world.

 

Malaysia Classic is distilled from the A. Malaccensis species of the Aquilaria tree, which is the same tree that produces most of today’s Borneo oils.  While not initially similar in scent profile, the lingering sweetness and forest-like tones in Malaysia Classic do seem to provide a tangential connection to the Borneo style of oud oil.  Beautiful, stirring work.

 

 

 

Malaysian Oudh Royale (Arabian Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Malaysian Oud Royale opens with a liquid slurry note that is surprisingly sunny and easy to digest.  Although it is ripe, it is also immediately grassy, thus breathing some good countryside air into the barn.  Overall, I would describe the oil as friendly, and suitable for oud beginners.

 

Later on, the oud develops some lovely redcurrant and dark wine facets, as well as subtle leathery dimensions.  Balmy and smooth, it makes for a pleasant wear, and is not demanding in the slightest.  What I appreciate about Malaysian Oudh Royale in particular is that it is not one of those oud oils where you have to wait for it to become more presentable.  Malaysian Oudh Royale is very expensive at over $350 for a quarter tola.  But since it has been aged for twenty-five years and is exceptionally smooth, it is money well spent.

 

 

 

Photo by Nastya Kvokka on Unsplash

 

Mamberamo – North Papua Gyrinops (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Papua (Gyrinops)

 

 

Mamberamo opens with a head-filling rush of green tea and steamy jungle vines, as well as something almost camphoraceously bitter.  Hard, unripe fruits, green (freshly-stripped) wood, and herbs nip at its ankles, clamoring for your attention.  These vaporous green notes are what one normally associates with Papuan and Borneo-style oud oils, and it is no surprise, therefore, that this North Papua Gyrinops oil stays so true to its roots.

 

Given a moment to shake out of its default ‘island’ mode, Mamberamo develops into a very interesting ‘brown’ smell that reminds me of a country cottage with its low ceilings, open hearth, and soot-blackened walls.  This place seemed to breathe baked lamb and soup out of its very pores, the greasy walls releasing wafts of thousands of good meals, peat smoke, and whiskey.  In fact, in feel, this oud oil is remarkably close to that of Annick Goutal’s amazing (and sadly discontinued) Vetiver. 

 

This seems to be only a short diversion indoors, as Mamberamo takes us out again into the sharp, herb-filled air of the humid forest.  Dry and leafy, it recalls the unripe tartness of cold black tea and plum skin, aromas which merge effortlessly with the flighty, solvent-like tang of Papuan-style oud.  Mamberamo is light, elegant, and easy to wear.

 

 

 

Old School Thai (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai

 

 

Old School Thai opens on a hot, bilious note that smells hilariously bovine.  Thai?  More like one of those super animalic, crazy hot Chinese ouds with ropey veins of marine funk and fur running through them.  It smells untrammeled, a cornucopia of aged leather and ripe, runny cheese, all sweating under cover in a hot cattle pen.

 

Sensing a theme here?  Yes, the word ‘hot’ appears a lot.  It sounds weird, but some aromas are intrinsically cold, while others are hot.  And Old School Thai feels hot.  Thick with spice and humid hay, you can almost feel the heat roiling off it.

 

I presume that the wood for this oil was soaked in water for a very long time to introduce that rotting, spicy sourness so prevalent in Thai and Hindi oils.  The long soak is a tradition among oud distillers and is responsible for what many believe is the true ‘oud’ aroma.  Personally, I am not a fan of the long soak and find it almost unbearable at times.  And unfortunately, while I respect Feel Oud’s distillation expertise, this is one of those times.

 

To its credit, the extreme barnyard funk of Old School Thai lasts only about twenty minutes before relenting and revealing a cluster of warm, smoky leather, incense, and rich earthy nuances.  This would make for an excellent introduction to the animalic Thai style currently being produced using plantation wood.  It may not be beginner-friendly, exactly, but the briefness of the animalic topnotes means that the oil moves swiftly into more wearable territory.

 

 

 

Photo by Noah Kroes on Unsplash

 

Oud #1 (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Lightly sour and leathery up top, Oud #1 has some of the hallmarks of a Hindi style but none of the grungier animalic features that might intimidate beginner noses.  There is an initial hit of smoke, goat hide, and black pepper to contend with, but this oil quickly zooms in on a handsome ‘new’ leather accord.  This is an almost squeaky clean leather, with the lingering scent of tanning chemicals clinging to its underbelly.  Picture a leather goods store where a shipment of new skins from the tannery has arrived and is being offloaded.

 

There is something piercing about the aroma.  But, counterintuitively, it is this solvent-like pitch that makes the oil so light and elegant.  And by light, I mean that it is far less full-bodied than some of the other KZ oils, drying down to a faint shadow of itself within the space of an hour.  What remains, however, is ethereally lovely – a buttery suede dusted with bitter cocoa.  The subtlety of Oud#1 makes it a perfect candidate for those situations when you need your oud to speak with an indoor voice while all the time thrilling you with a private hum of spiced, suedey goodness.    

 

 

 

Oud Ahmad (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Distilled from a bundle of Malaysian kinam (incense-grade) wood, Oud Ahmad is said to replicate with faithfulness the purity and intensity of a piece of best quality oud wood smoked gently and slowly over a burner.  It is also reputed to be one of only two oils in the world distilled from one hundred percent incense-grade wood.

 

Oud Ahmad is a beautiful oil with a deep, bosomy trail that displays that Malaysian disposition towards two different stories knitted together – musky, smoky fruit on top, and incense resin underneath.  This provides for an interesting and varied experience that keeps the nose going back to the skin for hits throughout the day.  Immediately upon touching the wand to my skin, I smell high notes of fermented peach wine and champagne, grey buttery glove leather, and the tannic, apricot-skin aroma of osmanthus.  It is lightly sour and smoky, with the varnish-like notes of steamy jungle wood joined with fermented fruit and sake.

 

The deepening sourness of the leather, fruit, and booze are wrapped up in a furry musk note, vaporized cloud of dark chocolate and deer skin.  A friend of mine finds Oud Ahmad to be very sexy and I can see why he thinks that.  There is something carnal about the muskiness here.  Once the fruited smoke and tannins die back, a velvety base of sweet, tarry resin like labdanum, copal, and even some honeyed pine sap steps forward to take up center stage.

 

Oud Ahmad is a great example of a multi-faceted, complex oud oil that will keep you guessing until you have figured out what the constituent aromas are and how they slot into each other.  Occasion-wise, this oil is the equivalent of a glass of really expensive whiskey enjoyed in a book-lined study at the end of a busy day.  

 

 

 

 

Photo by Alexandre Trouvé on Unsplash

 

Oud Dhul Q (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai mixed with Cambodi

 

 

Oud Dhul Q is a distillation of organic, plantation-grown Thai oud wood and a batch of incense-grade Cambodi wood.  In other words, a mixture of farmed and wild wood.  It is very much related to Aroha Kyaku but far smokier, woodier, and darker in tone.  It is also one of the most enjoyable Ensar ouds I have had the pleasure of trying, and the one I can realistically imagine owning myself one day.  (Of course, it will probably have been sold out by the time I get around to buying it.)

 

Up top, there is a long, drawn-out smoke note, fused with aged oud wood, tobacco, and the bright saltiness of ambergris.  But there is also a labdanum-style thickness and sweetness behind the opening.  This smells like burned toffee mixed with liquid tar and leather.

 

The smoke and tobacco place Oud Dhul Q in the same general arena as Aroha Kyaku, but smelled side by side, clear differences emerge.  Oud Dhul Q leans towards the saline side of the flavor wheel, while Aroha Kyaku’s cherry leather makes it both sweeter and brighter.  Yet, in Dhul Q, there is clearly something thick and syrupy at play behind the opening bouquet of smoke.  This syrupy density is as salty-bitter as molasses, chestnut honey, or even labdanum itself.

 

There are no cherries or fruit in the heart, just a buttery leather smeared with tar and honey as seen through the fiery blaze of campfire smoke.  The Heathcliff of pure oud oils, Dhul Q is a smoky, saturnine beauty that demonstrates that oud oil can be as complex and as ‘perfumey’ as a Chanel extrait.  Its haunting umami quality makes me think of kinam wood kept in Japanese vaults, an image that persists in jumping to mind even though I have never been within five hundred kilometers of either Japan or a piece of kinam agarwood.  

 

 

 

 

Photo by Alejandro Duarte on Unsplash

 

Oud Haroon (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

Oud Haroon is a feat of modern engineering that employs a new approach to farmed oud, arriving at a result that mimics the scent of a wild Cambodi or Thai oil from the seventies.  Made using plantation wood from naturally-inoculated trees that were left to grow for between twenty-five and thirty-seven years before harvesting, there are no sour or off notes to spoil the exuberant red berry aromas that jump out of the bottle at you.

 

But when we talk about a Cambodi aroma, it is important that we know what that refers to.  I have been lucky enough to smell a sample of real Cambodi oil from 1976 (also thanks to Ensar), before everyone started oxidizing their oils to replicate the aroma of the oil from trees that no longer exist.  The 1976 Cambodi oil smelled deeply fruity, but also like medicine, which if you think about it, makes sense because the oud resin itself is the medicine the tree makes to fight off infection.  It also smelled sweet and fruity without any of that sickly caramel smell that most Cambodi-style oils have these days, and definitely none of the sour ‘radiator dust’ note that modern force-aging creates in modern Cambodis.

 

Oud Haroon smells like a rich, plummy medley of purple grapes, sour cherries, prunes, plums, and apricots all mashed together and boiled up into clear, golden nectar.  There is a noticeable undercurrent of medicinal wood, so sour and rich you feel it might dry up a mouth ulcer on the spot.  Unlike the 1976 Cambodi, there is a thick coating of either honey or caramel to the aroma, but it is not sickly sweet or unbalanced in any way.  It simply forms part of the rich backdrop of Port wine fruits.

 

Best of all, there is no hint of any harsh or off-putting aromas like stale dust or unhealthy, plasticized air that one can sometimes pick up in modern Cambodi-style oils.  In general, this is a bosomy fruit explosion set deep into clean honey and medicinal woods, with no smoke or leather to distract the nose.  An incredibly friendly and generous-smelling oud oil, I recommend Oud Haroon to anyone who likes those big 1980s floral-ambery-balsamic scents (Opium, Cinnabar, Coco). 

 

 

 

Oud Hindi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: pure oud oil (ish)

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Oud Hindi is both less refined than Dehn al Oud Cambodi and more authentically ‘oudy’ in profile.  It hits all the marks of a great Indian oud, but in broad brushstrokes rather than detail, running down a checklist of smoke, leather, fermenting hay, and the horny funk of rutting animals.  It is animalic but not obnoxiously so.  It is as if all the barny stink has been hung out to dry in a smoke hut, causing it to cure slightly and shed the rawest, wettest parts.  The resulting aroma is that of a rich leather.

 

Lurking underneath the barn, leather, and smoke, there is a layer of fermented fruit that catches me off guard, as fruit is not normally associated with the Hindi profile.  The smoky fruit note makes me wonder if this might be a mix of Thai or Malay oils aged in such a way as to specifically coax a Hindi flavor out of the oil.

 

Either way, this is a good, fermented Hindi-style oil that wears nicely on the skin, a trickle of smoke threaded through it to keep the nose awake.  At a price point this reasonable, it is likely that Oud Hindi is more an oudy mukhallat than a pure oud oil, but it smells pretty authentic.  My one criticism is that its structure is a bit flabby, i.e., it unravels substantially with every passing hour, shedding richness and complexity.  However, at this price, one simply reapplies, darling.  Slather it on.

 

 

 

Oud Royale 1985 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Indonesian (Sumatra)

 

 

Oud oil from the eighties is special.  Back then, high-quality, densely-resinated wood was still widely available and it was even reasonably priced, even if the resulting oud oil was not.  Better yet, the wood arriving out of the jungles at the time was being cut from much older wild trees than those that are still growing today, so the content of oleoresin was more densely-packed, more evenly threaded throughout the wood, with far less bunkwood than today, and the quality generally superior.

 

Oud Royale 1985 comes from that generation of wood, and specifically from Sumatra.  Like the 1976 Kambodi discussed here, this part of our collective oud heritage is not available anymore.  Oud oil of this tenor is not a renewable resource, coming as it does from old trees that are long gone and a micro-climate that cannot be re-simulated.  Smelling it must be like being alone in the British Museum and unwrapping Tutankhamen’s bandages for the first time.

 

So, what does it smell like, this eighth wonder of the world?  Let’s just say that there is no substitute for a genuine, thirty-year aging of an oil in the bottle, especially an oil that was already excellent when it went in.  Old school techniques, top notch wood, dense oleo-resin, unpolluted microclimates…. perfect genes meet unimpeachable preservation.    

 

It inches out of the vial reluctantly, with a consistency closer to blackstrap molasses than to oil.  You have to prod and poke and plead to coax even a tiny smear of residue onto the dabber stick.  It pastes onto the skin like a dab of desiccated wood varnish.  And immediately, you smell the heart of the oud wood – there are no topnotes, no undertones, just the core of what it is.  Oud Royale 1985 smells like damp, hummus-rich earth, and ancient wooden chests freshly dug up.  Once opened, these wooden chests, wet and already disintegrating at the corners, exhale the smell of intense rot, stale air, and the earth from whence they came.

 

The aroma is gentle yet deep, with hues of truffles, cèpes, myrrh, aged patchouli, humus, prunes soaking in ruby port, tobacco, and oiled leather suitcases.  There is also a smooth, dark chocolate texture and the faint trace of animal fur far removed from its animal origins but retaining the musty warmth of the flesh.  It smells incredibly smooth and round, like an aged wine or a leather jacket so well-loved that it has worn down to the fineness of silk at the elbows and collar.  It smells rested and full, like a person after a good meal.

 

There is no bristling braggadocio here, no howling animalism or raw paunchiness.  This is an old oil and it takes its own damn time.  Later on, a wisp of smoke and autumn leaves appear, pasted onto the rich, black earth, both deepening the dark humus-like aura of the oil.  It smells like wet bark thrown on a far off campfire, and the moist air of a steaming forest when the sun hits the ice.  Both atmospheric and noble, this is, along with the 1976 Kambodi, Oud Dhul Q, and Qi Nam 2005, my favorite of the Ensar Oud oils.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

 

Oud Sultani (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Oud Sultani is one of Ensar Oud’s ‘Oud Legends’, meaning oils distilled from special, incense-grade resinated wood (in this case, wild sinking-grade Malaysian wood) and using different materials (in this case, a copper distilling pot) to imbue the oil with unusual qualities.  Oud legends are available in tiny quantities and most sell out very quickly.  Oud Sultani is therefore unavailable to buy at present, unless you pick it up from a private collector and are willing to pay up to ten times what it originally sold for.  It is somewhat close to the aroma profile of Oud Royale 1985, but with a far airier texture and a golden, floral tinge.

 

Oud Sultani opens with a stark medicinal wood and some of the rich, thick humus notes from Oud Royale 1985.  The earthy spark of the resin backbone suggests myrrh but there is a toffee-like, golden sweetness that makes me thick of creamier labdanum resin.  When I smell Oud Sultani, I visualize white flower petals scattered on a slow-moving river of honey, picking up nuggets of labdanum resin, myrrh, and benzoin from the riverbed as it flows on.  It is mellow and complex, with a rich backbone of spice.

 

Hints of minty camphor, cinnamon, and dried fruit cling to the corners of the aroma, which, when merged with the hints of flowers, honey, and ambery resin, makes Oud Sultani seem more like a composed perfume than merely an essential oil.  I find Oud Sultani to be unusual in that it is simultaneously (a) clean and transparent, (b) rich and deep, and (c) complex in a perfumey way.  Picture a spicy carnation trapped in a bright, clear tree amber resin, preserved for all time to come.  Oud Sultani is the scent of that resin when heated between one’s hands – earthy, minty, camphoraceous, benzoin-like, leathery, and yet with a spicy, golden floral feel that makes you think of the old Caron extraits, like Tabac Blond and Bellodgia.  A marvel!   

 

 

 

Oud Yusuf (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo-style oud with Cambodi characteristics

 

 

Oud Yusuf is perhaps the most immediately likeable of all of the pure oud oils I have ever smelled.  Ensar himself calls it ‘the prettiest oud you can wear’ and that’s fair.  Although it is thoroughly identifiable as oud oil, and not, say, a floral absolute or essential oil, it contains such an astonishing array of fruit and flower notes that one might be forgiven for thinking it is a blend, rather than a pure oud oil.  That means that, although it is an easy oud for a beginner to enjoy, it offers a depth and complexity that will keep even experienced oudies intrigued over the course of the day.

 

Oud Yusuf is a testament to the skill of the composer who can gently and delicately coax out the various facets he wants from the wood via minor adjustments here and there to wood he puts in the still, to the distilling times, to the purity of the water he uses for the distillation, to the very material the still is made out of, and so on.  Otherwise, who might suspect that out of a block of wood could come such a range of fruit and flower notes?

 

Although Oud Yusuf is a Borneo-style oud with Cambodi characteristics, it does not have any of the sweet, sticky berries of the Cambodi profile.  Instead, it is a cornucopia of ripe stone fruit, specifically pears, peaches, and apricots.  These lush fruit aromas, packed into the opening phases of the oil in particular, have that thick, almost fermented quality of the thick fruit juices enjoyed in summer all over the former Yugoslavia and Russia.  These juices are so grainy that you imagine they put all of the fruit in there, including the core and skin, and so thick that you could stand a spoon up in them.  These notes are what clearly come across in Oud Yusuf, overlaid with a slight tinge of camphor or wintergreen, even mint.

 

Three or four hours in, the oil develops a smoky, woody quality that one associates with the smell of oud, shedding most if not all of the stone fruits and mint notes from the first phase.  It is more traditionally oudy at this stage, but not at all animalic or sour.  It boasts the refined darkness of soft black licorice or leather.

 

Positioned halfway between dry woods and balmy supple leather, the latter half of this oil reminds me quite a bit of the drydown of Vikt by Slumberhouse or the amazing Blackbird by House of Matriarch, both Western fragrances that contain a small amount of real oud oil.  They are not smell-alikes, of course, but there is a similar consistency to the aroma of the oud at this stage – dark, balmy, leathery, but not desiccated.

 

Finally, a flourish of delicate floral notes appears just as you believe the oud is in its demise.  Although I do not clearly smell lilies or lilacs like many do with this oil (including Ensar himself), I do smell something like a creamy magnolia or champaca, something with a tinge of crème anglaise to it, a vanillic heft.  The florals are not fresh or green, but warm and mature.  They bloom directly out of the wood, carrying that slightly sour, smoky woodsy note in the breath of their petals.

 

 

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:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Imperial Oud, and Kyara Zen. The Abdul Samad Al Qurashi samples were sent to me free of charge by 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 pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

[1] Oud oils are pure essential oils (or ruhs), distilled directly from shards of agarwood loaded into a still. They have not been tempered, diluted, or mixed with any other material.

[2] 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). 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).

 

[3] The reviews of oudy CPOs will cover all of the (mostly Western takes on) perfume oils with a headlining oud note. Concentrated perfume oils are not attars or mukhallats, partially because of their construction but also because the objective of the whole exercise is different. Read how exactly here. People wear mukhallats for reasons of religion, culture, and tradition, while people wear perfume oils just to smell great or to tap into a specific image or fantasy.

 

 

Cult of Raw Materials Oud Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: D-K

9th 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 the different markets that consume it.  Also, 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.

 

This section contains reviews of pure oud oils[1] only.  Review sections for oudy mukhallats[2] and oudy concentrated perfume oils[3] are forthcoming.

 

 

 

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

 

Dehn al Oud Cambodi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: pure oud oil (ish)

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

Dehn al Oud Cambodi does not smell like any Cambodi-style oud I have ever smelled, but it is an interesting experience, nonetheless.  Though it opens with the stale, gluey varnish notes associated with aged oud, these clear quickly to reveal a layer of bonfire ash and singed newspaper that makes me think of the childhood chore of cleaning out the fire grate.  The burned paper notes persist for a long time, infusing the oil with a not unattractive miasma of cigarette ash and grit.  There is also, briefly, the exciting whiff of a freshly-struck match.

 

Dehn al Oud Cambodi takes on a slightly berried undertone in the far drydown, but the remnants of ash, charcoal, and stale varnish hover on top, like an ill-fitting shift.  The berry notes are there to point my mind in the direction of a Cambodi oud, of course, but in truth, there is no sign of the ‘bubbling strawberry jam’ nuance denoting a good Cambodi.  Here, the fruit notes are dark and slightly dry, like raisins or prunes that have been smoked over a cottage fire and dusted with a fine layer of white ash.

 

Is it pleasant?  Well, it is more interesting than it is pleasant, at least for much of the ride.  However, in its final stages, it becomes a fine-grained glove leather imbued with traces of smoke and fruit that should please just about everyone.  Daim Blond in oil format.

 

Is it a Cambodi?  It’s a Cambodi, Jim, but not as we know it.  I doubt that any of the oud oils in the Al Faransi line-up are pure oud.  They are mostly likely a mix of commercial synthetics, natural essential oils, and other materials.  But for the most part, they smell pleasant, and some are even decently representative of the genre they are named for.  For people interested in sillage and longevity, know that this is one of the beasts in the Al Faransi stable, rivalling even Amber Ash Sheikh for sheer bolshiness.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

 

Dehn al Oudh Cambodi (Ajmal)

Type: pure oud oil 

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

Dehn al Oudh Cambodi is an extremely potent, rough, and animalistic oud that will scare the bejeezus out of all but the most experienced oud connoisseurs.  Not that this is an oil that connoisseurs will appreciate, mind, because this oud is a howling creature not fit to be worn outside the confines of one’s own home.  Unless you are a misanthrope, in which case knock yourself out.

 

The first blast is not bad, spitting out a fine staccato of tannins, black tea, and red berry notes.  But the oil then seems to accelerate in foulness, exploding into a garbagey accord that manages to encompass cow slurry, the sweet-n-sour sickliness of diarrhea, and pissed-upon hay.  It smells like the business end of a sheep in winter, before the shears come out.

 

It gets better, but not by much.  The far drydown, when it arrives six hours later, is leathery, sour, and a bit smoky, at which point you are once again fit for human company.  However, at this point, you might be too traumatized to care.  Ajmal produces excellent oud oil.  But this particular one is simply too animalic to please anyone but the most hardened oud consumer.

 

 

 

Dehn al Oudh Cambodi No. 1 (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

The main difference between Dehn al Oudh No. 1 and Dehn al Oudh No. 2, below, seems to be purely a matter of aging.  The first has been aged for fifteen years before bottling, and the second for ten.  Mind you, I have my doubts about the veracity of the marketing here – it smells neither pure nor particularly aged.  The opening of both No. 1 and No. 2 is an unpleasantly harsh roar of sourness, pointing to an overly long soak of the oud wood chips prior to distillation.  Perhaps the oil has also been force-aged, i.e., the method of exposing the oil to air to deliberately oxidize and speed up the aging process. 

 

Not only do I doubt the purity and the aging, but I also doubt the Cambodi-ness.  The strong smell of fermentation in both these oils is far more characteristic of the traditional Hindi style than that of the friendlier, fruitier Cambodi.  The opening typifies everything that beginners find challenging in traditional Hindi ouds, which is to say a persistent, quasi-feral sourness that sits uncomfortably close to the smell of bile and cat piss.  It is a dusty, clinging, and somewhat depressing odor.

 

If you have the patience to ride out the first hour or so, the aroma eventually dries out to a leathery, smoky oud note that hums along quite nicely.  In these later stages, much of the unpleasant and challenging notes drop out of the picture entirely, leaving the wearer to heave a sigh of relief. It might even be – and I say this in a very small and doubtful voice, you understand – a good choice for the office or a night out.  Just be sure to apply it a good two hours before you leave the house, unless you want people rearing away from you like startled fillies.  It treads that fine line between ‘mmm, you smell interesting’ and ‘you smell, uh, interesting’, and trust me, that is a line you do not want to come down on the wrong side of. 

 

I have seen Dehn al Oudh No. 1 priced at between forty and fifty dollars for a quarter tola (roughly three milliliters) on eBay, so it is definitely one of the more reasonably-priced oud oils out there.  If you don’t mind waiting for it to go through its fugly start, then it could be an acceptable way to get your oud fix on the cheap.  I hope you all notice the equivocal wording I used in that last sentence.

 

 

 

Dehn al Oudh Cambodi No. 2 (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

Similar to No. 1 above, but less deep and persistent on the skin.  It was supposedly aged for ten years prior to bottling, instead of fifteen. 

 

 

 

Photo by Big Dodzy on Unsplash

 

Din Dang (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: mixed

 

 

Din Dang is a result of an experiment by Feel Oud to produce a wild oud oil that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.  It was achieved through blending different oud oils distilled using a variety of soaking methods (soaked wood and non-soaked wood), different still materials (copper, steel, and hybrid boilers) as well as different grades and forms of wood, such as wood chips, dust, a whole incense-grade chunk of Borneo, etc.  Taken together, the oils build up to an astonishing layered effect, with the properties of a raw, unsoaked wood chip oil hovering on top, and a darker, mustier depth developing underneath.

 

Upon application, Din Dang smells undeniably young – flinty and un-oaked, like a vin jaune just before bottling.  Vapors carrying the whisper of fruit and tea steam up to the nose, forming a bridge to the deeper, slightly darker backdrop, where wine must, spices, and a salty leather note provide ballast.

 

Din Dang becomes ever so slightly musky in the deep drydown, but overall, this is a clean, dry, light oud oil that skips the drama of funky animalics.  Two big thumbs up for a bright oud oil blend that maintains complexity throughout without losing any of its copper-penny shininess.  It is also encouraging to see such a competitively-priced oud oil on the market.  Interesting enough for oud-heads, while refined and wearable enough for beginners. I would call that a win.

 

 

 

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

 

Green Papua (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Papuan oud

 

 

Green Papua is to Ensar Oud as No. 5 is to Chanel and Joy to Patou – a reputation-maker.  All market-breakers have one feature in common.  They break with previous traditions and create something new, shocking even.  When Ensar introduced Green Papua to the market in 2004, customers and fellow distillers must have thought he was crazy.  Here was an oud oil that looked and smelled nothing like other oud oils out there.  Instead of being dark brown or black, it was green, and instead of that fermented cow pat odor common to Hindi oils, it smelled clean and herbal.

 

The original Green Papua sold out quickly.  It was a revelation to customers that an oud oil could smell as bracingly green as a forest, and yet still identifiably oudy.  For many, it did away with the notion that one must suffer through an overwhelmingly barnyardy opening to get to the good stuff two hours down the line.  Green Papua was a gust of fresh air that blew the cobwebs of preconception away.

 

The sample I smelled was from a 2016 distillation of the same type of tree as the first batch, said to be similar in aroma profile and character to the original Green Papua.  Distilled from the live wood of the Gyrinops tree from Papua, the oil smells fresh, clean, and alive, not at all sour or animalic.

 

The opening is almost meaty in its fungal density, a viscous green-back smear of tree sap swiped from the bark.  As the initial surge, there comes a succession of forest notes, one pasted thickly onto the next – tree moss, followed by mint, wintergreen, ferns, and a veil of something antiseptic, like Listerine.  It is reminiscent of a freshly-split piece of green wood, so young that its sap runs milky rather than clear or sticky.

 

And yet, despite the overall greenness of the oil, it is also clearly oud.  The fresh, fougère-like notes never float off into the ether but remain tethered to the earth by that familiar weight of leather, wood, tar, and medicine – those anchoring ‘core oud’ notes.  Newcomers would do well to sample this particular oud, because it will teach their nose that real oud oil can smell like clover, green wood, and pine sap just as much as it can smell like wood rot and animal hide.   A cleansing, spiritual oud oil that lends itself particularly well to meditation.

 

 

 

Hind (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Hind is an unusual oil for its genre, because while it is most certainly a little pungent up top, there is a sweet fruitiness here that one associates more with Cambodi-style oils than the traditional Hindi.  The opening notes smell like layers of sweet, compacted hay that have rotted a little under the steamy moisture underneath.  The hay and dark, syrupy fruit hit the nose first.  Together, these aromas add up to something a little more perfumey than a regular Hindi oil – the withered peach of a Mitsouko (Guerlain) or a Femme (Rochas), perhaps, grafted on top of wood rot.

 

In terms of accessibility and friendliness, I feel comfortable classifying Hind as a mid-level entry point to the Hindi genre.  While it is certainly reminiscent of the lively warmth of pack animals, it does not smell as deeply fermented as some in the genre.  Tending more towards sweet hay, fruit, and leather than to the more austere barn, spice, and smoke notes of the Hindi style, Hind will satisfy those looking for the depth of an Indian oil but without the overwhelming funk that comes hand in hand with a long soak.  On the other hand, it is just challenging enough to stave off boredom in those experienced with Hindi-style oils.   

 

 

 

Photo by Rafael Cisneros Méndez on Unsplash

 

Hindi Classic (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Kyara Zen itself is not a distiller.  However, the company is based in Singapore and has contact with many local oud oil producers and distillers throughout the Far East and has therefore adopted the role of curator.  What Kyara Zen offers the market is the benefit of the good taste – a careful selection of oils representative of a terroir or style.  Each oil selected by KZ to represent a style or terroir may be viewed as a ‘classic’ in the sense that they are the bellwethers of their category.

 

Kyara Zen’s Hindi Classic is a robust, full-bodied Hindi oil that will appeal to fans of this noble style.  It is heavily animalic to start with, exploding in a miasma of deep barnyardy flavors – fermenting straw, wet hay, and warm billy goats huddled together in a stall.  However, the funk is deep and smooth, with no shriekingly-sour high notes to bother the nose. In other words, it is all about the bass, ‘bout the bass, no treble.

 

Hindi Classic is unusual in that it sustains this barny tenor for much longer than expected, taking it far past the point where other blends will have already mellowed into spicy leather or smoky woods.  I find this to be true of most KZ oud oils and mukhallats.  The small team at KZ has a natural talent for identifying oils that extend the more volatile notes deep down through the structure, providing for a very smooth, robust, and integrated experience.

 

Eventually, the potent aura of funk loosens up a notch, and settles into a deeply spiced leather aroma that reminds me of saddles taken off a hot horse.  I should also mention that it is a tremendously powerful and long-lasting oud experience, providing that rare thing in the world of oud, i.e., value for money.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash

 

Hindi Gengaridai (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Picture a chunk of bleu cheese, dry and leathery at the edges – perhaps it has been outside the fridge for a few days. Now microwave it on high to set it running across the plate.  Now imagine that plate suspended on a metal grid above a packed stall of wet yaks, steaming in their own piss-soaked fur.  There.  You have smelled all the organic, cheesy funk of Hindi Gengaridai.

 

Almost hilariously animalic, Hindi Gengaridai is the kind of thing that will have oud novices visualizing a horde of unwashed, hairy Vikings spilling over a hill towards a village with a bit of raping and pillaging on their minds.  But get past the fecal richness and wet fur of the opening (if you can), and your nose begins to pick up subtle hints of spicy red leather, musk, and dry hay that has been used for the animals’ bedding.  While Hindi Gengaridai is never entirely clean, most of the funk eventually evaporates from the core, allowing the other notes to dry out in the sun and become entirely more manageable.

 

Although common sense dictates that Hindi Gengaridai might not be the best introduction to oud for a learner, I think it actually conveys two important lessons to beginners.  First of all, that this is the classic Hindi profile – a wave of sour fermentation or fecal aroma, followed quite quickly by austere leathery notes, dry hay, and spice.  Second, that Hindi oils might seem unfriendly or inaccessible at first but reveal themselves later to be weirdly addictive and habit-forming.

 

 

 

Photo by blackieshoot on Unsplash

 

Hirta (Agar Aura)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian (Hirta, or Candan agarwood)

 

 

Hirta has won my heart with its sweet, nutty quality, and non-linear development.  Distilled from the A. Hirta species of the Aquilaria in Malaysia, where it is also known as Candan agarwood, hirta oil is highly prized among Kuwaitis in particular for its smooth, rounded honey tones.

 

Hirta has wonderful topnotes that can only be described as a crystal-clear floral honey, into which has been stirred a damp, mealy nutmeat.  Imagine a bowl of dark brown Italian chestnut flour moistened with honey, the paste enlivened with the fiery heat of crushed black pepper, the basso fundo warmth of cinnamon, and the cool, green soapiness of cardamom.  The spice element is subtle, but noticeable.

 

Hirta makes me think of a medieval kitchen full of dense treats such as panforte, pain d’épices, and chestnut flour, not because it is sweet (it isn’t, particularly) but because of the soft roundness of texture that seems to coat back of your tongue.  Another thing that I appreciate is the lack of any off-putting, sour barnyard flavors that might otherwise disturb the sweet completeness of this oil.

 

Candan agarwood is often said to be powerful in terms of sillage, but I find Hirta to be soft and non-obtrusive.  It hums away quietly on the skin, all honey, cinnamon, and gentle oudiness, merging with the scent of one’s own skin to produce a wonderfully intimate, musky sweetness that will keep people guessing whether it is your skin that smells that good or if you are wearing something.  Two very big thumbs up. 

 

 

 

Hudhayl (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Hudhayl is a Hindi-style oil but deviates in a number of interesting ways from the aroma profile of most Hindi oils.  It is lightly barnyardy in the opening, but its hay and leather notes are creamy rather than sharp.  It smells gentle and almost sweet, like a mildly vaporous shoe polish swiped back and forth over a leather shoe, or Devonshire cream poured over warm, damp hay.  There is the secondary funk of animals who have lain on the hay all night but have been moved outside now, leaving only that warm, chocolate-damp scent of their musk in the air.

 

After this startling opening of vaporous hay and varnish, a wave of syrupy, fermented red berries pushes its way to the fore, subtly sweetening the more agricultural aromas and even briefly mimicking the fruitiness of Cambodi oud.  Absent the roaring spice and smoke of a traditional Hindi, only a hint of warm, sour fermentation, leather, and hay points to the fact that Hudhayl is a Hindi.

 

But that description addresses only the basic aroma profile of Hudhayl – what of its character?  There, Hudhayl reveals itself to be a true Hindi, with all the hauteur the Emirati Arabs have associated with the Hindi profile since the 1970s.  This refined, creamy hay-like leather smell is exactly how I would like to imagine the first Assamese oud oils smelled like before the tediousness of the long, sour soak was introduced.  Not dirty or barny, not reeking with animal hide, and with only a discreet hint of fermentation.  Hudhayl is the Hindi oil I would recommend for beginners, if only to break their heart when they learn that this level of gentleness doesn’t come as standard. 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

 

Indah Banga Central Kali Micro (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi mixed with Borneo characteristics

 

 

Of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery pure oud oils, Indah Banga Central Kali Micro is one of my favorites.  It smells like dusky hay, harvest time, wheat, gold and green flowers, herbs, and the pleasantly dusty ephemera of long-disused farm outhouses.

 

At first, the animalic notes shimmer brightly enough to give pause – there is the distinct tang of soiled hay and the elephant stalls at a circus.  Christ, you think.  Hold on a minute now.  But these notes die back quickly, revealing a marvelously unsweet but rich hay accord.  Soon, the golden hay is joined by the scent of old wood, meadow flowers, sweet resin, and minerals, notes which lend Indah Banga Central Kali Micro a sense of faded grandeur, like an abandoned country manor beginning to fray at the seams.

 

The listing for this oil had disappeared from the site at the time of writing (probably because it was sold out or in the process of being restocked), but some information can still be gleaned from the long name.  Indah Banga indicates a Hindi-style oud oil, possibly out of Assam or even Bangladesh.  This would explain the dry hay notes and initial wave of barnyard furriness.

 

But Central Kali is a name that indicates a Kalimantan oud, from the island of Borneo, which has a uniquely clean, green, and sparkling character.  Micro points towards the use of microcarpa oud wood, a rare Aquilaria species that grows almost exclusively on the island of Borneo, in the Western side of the island.  Microcarpa might explain the faintly golden floral tone to the oil that flits in and out of the dusky hay.

 

Amateur detective work aside, this is an unusual and satisfying oud oil that swaps out most of the usual spice, leather, and fermentation notes associated with oud oil for the uniquely green and gold goodness of a late summer harvest.  If you love Sova (Slumberhouse) for its rustic take on hay, then Indah Banga Central Kali Micro might be considered its drier, less boozy counterpart in the world of pure oud.  

 

 

 

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

 

Jing Shen Lu (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai with some Vietnamese and Borneo characteristics

 

 

To my nose, Jing Shen Lu is perhaps the most surprising oud oil in the Ensar Oud stable, because it does not smell like oud oil at all and yet clearly is oud oil.  I am not making any sense, even to myself, but please, give me a moment to explain myself! 

 

When I first smelled Jing Shen Lu, I thought I had gotten the vial mixed up with a pile of samples of raw materials I am also studying, such as poplar absolute, champaca, honeysuckle, narcissus, kewra, and white lotus.  That is to say, Jing Shen Lu smells very much like a swirl of different floral and herbal absolutes, tending towards the minty, sweet, and green-succulent side of things.

 

There is also a solvent-like vaporousness to the aroma that reminds me strongly of Ensar’s Borneo 2000.  There is a very similar high-toned fruitiness to the aroma, like the heady fumes that come off a glass of grappa, producing an almost hallucinogenic effect on the senses.  Almost like alcohol esters from the wood itself, this oil emits a piercing note that has a physical, tightening effect on my scalp and my jaw.  But this in itself is a clue to the savory, umami-like quality of oud itself.  It is also the first indication (to my nose) that this is not some other essential oil, but the oud itself.  No other essential oil has this umami, jaw-tightening property.

 

In his description, Ensar mentions green tea, and I can see that, as long as we are talking about that toothsome ‘brown basmati rice’ aspect present in some green tea.  There is a very smooth, nutty texture to the green tea that makes it more substantial than the usual citrusy or tannic characteristics, and to a certain extent, it reminds me of the pearlescent, chewy green tea of Ormonde Jayne’s Champaca.

 

However, past this initial blaze of green flowers, mint, and tea, the core of this oil is very oudy in character, developing a rich, plummy ‘Port wine’ sourness that makes me wonder how I could ever have mistaken this for anything other than an oud.  There is a very pleasant umeboshi undertone here – salty, sour, chewy plum smeared onto a thin piece of brown quinoa toast.  Jing Shen Lu is a delicate oud oil with an unusual Japanese silk-screen character. 

 

 

 

Photo by Aida L on Unsplash

 

Kambodi 1976 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi (original, not just  style)

 

 

I was fortunate enough to be able to test a small sample of an original Cambodi oud oil from 1976, when the wild trees of Cambodia were still standing and being harvested for their special oil.  Soon after this oil was produced, the demand for Cambodi oud oil coupled with over-harvesting and lack of foresight by the Cambodi authorities meant that all the original trees were wiped out.

 

The popularity of this style of oud oil – juicy, jammy, fruit, no animalic overtones – meant that producers started making ‘Cambodi-style’ oud oils that mimicked the characteristics of the original oil through a combination of aging and oxidization.  New Aquilaria trees were also planted in Cambodia, of course, and these still produce excellent oud oil.  However, oud oil produced by these newer trees is not as complex as oil from the older trees and doesn’t share precisely the same aroma profile.

 

Any original Cambodi oud oil from the seventies that still exists is in private collector hands and rarely if ever parted with.  The last original Cambodi oils for regular sale disappeared from the market around 2004.  It is useful to have a sample of the original as a baseline against which to measure later Cambodi-style ouds.  Upon application, Kambodi 1976 smells more like medicine than a perfume, which of course oud actually is – a natural antibiotic produced by the tree to heal itself against the marauding forces of an external infection.

 

The ‘hospital corridors’ twinge of ointment and antiseptic fluid passes relatively quickly, leading the nose into a deep, smooth heart of aged woods and dark, stewed fruit.  It is remarkable to me just how smooth the heart of Kambodi 1976 is, all the hard, pointed edges of the woods and berries sanded away with time to produce a perfectly round, glossy appearance.  The woods smell like an old cedar chest that once held damsons and figs, but where the fruit has long since disappeared into the grain of the wood, leaving a ghostly presence of its dark, raisin-like fruit, a patina that glimmers darkly.  The aroma calls to mind a good aged port.

 

As Kambodi 1976 evolves, it develops a withered leather note that carries in it the breath of plum or peach skin.  The fruit nuance is not tart, fresh, or even jammy.  Rather, the texture is like a pan of mealy, velvety chestnuts cooked to the point of collapse and then given a final glaze of damson juice reduced to a trickle of jet-black syrup.  Despite my reference to food and fruit, Kambodi’s sweetness is very subtle.  There is no caramel, chocolate, or vibrant berry jam in sight, just the natural sweetness of damsons and wine rubbed lovingly into the grain of old wood.  Despite the actual age of this oil – over forty years at the time of writing – there is no staleness.  It is smooth, but also lively.  In fact, it is living proof that good oud oil only gets better with age.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Hamed Hosseini on Unsplash

 

Kannam 100-Year Aged Oud (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Unknown

 

 

I realize, as I am sitting down to write this review, that there is really no accurate way for me to describe what a hundred-year old oud smells like.  The best I can do is to say that it is umami, that Japanese word for the fifth taste, one that is packed ten deep with savory, sweet, salty, and sour notes, all piled in on top of each other so that the taste buds receive a complex sensation that is part taste, part feeling.  Foods that are rich in umami, for example, are aged Parmesan cheese, aged balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, breast milk, and fine wines.  In fact, if you have ever tasted any of these things and tried to describe them to someone has hasn’t, then you will recognize the struggle to come up with accurate vocabulary.

 

Kannam 100-year old aged oud is, by a very wide margin, the most complex and umami-rich thing I have ever smelled.  I feel very privileged to have been able to experience it at all, given that the price per tola on this one is, as the Americans say, ‘above my pay grade’.  If I were rich, though, and I wasn’t depleting my kids’ trust funds too badly, I would happily cough up the $3,000 or so it costs per tola.

 

Is it  pure oud from one single distillation?  Honestly, I doubt it – this is likely to be a blend of pure oud oils from several distillations, of varying vintage, all or some of which add up to the 100 years claimed in its title.  Lawyers, don’t come for me – this is an educated guess, and entirely my own.  Still, amazing stuff.

 

The oud oil in the sample vial was so thick, black, and viscous that I had to warm it between my boobs for two hours in order to even prise the applicator wand out of the vial.  You have to dab it on, but the texture is like tar, so spreading it around gently is not an option – it sits there on your skin like you just painted it with wood varnish.

 

The initial aroma is not animalic or barnyardy in the slightest.  It is smooth and deep, but intense.  My husband said it immediately brought him back to his childhood, to a massive state-owned Yugoslav leather goods store in town he used to frequent with his father for shoes and jackets.  There was a tannery nearby, and the air in the store thus smelled of newly-tanned leather and of the chemicals used to tan the leather.  He said the oud had such an intense smell that it caused his teeth and jaw to ache, just like the leather goods store did.  This is a common reaction with umami-rich smells.

 

To me, at first, it smells of the following things: ancient furniture varnish, balsamic vinegar reduction, leather, rubber, resins, pine sap, wintergreen, and freshly-felled logs in a dripping-wet forest.  The smell is intoxicating, almost sweet, balsamic, and twenty thousand leagues deep in umami flavors.  The fumes feel radioactive, as if they occupy a physical space.  I can feel a buzz in my ears.  It is like sniffing glue or solvents.

 

As time goes on, it becomes earthier.  It takes on the damp, pleasantly moldy inflections of a good patchouli, smelling of freshly upturned soil, or of a wooden box buried for decades which, when opened, releases a stream of stale air.  As with all primitive smells (oud, patchouli, stone, forest), Kannam has the ability to be ‘not strange’ to your nose, as if somewhere in your prehistoric brain, you are fetching up an ancient memory of this ancient smell.

 

Highly recommended as a once in a lifetime thrill, if only to set your own personal barometer for complexity.  Even tiny third-of-a-gram samples of this can cost over one hundred dollars, so you have to be sure you want to travel down that particular road.

 

 

 

Kedaulatan – Malay 2013 (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

Immediately smoky, rich, and satisfying, Kedaulatan – Malay 2013 gives you all the benefits of the drydown of a properly aged oil without making you wade through any fecal, barnyardy, or sourly fermented topnotes to get there.

 

Kedaulatan captures the soul of oudiness itself – a smoky-sour woodiness with concentric rings of flavor, like a millennia-old tree split open to reveal its rich and varied history.  There are no topnotes.  Instead, it plunges you deep into the core of the oud and expects you to just handle your business.  It is the oud equivalent of an ancient Chesterfield sofa that swallows you up when you sit in it.  And for once, haute luxe equates to comfort, not speed.

 

Distilled using very traditional methods (no rubber rings or overly-extended soaking), this oil comes from wild trees of the A. Malaccensis species of the Aquilaria that grows in the Kelantan region of Northern Malaysia.  If anyone is not yet convinced of the difference between wild, properly aged agarwood versus artificially-inoculated plantation stock of the same species, Kedaulatan might act as a baseline.  A side-by-side test of Kedaulatan against a young oil from a plantation tree (even if it is from the same species) would immediately set you straight.  It is the difference between a thirty-year-old Barolo and a 2016 Chianti. 

 

 

 

Kinamantan (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo

 

 

Kinamantan is one of the more striking oud oils in the Ensar Oud stable.  It is a mixed woods oil done in a Borneo-style, and with certain kinam-like aspects.  If that sentence has you totally confused, then I know you’ve skipped the section of my Oud Primer that explains what each of those words actually means!  If so, shame on you – go back and read it now. 

 

The clue lies in its name.  Kinamantan is a portmanteau that blends the old name for Borneo Island, which is Kalimantan, with the word ‘kinam’, the superior grading quality of agarwood.  In essence, therefore, the name ‘Kinamantan’ is designed to tell you, at a glance, that this is a Borneo-style oud oil with some superior Kinam-like qualities.  In truth, the woods used for distillation of this oil come from several regions, not specifically Borneo, but have been distilled in such a manner so as to bring out Borneo-style characteristics.  Neither is the wood itself kinam; the word is chosen simply to convey a message of superior quality.  See how complicated the world of oud (and oud marketing) is?

 

The scent profile of the Borneo style is clean, creamy, and woody in a raw, natural way, almost as if one is walking through a thicket of freshly-felled lumber.  Sometimes, the ethereal minty freshness of Borneo oud can exude hints of white flowers, vanilla, and herbs.  It is also somewhat bitter, like a sparkling herb cordial one might take to aid digestion.

 

Most importantly, as the name of the oil suggests, Kinamantan also contains characteristics of the famous kinam, namely the highest grade of incense-quality wood that traditionally comes out of the Vietnamese jungles.  In other words, rather than being distilled from actual kinam or kyara wood (usually too rare and expensive to distill), this oil was custom-distilled to give it those noble characteristics people love so much in kinam.

 

One sniff of this oil and I am whisked away to an imaginary place where I am shut inside a room with old wooden furniture stacked one on top of another.  The room hasn’t been opened for a hundred years, so the room is saturated with the pleasantly stale scent of old wood and varnish.  The smell is clean, woody, medicinal, but also somehow sunny and easy-going.  There is a mellow patina of time here that makes this an absorbing, relaxing experience.  There is, in the background, a sweet floral breeze carrying a suggestion of fresh white flowers and herbs.  Wearing this oil, I can almost see green-grey wood turning to ether under the heat of the midday sun streaming into the room.  It is beautiful and timeless.  Is it kinam?  Is it ‘Borneo’?  Only your own nose can say.

 

 

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:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Imperial Oud, and Kyara Zen. The Abdul Samad Al Qurashi samples were sent to me free of charge by 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 pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

[1] Oud oils are pure essential oils (or ruhs), distilled directly from shards of agarwood loaded into a still. They have not been tempered, diluted, or mixed with any other material.

[2] 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). 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).

 

[3] The reviews of oudy CPOs will cover all of the (mostly Western takes on) perfume oils with a headlining oud note. Concentrated perfume oils are not attars or mukhallats, partially because of their construction but also because the objective of the whole exercise is different. Read how exactly here. People wear mukhallats for reasons of religion, culture, and tradition, while people wear perfume oils just to smell great or to tap into a specific image or fantasy.

Cult of Raw Materials Oud Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: 0-C

6th April 2022

 

This is where the oud reviews begin.  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.

 

A word on how I am structuring the review section.

 

Pure Oud oils: First, the reviews of pure oud oils.  If we use a Michael Pollan analogy, pure oud oils represent the leafy green vegetables and whole foods found at the outer edges of the supermarket.  Oud oils are pure essential oils (or ruhs), distilled directly from shards of agarwood loaded into a still.  They have not been tempered, diluted, or mixed with any other material.  (If I suspect that they have been, I will say so).  Unlike most other essential oils, oud oil is so complex that it wears as a complete ‘perfume’ on the skin.

 

In the pure oud review section, I will note the specific style that the oil personifies, so that we slowly begin to associate the notes and characteristics we are smelling (smoke, sourness, fruitiness, wood rot) with the style that gives rise to these characteristics.   

 

Oudy Mukhallats:  Second, reviews of oudy mukhallats.  Mukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled, tinctured, 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.

 

Oudy Concentrated Perfume Oils:  The reviews of oudy CPOs will cover all of the (mostly Western takes on) perfume oils with a headlining oud note.  Concentrated perfume oils are not attars or mukhallats, partially because of their construction but also because the objective of the whole exercise is different.  Read about what makes a concentrated perfume oil different from a mukhallat here.  People wear mukhallats for reasons of religion, culture, and tradition, while people wear perfume oils just to smell great or to tap into a specific image or fantasy.  CPOs are not intrinsically inferior to mukhallats – they just come at oud from a completely different angle.

 

The variety represented by concentrated perfume oils is immense, covering everything from the Henry Jacques oils that can cost up to a thousand dollars to American indie perfume oils, luxurious niche perfume oils, and the cheapest of dupe oils.  From the ridiculous to the sublime, and everything in between, therefore.  If it has ‘oud’ in its name, it is in the CPO review section, regardless of whether there is any oud in the mix or not.  In the CPO category, it is the fantasy of oud that counts, not its actuality.          

 

 

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: 0-C

 

 

Photo: Pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

 

1985 (Kyara Zen)

Type:  pure oud oil

Style or Profile:  Possibly Chinese

 

 

The story behind this oil is fascinating, and not a little controversial.  While browsing among the wares of one Mr. Lee, an old Chinese medicine practitioner whose shop contains a wealth of agarwood pieces, ancient herbs, and jade collected over the course of many decades, the Kyarazen director idly asked if he happened to have any oud oil.  Lo and behold, Mr. Less emerged from the back of his shop with a large container of dark brown oil that even his own staff was astonished to see.  Ostensibly distilled from an  batch of prime agarwood in 1985, this oil had been sitting and aging nicely for the past three decades in Mr. Lee’s shop.

 

It is a great story, but one that caused enormous controversy in the oud community when it was released.  Namely, a great number of people who smelled it – including myself – thought the oil was not pure oud, but rather oud mixed with a quantity of some other oil, most likely aged labdanum. T o my nose, 1985 possessed all the incensey, tarry-ambery hallmarks of labdanum absolute, which I would describe as the scent of dry leather smeared with molasses and saltwater taffy.

 

However, a GC/MS analysis of the oil, conducted and paid for by a customer, revealed the oil to be mostly oud oil, with traces of contaminant later hypothesized to have come from the rubber cap used to seal the jar of oil.  Confusion followed – how was it possible for an oud oil to smell so definitively of labdanum and yet prove conclusively to be oud oil?  A clue to this mystery lies in Kyara Zen director’s own take on this in a Basenotes thread on the subject[i]:

 

‘There’s absolutely no need for anyone to apologize to KZ for anything relating to KZ1985.  Experts are not wrong on their assessment/diagnosis as they can be assessing based on scent notes rather than chemical constituents.  It is like how we can smell fruits and flowers in modern ouds, but it doesn’t mean they put fruits/flowers inside.’

 

He is exactly right, of course.  Pinpointing what we are smelling in any perfume, let alone in something as naturally complex as an oud oil, will never be an exact science when human perception is involved.  When we smell a high degree of resin (labdanum) in KZ 1985, it is probably because the oil itself is extracted from a wood with a high proportion of resin and our noses simply conflate one resinous smell with another.  The same goes for when we think we can smell white flowers or mint in an oud oil – those materials are not actually there, of course, but our noses identify nuances that might conceivably belong to them.  The lesson of 1985 is that smelling is a deeply personal, subjective sensory experience, rather than one that can be entirely explained by science.  

 

 

Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

 

Al Malek Al Ceeni (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

Al Malek Al Ceeni was distilled from vintage stock of A. Sinensis, a species of Aquilaria native to China.  While oils distilled from Chinese agarwood tend to be ferociously animalic, with characteristics that recall both ambergris and deer musk, Al Malek Al Ceeni smells more like Winnie the Pooh after rolling around in meadowsweet, herbs, and moss to get honey off his fur.  Warm, herbaceous, and slightly waxy, this is an oil that leans firmly towards the sunlit side of the oud garden.  Hints of peppery anise and grass caught in the beeswax texture of the oil create a gentle stained glass window effect.  Nothing beastly or dark threatens the rural happiness of this scene.

 

As it develops, the oud becomes less moistly green (herbal, anisic, mossy, etc.) and more honey-like in tone.  Now, when people mention honey in reviews, it is important to specify which characteristics of honey they are smelling, because these can range from bitter and pungent to floral, airy, grassy, and so on.  Many people who struggle with one characteristic may love another.  In Al Malek Al Ceeni, the honey note is dark gold, resinous, and woody.  Crucially, it is not at all syrupy, pungent, or dirty.  Picture a mix of chestnut honey with its charred-wood aspects, mixed with greenish Acacia, and lastly, a dollop of beeswax for opacity.  This is what the honey nuance in Al Malek Al Ceeni smells like.

 

Supporting these green, honeycomb-wax notes is a layer of fruity, berried fermentation associated more with the Cambodi style of oil.  Backing all of this is a core of damp, green-woody ‘oudiness’.  I found an interesting piece of information about the type of wood from which Al Malek Al Ceeni was distilled, namely Chinese A. Sinensis, given by Al Shareef Al Oudh:

 

“Chinese Sinensis is a wood that has 31 known and identified compounds and many that are not fully identified yet.  There are 6 main structure skeleton groups that are prominent in the Chinese Sinensis and they have the associated aromas;

Agarofuran skeleton: woody, nutty
Agrospirane skeleton: spicy, peppery, woody
Elemophilane skeleton: woody, burnt
Guaiane skeleton: sweet, woody, balsam, peppery 
Eudesmane skeleton: waxy, sweet
Nor-sesquiterpene: woody, burnt[ii]” 

 

Al Malek Al Ceeni clearly demonstrates several of these characteristic aromas, especially those of the Eudesmane skeleton (waxy, sweet) and the Guaiane skeleton (sweet, woody, balsam, peppery).  For those struggling to find their perfect match in the Chinese oil genre, this may be the answer.  Wearing it feels like having an all-natural honey and herb balm lightly stroked onto a furrowed brow by a loved one.  Calming and herbaceous, it is the polar opposite of the stormy oils that populate most of the Chinese genre.

 

 

 

Al Malek Al Maliyzi (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian, mixed with New Papuan or Borneo

 

 

Al Malek Al Maliyzi is a stunning oud oil that mixes the smoky, jungly aspects of a typical Malaysian profile – meaning distinct layers of smoke, earth, and spicy green wood – with the fresher, greener characteristics of a steamy island oud, like a New Papuan or Borneo oil.

 

As complex and non-linear as Al Malek Al Maliyzi may be, however, it remains accessible to even the beginner’s nose.  It is immediately attractive, with no off-putting notes like barnyard, goat fur, or feces or urine.  The topnotes bring to mind hot tar mixed with aged rye bourbon, slathered onto a pair of old cordovans.  It would be very ‘men’s private club’ in aura were it not for the haunting layers of spicy smoke filtering through the leathery whiskey note.  Unlike most ambery or whisky-like leather notes in modern perfumery, the note here is unsweet and even slightly rough in texture.

 

Richness without sweetness is an achievement in and of itself, and Al Malek Al Maliyzi manages it with aplomb.  There is a leafy bitter-sweetness at play here similar to chewed betel leaf or camphor, and, although I would never call Al Malek Al Maliyzi fruity, there is a nuance here close to the ferrous twang of sour cherry concentrate.  This adds a surprising tartness to the rich leather note, making for an intoxicating experience.

 

A vein of balsamic warmth courses through the lower reaches of Al Malek Al Maliyzi.  This smells like nuggets of vegetal amber melting and popping in the heat as Baltic pine trees burn to the ground. The heat emanating from this accord is bone-warming and deeply satisfying.  Al Malek Al Maliyzi is as physically satisfying as a down-lined puffer coat on a cold day.

 

I am impressed with how Al Malek Al Maliyzi manages to corral all this green, balsamic warmth to the front without pouring on the sugar.  It is an oil to be cherished most closely in the depths of winter, its full beauty revealing itself as it burrows deep down into the fibers of woolen hats and scarves.

 

 

 

Al Ruba’ie (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Mixed – Vietnamese, Laotian, Malaysian, and Indonesian

 

 

Al Ruba’ie is a special experiment.  It is a co-distillation of agarwood from four different oud-producing regions, each with their own style or terroir.  Al Ruba’ie means ‘quadrant’ or ‘quartet’ in Arabic.  The quartet of agarwoods used to distill Al Ruba’ie was as follows: Vietnamese agarwood (tart, bitter, peppery, savory), Laos (barnyardy, metallic, curd cheese undertones), Malaysia (a split profile between smoky jungle notes and aromatic green herbs), and finally, Indonesian (a diverse profile, but at its best, green, ethereal wood notes). 

 

When the oil first goes on, its texture as thick as blackstrap molasses, it smells like a pool of labdanum resin set on fire – smoke, tar, and leather, all melted down into a sticky, bubbling blackness.  The smoky thickness of this opening is characteristic of the upper layer of the Malaysian oud profile.

 

But even within this thick, smoky wall of aroma, one begins to perceive the cheesy ripeness of the Laotian agarwood vying for attention with the saline underbite of Vietnamese oud, like a pungent Brie spread on an all-natural buckwheat cracker.  The faintly salty undertone rinses the smoke and woods with salty freshness, the type one might associate with a sea breeze.  It is not entirely oceanic, or even airy, but it certainly is the opposite of the cloying sweetness one sometimes finds in Cambodi-style oils.

 

Flitting in and out of the tar and savory, metallic freshness (which strikes me as almost ambergris-like in tone) is a thread of sweet and sour fruit, like cherries or apricots preserved in vinegar, mustard seed, and sugar – a medieval mostarda of sorts.  Again, the fruit notes are perfectly in line with the gently savory ‘taste’, adding only a haunting fleshiness to the main body.

 

Texture-wise, Al Ruba’ie runs from tarry-smoky and almost viscous in the beginning to the mouth-filling dustiness of a freshly-spilled powder compact.  To my nose, the jungly green notes of the lower register of the Malay agarwood and the brighter, more herbal notes of Indonesian agarwood are somewhat lost in translation, due simply to the fact that the barny Laotian, the smoky Malay topnotes, and the peppery, bitter ambergris-like tones of the Vietnamese wood are more forceful in character.

 

No matter, because the result is still one of the richest, most complex, and most dramatic oud oils I have ever smelled, darting fluidly between one regional profile to the next without missing a step.  Elegant, dark, and complex, this is the oud equivalent of Jamaican black cake, albeit one doused in salt and pepper rather than rum. 

 

 

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

 

Aroha Kyaku (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Plantation Crassna with kyara-incense characteristics

 

 

Aroha Kyaku is an organic oud made from thirty-year old plantation A. Crassna trees that were naturally inoculated.  In other words, this is oil from plantation agarwood grown and harvested as closely to wild conditions as possible.  Aroha Kyaku is special for several reasons.  First of all, although it comes from a Crassna, there is very little fruitiness or caramel to be found in the aroma.  Second, although the wood chips were soaked for one month before distilling, there are no sour leather or barnyardy notes.  In fact, it is fair to say that Aroha Kyaku does not possess any Hindi characteristics at all.

 

Finally, and most importantly, this is one of those rare oud oils that actually smells more like agarwood smoking on a burner than an oud oil.  In other words, it possesses most of the hallmarks of burning incense-grade wood, or even Kyara – smokiness, incense, and greenish woods.

 

Aroha Kyaku opens on a searing birch tar note so smoky that that it is hard not to visualize charred beef clinging to the underside of a grill.  There is also a very strong woody, resinous tobacco leaf in the mix.  The smoky woods and toasty tobacco flavor are reminiscent of Jeke by Slumberhouse, down to the peaty Scottish Islay whiskey note.  It is an extremely rich, deep sort of aroma, making me think of ancient, book-lined libraries.

 

Although this is not as fruity as a standard Crassna distillation, there is indeed a sour cherry leather accord that lurks directly behind the curtain of incense, tobacco, and smoke.  It is not fresh or sweet, but dry and chewy, like an old desk carved from cherry wood that still retains a faint memory of the fruit it once bore.  The outcome is a rich, multi-layered oil that allows you to visualize what the original kyara experience might have been like.  If this is the future of organic, farmed oud, then we are in good hands.

 

 

 

Assam 3000 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi with Borneo style characteristics

 

 

Assam 3000 is a wild Assamese (Hindi) oud oil that combines some of the Borneo type characteristics (medicinal, hints of cinnamon, honey, mint, herbs, and white flowers) with the more typical Assam profile (leathery, fermented, regal).  The addition of the Borneo has the effect of mopping up the barnyard nuances of the Hindi.  Therefore, while Assam 3000 does open with a clear barnyard note, it is a very clean barnyard – all the animal stalls neat and tidy, the animal droppings picked up and placed on the manure heap.  This brief opening stage is there to let us know that, yes, this is indeed a Hindi.  But its barnyard elements speak with a upper class English accent and sip tea with their pinkies out.

 

Once the sourish, barnyard aspects drop off, in sweeps a wave of red fruit, like sour cherry juice spilled over a brown leather chair.  The fruit is dark, acidic, and slightly tannic, with that little catch in the back of your throat you get necking a sour cherry juice at a health bar.  Or the sucked-out, furry feeling you get in your mouth when eating green almonds fresh out of their shell or pomegranate seeds that are really too tart to be eating.  The accord is so antioxidant-rich that I can almost feel it sluicing all the toxins out of my bloodstream.

 

Later, a nutty, floral creaminess creeps in, the source of which is a mystery to me.  Its purpose is mainly to provide a soft, honeyed counterpoint to the acidic fruits and wood.  The fact that there are no actual flowers, or tea, or cherries in this oil is incredible to me.  These facets exist solely as a feature of the oil and how it was distilled.  Assam 3000 is the oil to try if you are convinced that all Hindis smell animalic or that their range of flavor nuances inevitably runs the same course.

 

 

Photo by Mitch Fox on Unsplash

 

Assam Organic (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

Assam Organic is distilled from agarwood grown on a remote plantation in Assam.  On this plantation, the trees have been planted to reproduce the natural conditions of wild, jungle growth and the wood excised very carefully by the plantation owners from live trees.  Only wood from trees that are at least thirty years old is used to distill Assam Organic, and Ensar further ages the oil for another eight years.

 

The aging is important here.  Very young Hindi or Assam oils can be piercingly animalic, sour, or rotting in their intensity.  Believe me, the stench of an improperly-aged Hindi is not the kind of smell that can be worn politely outside of the home (or even inside, if you have a spouse or children with a habit of voicing their objections).  So, while Assam Organic is indeed quite animalic, the aging gives it a honeyed depth and smooth modulation that marks the difference between pure stink and a piece of art.

 

No two ways about it, though, the first two or three hours of Assam Organic will challenge all but the most experienced of noses.  It is a dense compression of ripeness, the collective aromas of a cow barn right before milking time – slurry, dirty straw, warm animal, chewed cud, grass, and something also a bit creamy-sour, like raw milk that has curdled in the heat of the barn.

 

However, it is important to note that this all simply smells rudely healthy and countryside-ish rather than foul.  Nobody who ever grew up in the country would find it objectionable.  For those who did grow up in a rural setting, you will remember that there is a certain sensory pleasure to be had in a cow barn, breathing in the soupy, friendly stench of placid beasts that stand there, nosily chewing their cud and gazing stupidly at you.

 

The ‘eau de cow barn’ lingers through most of the fragrance.  But after the stinging shock of the opening, it mellows into a ripe, golden aroma that covers the ground between raw honey and the velvety darkness of smoke, wood, and leather.

 

 

 

Borneo 2000 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo

 

 

It is difficult for me to describe this oud oil, as I have an intense physical reaction whenever I smell it.  Specifically, parts of my scalp and jaw begin to tighten and my skin begins to ‘crawl’.  Perhaps it is an exaggerated response of my body to the umami flavors deep within this oil.

 

Borneo 2000 is the second generation of super star Borneo oud oils produced by Ensar Oud previously, such as Borneo 3000 and Borneo 4000.  It opens with a hit of boozy peanut shell, cinnamon, and a raw wood aroma similar to the topnotes of wild Mysore sandalwood.  It is clean, light, and polished, with no off-putting notes that might challenge a beginner.  Note that there is a high-toned fruitiness here, like the heady fumes off a glass of grappa or stepping into a leather tannery.  When people describe oud oil as ‘vaporous’, I think they are mostly referring to this quasi-hallucinogenic effect on the senses. 

 

Like alcohol esters from the wood itself, Borneo 2000 is medicinal in its purity, and although the color of the oil is a light straw color, the olfactory color that presents itself to the mind is ice blue.  There is a nutty, musky hum in the background, as if a nubbin of cedar incense had worked its way into the oil at some point in the process.

 

The trace of fruitiness in this oud is not the juiciness of fresh fruit but rather the leathery skin of a fig or plum neglected in a fruit bowl.  This nuance also encapsulates the scent of the brown paper bag in which the fruit has withered.  With its hints of sawdust, cedar, and peanut shell, Borneo 2000’s dusty, savory side balances out the dry fruit skin to perfection.  Borneo 2000 finishes in a wisp of clean woodsmoke. 

 

Overall, I find Borneo 2000 to be more physically intoxicating than spiritually exalting.  It gives me the natural high of breathing in air freshly exhaled by trees in a forest, air so intensely ion-charged that it challenges your lungs to double their capacity.  Some oud oils take time and reflection to unlock, but Borneo 2000 makes an immediate lunge for your solar plexus.  A key advantage is that this oud is highly legible to newcomers.  You don’t need experience to enjoy it.

 

 

 

Borneo 50K (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo

 

 

Borneo 50K surprises me with its potent, almost brash throw – loudness is not at all something I associate with a Borneo-style oud.  It opens on a thick haze of pungent, oily medicinal greens, which slowly dissipates to reveal hints of juicy leaves, wood, vapors, solvent, aged honey, and an undercurrent of bitter white florals.  All these nuances come wrapped in a curl of steam.  It smells moist, humid, and more than a bit jungly.

 

If it is possible to get high from sniffing oud oil, then the Borneo style of oud would be my drug of choice.  Sniffing the spot where I have applied Borneo 50K leaves me feeling dizzy and light-headed, as if I am sitting in a Native American sweat lodge rather than in a boring home office.  A slight Palo Santo edge adds to this impression.  Later, a layer of almost minty-green musk envelops the woods, and my lungs expand as if sucking on an inhalator.  Borneo 50K a legal high?  Just maybe.

 

 

Photo by Andres Hernandez on Unsplash

 

Cambodia Classic (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

It took KZ a long time to source this particular Cambodi-style oil because producers kept showing up with mid-range oils that failed to hit the mark, which in the mind of KZ’s owner-operator was a triangulation of the right notes (sweet, fruity, and deep), decent price, and solid quality.

 

When they found this particular oil, they asked the producer why they hadn’t been shown this quality of oil right away without having to trudge through two hundred lesser oils.  The reply given sheds light on the difficulty in identifying good oud oils out there ‘in the wild’.  First of all, they said that they (the producers) needed to learn to trust Kyara Zen as a buyer before showing them the good stuff.  And second, they argued, if they gave everyone a shot at their top quality oils first, then who would buy the bulk of their lesser quality oils?

 

In the world of oud wheeling and dealing, therefore, a deal must make good financial sense to the producer for it to go ahead, but long-term trust with buyers such as KZ also plays a role.  Each time we (as private buyers) buy an oud oil, we are entering into a particularly high stakes pact, blindly trusting that a good balance between quality, cost, and trust has already been struck on the ground between our suppliers and their producers.  Otherwise, there is a high likelihood that we are getting the duds that the supplier hasn’t been smart or diligent enough to avoid on our behalf.

 

No worries, of course, on the Kyara Zen score, as this small, one-man brand is well known for its taste and curation.  Thus, Cambodia Classic is a wonderful representative of its genre.  Thick and honeyed in texture, it goes on with a pop of leather and blackberry wine, with an undercurrent of funk to keep things interesting.  It settles into a very rich, syrupy (although not overly sweet) aroma replete with ripe figs, red berries, and creamed hazelnuts cooing together in a harvest-like melody.

 

No sour, metallic, or animalic notes disturb the affability of the oil, making it beginner-friendly.  However, despite being approachable, Cambodia Classic is never as tutti-frutti or as neon-lit as other modern Cambodi oils.  It retains an uncommon level of refinement and restraint for its genre.  There is a pleasantly stout ‘brownness’ to the aroma which prevents the oil from becoming sophomorically jammy.  In other words, this is a darker, more adult version of the affable fruit bombs that pass as Cambodi oils these days.

 

In the later stages of the oil’s development, a faint wisp of woodsmoke emerges, adding depth and texture to an already robust body.  And, although never loud or vulgar, Cambodia Classic projects voluminously.  This particular oil is good value for money, not to mention superb quality for something tasked with standing up and representing an entire style (Cambodi).

 

 

 

 

Cambodi Non-Aged Oudh (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

Cambodi Non-Aged Oudh is a raw, slightly pungent oil that serves as a good introduction to the basic aroma profile of a Cambodi-style oud, which is to say friendly, sweet, and with strong fruit and caramel undertones.  This oil does pack an animalic punch at the start, though, so beginners beware.

 

Cambodi Non-Aged Oudh opens with the deep, spicy tang of a barnyard on a hot summer’s day.  Hot, urine-sodden hay notes vie with fermented redcurrant and raspberry notes bubbling up from underneath.  There is also a dusty clove note that clings to the hairs in one’s nostrils.

 

However, given ten minutes to settle, a smooth brown leather appears, warm and moist, like the grimy underside of a lady’s girdle.  Port and plum notes appear at the edges, withering and darkening it until the basic shape of a Cambodi is achieved – honeyed red fruits undercut with the tannic sourness of black tea.

 

I like Cambodi Non-Aged Oudh because it is not pretending to be anything other than what it is, which is a young, raw-ish oud oil that comes out of its cage snarling like a baby tiger and then retracts its claws and rolls over to let you rub its tummy.  It is not a terribly high quality oud oil, nor is it likely to be pure, or even single-source.  But if you want to get to know the Cambodi style of oud without investing too much money, then this is a good option.

 

 

 

China Sayang (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

Distilled from Sinensis agarwood, China Sayang is quite funky but nowhere near as animalic as other Chinese agarwood oils I have experienced.  It almost smells like a Hindi oil at the start, bristling with all the aggressive, leathery funk of a raw Assamese oil, but – and I think this is crucial to note – with greater depth to the aroma.  This aroma goes miles deep, capturing not only the smells of the bowels of the earth but also the lovely silty ‘topsoil’ aroma of ambergris.  Chinese oils often have facets of ambergris and deer musk.

 

China Sayang smells warm and salty, like the underside of the saddle on a well-ridden horse.  The Hindi elements of straw, hay, leather, and rotting wood flit in and out of a salty-herbaceous accord, giving us a smell that is three-dimensional in its richness.  China Sayang is a rich, potent affair that lasts for the whole day and beyond.  The latter stages are particularly impressive, settling with a contented sigh into a warm, musky aroma with hints of golden resin sparking fire at the corners.

 

Absent the fruit and flowers of other ouds, China Sayang comes across as distinctly old-school – masculine, thrusting, and uncompromising.  It is not – personally speaking – my kind of thing at all.  However, anybody who loves ambergris and musk as much as they love pure oud should make a point of seeking this out.  Its buttery smoothness will win many people over, even those whose fealty is sworn to the more easygoing charm of Cambodis.  

 

 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

 

Crassna 25 Years (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna (Cambodi style)

 

 

It is interesting to test ASAQ’s Crassna 25 Years against some of the younger ouds in the ASAQ stable such as the Cambodi Non-Aged Oudh reviewed above.  As the name suggests, the oud oil in this blend (and I am almost certain that this is indeed a blend rather than a pure or single source oud oil) has been aged for twenty-five years and comes from the A. Crassna species, which is naturally fruity in character.  Given the relatively consistent availability of this blend in quarter tola bottles and its low price tag (roughly $200 per quarter tola), this is likely to be a blend of several Crassna oils mixed together rather than an oil from one single-batch distillation.

 

That aside, Crassna 25 Years certainly smells aged, in that it is immediately smooth, supple, and as buttery as well-oiled leather.  Compared to the younger ASAQ oud oils and blends, there are no rough edges anywhere, and no off-puttingly sour or fecal notes.  This allows the beginner to just enjoy the opening wave of aroma without wincing or bracing for impact.  The aroma here is woody and smoky, with a salty petrochemical echo, as if the oil remembers the heat of the saw used to excise the heartwood.

 

What is most remarkable here, to my nose, is the faintly synthetic flavor to the smoke and salt notes.  This trace element stands out to my nose after having smelled many oud oils, but it is possible that others will not be able to detect it.  This fuzzy ‘steel wire’ synthetic element – whatever it is – smells intensely smoky, powerful, and diffusive.  I am sensitive to woody ambers, so again, it is possible that others will perceive this component simply as a smoky radiance that propels the scent outwards to the four corners of the room.  The synthetic buzz is evident only in the midsection, after which it fades out again, leaving a concerto of beautifully aged oud  aromas to play out on the skin.

 

A masterpiece?  Hardly.  But for the price, Crassna 25 Years is a steal, and if you are not particularly sensitive to synthetic smoke notes or woody ambers, then there is nothing here likely to mar your experience.  

 

 

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:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, FeelOud, Al Shareef Oudh, and Kyara Zen. The Abdul Samad Al Qurashi samples were sent to me free of charge by 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 pure oud samples, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

 

[i] http://www.basenotes.net/threads/445669-KZ85-THe-GCMS-results

[ii] http://www.ouddict.com/threads/al-malek-al-ceeni-al-shareef-oudh.247/page-2

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