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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

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

The Attar Guide: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does

31st March 2022

 

Oud-heads and oud newbies, check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and all about the different markets that consume it.  Also, have a read of Part I of this Oud Primer (The Challenges of Oud) while you’re at it.  

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Alex Lvrs on Unsplash

 

 

Taxonomy

 

 

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

 

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Geographical Region & Microclimate (Terroir)

 

 

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

 

Photo by Paul-Vincent Roll on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Manner of Cultivation

 

 

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

 

 

Wild Cultivation

 

Photo by Mike Blank on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

There is very little wild oud left, however.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Plantation Cultivation

 

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Distillation Methodology

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Attar Guide: The Challenges of Oud

29th March 2022

 

Oud-heads and oud newbies, be sure to check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and all about the different markets that consume it.

 

 

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

 

 

Challenge 1: Where to start?

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

(F)Oud Group 1: Artisanal Oud

 

Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

(F)Oud Group 2: Big Brand Oud

 

Photo by Edson Saldaña on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

(F)Oud Group 3: Oudy Mukhallats

 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

Challenge 2: Lack of Access

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”

 

 

Challenge 3: Understanding the lingo

 

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Dehn (Dahn) al Oud

 

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

 

 

Bunkwood

 

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

 

Boya

 

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

 

 

Sinking-Grade Agarwood

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Incense-Grade Agarwood

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Soil Agarwood

 

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

 

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

 

 

Hindi, Cambodi, Thai, Malaysian Oud

 

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

 

 

Aquilaria

 

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

 

 

Kyara and Kinam

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Mon-Koh

 

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

 

 

Maroke

 

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

 

 

Challenge 4: Oud Itself

 

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

The Attar Guide: Sandalwood Reviews P-S

28th March 2022

Hello fellow sandalwood freaks!  Remember to read the introduction here and the sandalwood primer here.  Also, Part I of the sandalwood reviews (0-M) here

 

 

Precious Woods (April Aromatics)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Precious Woods is a contender for the best woody perfume on the market today.  Although natural perfumes can sometimes be muddy, this one has impressive scope.  The top notes are dark and oily, almost pungent, with a full helping of aromatic fir balsam, pine, and the lactic sourness of sandalwood.  It ain’t pretty, but it is real.  As lung-filling as walking through a forest densely knotted with fir and cedarwood trees, the opening almost recreates the effect of the topnotes of Norne by Slumberhouse – while they do not smell alike, there is the same general sense of notes crowding in on you too thickly.


Soon, though, the initial tension dissipates.  Through the camphorous murk comes a wisp of incense smoke, weaving in and out, cutting the density, and paring back the oily balsams until you see the real subject matter of the scent standing there unobscured, namely the richest cedar in existence.  For much of the mid-section of Precious Woods, there is an almost equal dance between cedar and incense.

 

It smells richly spiced, slightly smoky, and muscular.  I am reminded, whenever I wear this, of the discipline it must take to direct attention to one material, without feathering off into extraneous detailing or piling just one more thing on.  If you have ever worn a perfume and lamented the perfumer’s inability to ‘leave well enough alone’, then try Precious Woods to see what curation smells like.

 

The best part of the scent is the aromatic, creamy brown sandalwood that rises up from the base.  It has the same spiced gingerbread sweetness and dairy-rich mouthfeel as in Neela Vermeire’s first three fragrances or vintage Bois des Îles (Chanel), other sandalwood-rich scents.  Precious Woods is admittedly an expensive choice for when you want a woody perfume, but if you really, really want a woody perfume, go straight in at the top end with Precious Woods and you won’t regret it.

 

The oil is also remarkable, but quite different from the eau de parfum.  It opens with an oud-like note, which is to say wood that is a little leathery and sour.  There is also a plasticky nuance to this topnote, like wood varnish or the terpenic whoosh from a newly-opened can of latex paint.  Right behind this accord is the gluey, peanutty rawness of freshly-split lumber, pointing to the presence of sandalwood.  But there is also quite a lot of cedarwood, its damp armpitty nuance reminding us of why so many perceive cedar as smelling a bit funky.

 

All the basic building blocks of the eau de parfum are present and correct in the oil, but the difference is that, in the oil version, they are all there at once, rather than unfolding gradually.  Crucially, an oud-like note replaces the coniferous balsam opening of the original.  With the fecal, coffee-ish properties of cedarwood on full display, the Precious Woods perfume oil initially smells quite like The Body Shop Sandalwood oil designed with higher quality materials and a much bigger budget.

 

Soon, however, the Precious Woods oil segues into a long mid-section that is roughly similar to that of the eau de parfum.  Thanks to the patchouli, cistus, and buddha wood, the dark aridity of the cedarwood is fleshed out and thickened by nuances of whiskey, amber, and woodsmoke.  This gives the wood a slightly sweeter, more relaxed character.

 

In the oil, the general impression is that of a log of wood fluffing out in anticipation of its serving of double-cream sandalwood.  Does this arrive?  Actually, no – or at least not to the extent it does in the original eau de parfum.  If you want a more sandalwood-focused experience, therefore, choose the eau de parfum.  If you are looking for a rich, smoky cedarwood experience, then the oil version of Precious Woods is the better option.  Both are insanely good. 

 

 

 

Pure Sandal (Al Haramain)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The name must be one of the cheekiest pieces of misdirection in the business, but though it is neither pure nor sandal, Al Haramain’s Pure Sandal is a pleasing little thing.  It at least makes a valiant effort to recreate something of the sweet-and-sour aspects of a Mysore oil using synthetic sandalwood molecules, which is more than can be said for many other oils with sandalwood in the name. 

 

The first clue to its synthetic construction lies in the booming sillage of the perfume when first applied to the skin.  It immediately fills the room with a loud woodiness in a way that no pure sandalwood oil does.  Rich and sour at first, the scent eventually develops a slightly sweet, powdery finish that nonetheless remains fresh.  Men could easily wear this.  Pure Sandal is a reasonably pleasant attempt at a sandalwood aroma, one that, if you are into layering, will do a creditable job of lending simple rose oils or attars a ‘sandalwoody’ boost.

 

Apart from the obvious tomfoolery over the name, this is not a bad option for those who want a sandalwood fix but who find themselves on a tight budget.  Personally, I would just adjust the name to read Al Haramain ‘Pure Sandal’ rather than Al Haramain Pure Sandal because those inverted commas convey a more honest message.

 

 

Photo by Abby Savage on Unsplash

 

Royal Parvati (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Royal Parvati is Jicky (Guerlain) as seen through an indie sandalwood haze.  The resemblance to civet-laden Guerlain classics is helped along by (I suspect) either a dollop of black-brown ambergris, with its intimate, halitosis-like funk, or a synthetic civet material.

 

The lime-peel brightness in the opening recreates with eerie accuracy the famous ‘curdled cream’ topnote of both Jicky and Shalimar.  In the case of Jicky and Shalimar, it is the meeting of lemon and vanillin that prompts this effect.  In Royal Parvati, it is likely the cream of the sandalwood interacting with the silvery, high-toned topnotes of the Peru balsam or orris root.  It never fails to amaze me that the complex note interactions that makes a Jicky or a Shalimar so distinctive can be arrived at – whether accidentally or otherwise – by smashing other materials with broadly similar effects into each other at high velocity.

 

Over time, the filthy ambergris or civet swells up even further, impregnating every fiber of the creamy woods.  Royal Parvati eventually settles on the aroma of split logs in an Indian sandalwood forest – humid and milky – but with the crotchy funk of a hot woodsman who has marked his territory by rubbing his nether regions into the grain of the wood.  The result is a deeply musky, civety wood scent that gives you all the naughty bits of an unneutered Guerlain without weighing you down in baby powder.  In my humble opinion, Royal Parvati is one of the true standouts of indie oil perfumery.

 

 

 

Sandal 100k (FeelOud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Sandal 100k is distilled from the buried roots of old Santalum album trees harvested and cleared from land in Indonesia.  Completely forgotten about, the rootstock of these noble old trees lay in the ground until the locals figured out there was precious oil in them there roots!  Sandal 100k was distilled by Russian Adam of FeelOud, one of those oud pioneers who upped and left a comfortable, suburban life in the West to spend their lives distilling precious oils in the humid, fly-ridden jungles of the Far East, simply for the love of real oud and sandalwood oils.

 

To make the oil, the roots of old trees – all aged at least between eighty and a hundred years – were dug up, cleaned off, and set out to dry.  The roots were then broken down into small shards, and finally, pulped into a sawdust-type mixture which was placed in the distilling pot.  Technically, S. album roots enjoy the same sandalwood bragging rights as heartwood from a one hundred year old s. album tree because it is both the right species (S. album) and the right age.

 

Sandal 100k smells bright, greenish, and terpene-rich at the offset, with all the nutty, savory sourness characteristic of Santalum album perched just behind it.  The green rootiness dies back quickly, allowing the salty, buttery sides of the oil to emerge.  For the first part of the ride, therefore, the oil lingers in the aromatic, fresh category of Santalum album, but as time goes on, it reveals a rich, sweet nuttiness that qualifies it as the perfect sandalwood for everyday use.

 

 

 

Sandal (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Sandal is a blend of Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) and Australian sandalwood (Santalum spiccatum), cleverly mixed to ensure that one fills out the gaps in the other.  The Australian sandalwood adds a rugged, hearty aromatic body that gives the soft, pale, creamy Indian sandalwood a backbone, and the milkiness of the Indian sandalwood tones down the blunt, piney greenness of the Aussie stuff.  The idea is carried off to perfection.  It is sweet, creamy, and incensey in the Mysore fashion, but also nicely outdoorsy and fresh.  The two oils complement each other very well, and neither dominates.

 

If you like the musky, armpitty feel of the cedar-sandalwood blend in Tam Dao EdP by Diptyque or the brusque creaminess of Wonderwood by Comme des Garcons, then know that Sandal by Al Shareef Oudh shares a similar aroma profile.  It is sweet, nutty, and aromatic, but also blandly creamy – a perfect balance of the rough and the smooth.  Unlike the commercial Diptyque fragrance, however, Sandal’s central accord is durable, meaning that it hits its stride and stays there for the entire day.  Doubtless Sandal would not satisfy a Mysore purist, but as an everyday sandalwood wear, it is a great option.

 

 

 

Sandalwood (Nemat)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The Nemat version of sandalwood is famous for being a good, hippy-style representation of what sandalwood smells like.  However, to my nose, it smells like amyris or another wood oil with some creamy sandalwood synthetics thrown in for volume.  It smells good but generic.  The creamy loudness of the sandalwood synthetics masks a certain varnishy, pinesol tone to the underlying wood.  The best one can say about it is that it develops a rather attractive raisin-like sweetness in the drydown.

 

 

Photo by Austin Wilcox on Unsplash

 

Sandalwood Spirit (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

ASAQ’s Sandalwood is a lush, tropical version of sandalwood, its generously humid wood fleshed out by notes of coconut milk and flaked coconut.  The faintly gluey nuances up top are markers of authenticity, as is the oil’s quietness.  However, it would not surprise me to learn there was a synthetic smoother or two in the mix here, helping to create the perfectly rounded impression of what smells like expensive European sunscreen.

 

Soft, milky, with coconut cream notes dissolved in a clean, white musk trail, Sandalwood Spirit wears more like a finished perfume than an essential oil.  It is quite powdery in the drydown, and even features a hint of rose hidden within its folds.  It will win over anybody who prefers discreet smells over loud or pungent ones, even if that means making a few concessions on the purity front. 

 

 

Photo by Sam Hojati on Unsplash

 

Santal Carmin (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Santal Carmin by Atelier Cologne is a wonderful and slightly odd sandalwood fragrance that smells more like hot milk, Petit Beurre biscuits, and the inside of a new car than actual sandalwood.  Its creaminess is slightly generic, featuring a paint-by-numbers porridge accord that one often experiences in more gourmandy sandalwoods.  But it has its attractions too, such as the flash of something citric up top to lift the scent into the air, and that guilty-pleasure nursery pudding facet in the drydown.

 

The dupe smells just as chemically-engineered as the original and follows the same basic blueprint with regards to texture, structure, and development.  The sweet saffron-laced milk-and-biscuit accord kicks in a touch earlier in the original, while a very tart lime topnote extends the impression of freshness for far longer in the dupe.  The original is more creamily suede, whereas the dupe is more creamily pleather.  But these are minor differences.  If you enjoy Santal Carmin but don’t fancy the price tag (and who does?), then this dupe is an excellent substitute.

 

 

 

Santal Mysore (Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: tincture

 

 

This sample is a tincture, not a distillation, so there is a blast of perfumer’s alcohol to contend with at the start.  This makes sense, as Dominique Dubrana makes all-natural, spray-based perfumes, and thus makes all his tinctures by hand too.  Experiencing a material like Mysore sandalwood through the medium of a tincture rather than an oil allows one to glimpse facets of the material that might escape notice in a pure oil.  It is almost as if the tincturing liquid stretches out the space between the molecules, allowing us to see them more clearly in isolation.

 

The Santal Mysore from La Via del Profumo reveals a surprisingly floral nuance to the sandalwood, a mélange of rose and gardenia over a salted butter and cream version of the famed wood.  It is savory and nutty, with a texture close to cream cheese.  It is beautiful but ephemeral.  I find myself applying it over and over to rewind to the moment where that gardenia bomb detonates.

 

 

Photo by Maude Frédérique Lavoie on Unsplash

 

Santal 33 (Le Labo)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Famously the signature scent of thousands of hipsters in certain areas of Manhattan, Santal 33 by Le Labo has become a bit of a design cliché – the olfactory equivalent of the Barcelona chair or the man bun.  But just because everyone is wearing it doesn’t make it a bad fragrance.  It is maybe even a darned good fragrance, as long as you are able to park your expectations at the door.


For one thing, despite the name, Santal 33 is really a leather-focused scent, with a salty, green cucumberish quality that is almost aquatic.  It opens with a powerful blast of chemical violet, salt, leather, and that aqueous herbal element, making me think of vetivers like Fleur de Sel by Miller Harris.  But focusing too closely on the individual elements is of little use here because the total effect is so forceful that you just have to give yourself over for the ride.  Santal 33 is intensely masculine: full of raw oily leather, cedar, and balsam.  It makes me think of a lifestyle concept store – one of those cavernous, white empty studio spaces where they place a tangle of parched white driftwood in one corner and a red pleather couch in the other.


Only much later on does the typical aroma of Australian sandalwood makes it presence known, with its light green aroma of dried coconut husks and freshly-hewn cedar logs.  In general, this is a dry, woody-leathery scent with a green, sea frond aspect, rather than the lactonic sandalwood its name seems to suggest.  It smells slightly of books, the raw, harsh chemical breeze of salt and Iso E Super whitewashing the scent until the grain of newly-printed paper appears.

 

The perfume oil of Santal 33 is, for me, infinitely preferable to the eau de parfum.  It smells immediately of the scent’s most vital elements, namely that tough, violety leather and green coconut, but with all the petrochemical harshness removed.  If you like Santal 33 but are nervous of its chemical-driven loudness, then allow me to beckon you over to the perfume oil corner.  Good stuff.

 

 

 

Santal Royale (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Unlike Santal Sultan below, Santal Royale is a pure Mysore oil, distilled from vintage stock (thirty to forty years old) of red Mysore heartwood.  Also, in contrast to Sultan, which has been aging in the bottle since 2005, Santal Royale is a relatively young oil, having been produced in 2013.  It is a very interesting experiment, therefore, to compare the two oils, seeing as one comes from non-Mysore s. album but has been aged for almost fifteen years, while the other comes from a vintage Mysore stock of wood but is a relative ‘young pup’ in the bottle.

And aroma-wise, there is a difference.  Whereas aging has rendered the Sultan smooth and buttery, Santal Royale still retains the lively sparkle of freshly-cut wood.  This is especially apparent in the topnotes, which are fresh and silvery, with hints of menthol, crushed peanut shells, and rubber.  Above all, it is bright, sandalwood floodlit from all sides, little veins of sap and salt sparkling like diamonds in the grain of the wood.

There is zero greenness, and no camphor or pine.  There is a hint of mint at the start, but the cushioned mintiness of a menthol cigarette more than fresh herb.  The main characteristic defining the heart is a very salty, bright blond wood note.  On his website, Ensar mentions that it possesses notes that could remind people variously of ambergris or musk.  It does not remind me of deer musk at all, but I can see where the ambergris comparison comes in, in that they share a sparkling minerality characteristic of white ambergris.

It is not as dark or as velvety as Santal Sultan, but with its bright, tenacious ‘salty peanut shell’ aroma, Santal Royale probably comes across to people as more sandalwood-ish at its core.  In the drydown, a sugared thread of incense crystals dances in and out of the savory, nutty aroma.  Texture-wise, it is far more robust and tenacious than Santal Sultan and might even be described as invigorating.  It has a lively, movement-filled presence on the skin.  

 

 

 

Santal Sultan (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Santal Sultan proves that santalum album grown outside of the Mysore region can be every bit as luscious as anything grown in Mysore itself, providing that care is taken with the quality of the wood and the distillation process.  When I say quality, I mean oil distilled from properly mature s. album heartwood or roots – over a hundred years old for preference – and by careful distillation, I mean someone who knows how to supplement elements that might be missing to make up the traditional Mysore flavor profile.

Santal Sultan is an oil that meets all these criteria.  It is made from a distillation of a hundred-year-old roots of santalum album trees in Aceh, a semi-autonomous Indonesian region located on the northernmost tip of Sumatra – which takes care of the age issue.  Then, the robust reddish-brown depth missing from the pale rooty oil was added back via a co-distillation of the Aceh roots with red heartwood from wild Tanzanian sandalwood trees, which lends the oil a rich, almost incensey depth.  Taken together, the two woods create a true Mysore aroma.  Now that is alchemy.

Note-wise, Santal Sultan opens with a smoky, rooty smell that recalls a mixture of orris butter, green wood, burning rubber, and leathery oud oil.  There is an almost vaporous, solvent-like quality to the topnotes that risks getting you high if you sniff too closely.  This collection of aromas, which might be loosely categorized as antiseptic, gives the oil a medicinal austerity that remains lightly present throughout.

The oil settles quickly thereafter into a classic Mysore profile: buttery, salty, savory-sweet, with a faint backbone of reddish, aromatic wood dust and the sort of ambery warmth associated with labdanum.  It is rich and smooth, like a piece of wholemeal toast slathered with a soft salted butter and a pinch of cassonade.  There is also a noticeable vein of spice running through the oil – nutmeg pulsed lightly with black pepper. For all its buttery, spicy, incensey richness, however, this oil is also very soft.  This is the oil I would buy for meditation and yoga, were I constitutionally suited to any of those sitting-still-for-long-periods activities.

If I were to point a beginner in the direction of one oil that demonstrated – reliably – all the classic characteristics of a Mysore sandalwood oil, then Santal Sultan would be it.  In the absence of Mysore-grown oils that have been properly matured, this oil is probably the best example of a Mysore-type sandalwood oil on the market today. 

 

 

Photo by Max Griss on Unsplash

 

Serenity Sandalwood Oudh (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Beautifully raw and aged Sandalwood from India and Egypt with Fossilized Sandalwood all blended into a deep, smokey Indian Oudh with hints of our originally named: Arabian Oudh and Egyptian Temple Oudh (from the original ICONS series).

 

Setting aside the fact that sandalwood does not grow in Egypt and that fossilized sandalwood is not a material used in perfumery, Serenity Sandalwood Oudh smells neither like real sandalwood nor the fantasy kind.  Rather, it follows almost to a T the lines of the idea put forth in Alkemia’s Arabesque, i.e., a creamy, woodsy amber with a moreish crystalized sugar finish.  More crème brulée than wood, in other words.

 

Don’t get me wrong – Serenity Sandalwood Oudh smells absolutely delicious, and for those specifically looking for a sparkly, sugary ‘white’ amber (creamy rather than resinous), this will not disappoint.  But if you are looking for an authentic Indian sandalwood aroma or a glimpse of the famed, er, Egyptian sandalwood?  Look elsewhere.  This is a pretty ambery-woody affair with an effervescent, powdery finish.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  It just does not do what it says on the tin.

 

 

 

Sondos (Sandal Rose) (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

I would be shocked to discover that Sondos (otherwise known as Sandal Rose) contained any real sandalwood or indeed, any real rose.  Nonetheless, every time I smell this cheap little perfume oil, my nose is fooled into thinking it is smelling a light, delicate Indian sandalwood kissed by a bright rose.

 

The sandalwood note is remarkable for its fineness, by which I mean that it does not contain any of the brutish, terpenic sourness of Australian sandalwood.  It just smells soft, slightly golden, clear, and sweet-nutty.  This points to the use of a synthetic sandalwood molecule such as Javanol or Ebanol in the mix somewhere.  But really, when the effect is as pleasurable as this, who cares if the sandalwood is real or not?  At this price, I certainly don’t.  

 

The rose note has been well chosen too.  Fresh but gently rounded, with nary a hint of harsh lemon or hotel soap, it exists purely to add an innocent flush to the cheeks of the sandalwood.

 

But be sure to inhale quickly, for this is an experience that lasts scarcely ten minutes before disappearing completely.  A delight for rose and sandalwood lovers, you will forgive its short duration in exchange for its unassuming prettiness and shockingly low price.

 

 

 

Wild Mysore Sandalwood Sample (via Sultan Pasha)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This sample was provided to me as part of a larger sampler that included Sultan Pasha attars as well as samples of certain raw materials, such as oud and sandalwood.  It is a vintage, wild Mysore sandalwood oil (exact age unknown), and, during my research, served as a reliable baseline for how Mysore should smell.  The aroma profile of this sample is gentle, blond, with an olfactory range stretching from raw wood and lightly toasted peanut shells to a warm, dry-creamy aromatic aroma with some sourish, lactonic notes.  It is the quietest of all the sandalwood oil samples I own.  However, its shyness and delicacy are part of its charm.

 

 

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 Ava Luxe, NAVA, Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics, Abdes Salaam Attar, Al Rehab, Nemat, Al Haramain, Sultan Pasha Attars, and Le Labo. The samples from Ensar Oud, FeelOud, Al Shareef Oudh, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and April Aromatics were sent to me free of charge either by the brands 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: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Review Round-Ups Sandalwood Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Sandalwood Reviews 0-M

24th March 2022

 

Hello fellow sandalwood freaks!  Remember to read the introduction here and the sandalwood primer here.

 

 

2016 Mysore Special Reserve (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Opening with the milky peanut shell aroma characteristic of Mysore, complete with gluey, solvent-like topnotes, the 2016 Mysore Special Reserve quickly segues into a heart of aromatic sandalwood with zero sweetness or creaminess.  Imagine a log of sandalwood split open with an axe, the air suddenly fizzing with camphor, mint, and red dust.

 

Later, there are hints of sweet milk and yoghurt, as well as green rose petals.  Its general character is clean, aromatic, and tending more towards camphoraceous-minty than creamy-sweet.  Sinewy, therefore, rather than voluptuous.  2016 Mysore Special Reserve also smells undeniably young.  Its minty rawness will likely gain more depth and creaminess with careful aging.  However, there is tenderness in its sedate, peanutty milkiness, which is what makes it a beautiful choice to wear right now.  Subtle and fresh, 2016 Mysore Special Reserve is a great option for those who want the luxury of wearing a Mysore oil every day without the fuss or distraction of a more aged oil. 

 

 

 

2017 Deep & Buttery Mysore (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This is a result of a very interesting experiment whereby JK DeLapp wondered if sandalwood could be treated or distilled to smell like an oud.  He gave the sandalwood chips a good long soak in water before distilling, a method usually reserved for Hindi-style oud oil distillations.  Disturbingly, the experiment works.

 

What started out life as a blameless sandalwood has been pressed and massaged into the shape of a particularly feral oud oil distilled from wood that has been soaked for over fourteen days.  The fermented flavor is exactly that of Hindi, and indeed, this oil could easily be mistaken for one were it not for the fact that, behind the initial wave of funk, there is no hay or smoke, only the aromatic blondness of Mysore sandalwood.

 

Despite the name, this oil is not particularly creamy, deep, or buttery.  Rather, it is all freshly-stripped bark and crushed pinecones.  With an undercurrent of bile duct secretion.   

 

Further on, the oil develops a leathery facet, like the cured leather of horse saddles in a tack room.  Mingling with the piney, silvery freshness of the wood, the outcome is one of green leather with a camphoraceous undertone.  But there is a lingering pungency that never lets you forget about that long, moldy soak.

 

A Mysore sandalwood that smells like a Hindi oud oil, huh.  The phrase ‘who asked for this?’ comes to mind.  This is definitely worth testing if you want to see what is possible when you experiment with different soaking times and distillation methods (not to mention different woods).  However, if you are looking for the classic, buttery Mysore sandalwood profile, then look elsewhere.  For my personal tastes, this is an interesting experiment but also a waste of perfectly good Mysore sandalwood.

 

 

 

2017 Royal Reserve Mysore (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

The 2017 Royal Reserve Mysore begins in much the same vein as the 2016 version, with a gluey, peanut-shell delicacy that is all silvery topnotes and little else.  But it soon develops a robust heart that diverges sharply from the 2016 version by way of a phenomenal myrrh note that smells like wet, loamy earth, freshly-sliced mushrooms, and resin.  The age-old loveliness of the typical Mysore aroma – aromatic dryness tugging against creamy sweetness – follows on the heels of this myrrhic wave.

 

Oddly enough, for a younger oil, the 2017 version does not smell as green or as minty-fresh as the 2016 batch, but rather, earthy, rich, and spicy.  Whether you prefer one over the other will depend on whether you favor fresh and green over earthy and ‘red’, or vice versa.  My preference is for the 2017 batch.

 

 

 

Absolute Sandalwood (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Absolute Sandalwood combines an ashy tobacco note with aromatic sandalwood and a whole pain d’épices worth of rich spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and clove) for a result that splits the difference between Egoïste (Chanel) and Journey for Men (Amouage).

 

If you are looking for sweet and creamy a la Bois des Îles (Chanel) or Samsara (Guerlain), then know that this is not that.  But if you like a spicy, rugged masculine take on sandalwood, then Absolute Sandalwood is a winner.  With the Coca Cola richness of Egoïste coming to play, and a touch of warm resin flirting around the basenotes, this is the sort of stuff that might reasonably be described as ‘handsome’.

 

It is rich, warm, and thoroughly satisfying.  Absolute Sandalwood remains true to the Clive Christian approach with this line of concentrated perfume oils, which is to say it is relatively sugar-free and tending towards the masculine side of the spectrum.

 

 

 

Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash

 

Alec d’Urberville (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The profligate essence of an aristocratic libertine. Amber resin, charred Madagascar vanilla, French cognac, clove, sandalwood, and dark musk. Limited Edition.

 

 

Alec d’Urberville is a turbo-powered fist bump of sweaty-metallic clove and rugged sandalwood, with a thick, gooey molasses accord tucked into its trunk.  The interplay between sour, sweet, and burnt spice gives it an interestingly smoky char.  It continues on in this vein for most of the ride before quieting down to a dank sandalwood with liquor and vanilla bean paste rubbed into the grain.

 

For fans of spicy-woody perfumes, Alec d’Urberville is an interesting proposition.  Understand that you must be able to tolerate clove notes in order to make it past the first hour or so.  To me, it reads like an easy-going perfume oil version of Diptyque’s cinnamon-and-opoponax masterpiece, Eau Lente.  I recommend it highly to people who spend a lot of time outdoors, because, when mixed with the musk of one’s own body after physical exertion, it forms a halo of fiery woods and golden vanilla around its wearer that is sustenance onto itself.

 

 

 

Arabesque (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: An exquisitely spiritual blend of beautifully aged Arabian sandalwood, Mysore sandalwood, precious Egyptian kyphi, sweet orris root, benzoin resin, cassia, and blessed spikenard.

 

 

Despite the initial blast of clean, terpenic wood, Arabesque is not an especially sandalwood-forward blend.  After the blond woodiness of the topnotes fades, it develops into a powdery benzoin-driven amber with the glitter of iris and lemon sugar on top.  This is Alkemia’s most popular blend, and I can see why.  It is sweet, sparkling, and soapy – a freshly powdered Siamese kitten in scent form.

 

But it is not sandalwood.  Instead, it is the interaction between the iris (dusty, silvery) and the benzoin (vanillic, lemony, cinnamon-spicy) that really drives this car.  Kyphi, the ancient Egyptian version of barkhour – compressed incense blocks of powdered sandalwood, resins, and aromatics – contributes a vaguely gummy, incensey sweetness that underpins the benzoin and iris.

 

It is a lovely perfume.  But the whole ‘aged Arabian sandalwood’ backstory makes my palms itch.  Arabian sandalwood, aged or otherwise, does not exist because sandalwood trees do not grow in the Middle East.  There are, of course, Arabian sandalwood perfume oils.  These are largely cheap sandalwood synthetics mixed with other oils to achieve a certain ‘Arabian’-flavored exoticism.  Although most of the fragrance world is driven by fantasy and make-believe, indie companies like Alkemia and Nava – another serial offender – really ought to stop flogging the idea of exclusivity or rarity in connection to materials bought off the rack at The Perfumer’s Apprentice.  

 

Of course, as consumers, we should also try harder not to fall quite so hard or so fast for marketing guff like this.  Given the current cost and rarity of real Mysore sandalwood oil, we should all assume that a blend costing about twenty dollars for fifteen milliliters will not contain any of it. 

 

And to be fair, for Alkemia, and most of the American indie oil sector, sandalwood is more a fantasy of a precious raw material than the precious raw material itself.  Which, by the way, is fine.  It is the premise of the World Wrestling Entertainment, i.e., if we are all willingly involved in the suspension of disbelief, then nobody gets hurt. But sprinkling the word ‘Mysore sandalwood’ in the notes list willy nilly like that?  Quit your bullshit, Jan.

 

Rant aside, Arabesque is a thoroughly loveable perfume oil and will please fans of soft spicy-ambery scents that purr rather than roar.  It shares some ground with Iris Oriental (Parfumerie Generale), Fleur Oriental (Miller Harris), and even Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile), albeit far simpler than any of these.

 

 

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

 

Arrival of The Queen of Sheba (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Mysore sandalwood, suede, frankincense, patchouli, 4 vanillas. This blend is tough and tender at the same time, like the queen herself. This one makes vanilla turn tricks as an oriental ingredient and all of the fabulous elements get along so well. It is an instant sex classic.

 

 

Let’s be clear.  Not a single drop of Mysore sandalwood oil was harmed in the production of Arrival of The Queen of Sheba.  Like many fragrance fans, I care more about the magic a talented perfumer can pull off in a composition than whether the materials they use are natural or synthetic.  The most stunning perfumes in the world – Mitsouko, Shalimar, Chanel No. 5 – are a mix of synthetic and natural materials, but blended in such a complex, abstract manner that you only notice their overall beauty.

 

I do not have a particular fetish for all-natural perfumes, or perfumes that mythologize one of the constituent raw materials.  But I do not particularly agree with the widespread practice of being disingenuous with customers over the naturalness or source of certain materials.  None of the American indie oil perfume houses can afford to import or buy genuine Mysore sandalwood oil in the quantity or price required to make perfumes that sell at twenty dollars per six milliliters.  One might argue that the Mysore sandalwood narrative so frequently used in the American indie sector is a harmless piece of fiction – a social pact between company and customer.  Still, the fake sourcing narratives rankle with those who have smelled the genuine materials or know even a little about the difficulty of obtaining them.  

 

Marketing shenanigans aside, Arrival of The Queen of Sheba opens with a blast of photograph-drying chemicals, momentarily catching me off guard and making me wonder if I am in for a bit of a wild ride here.  But no.  While Sheba boasts four types of vanilla, one molecule less or one molecule more makes not even the slightest bit of difference to the creamy blandness of the outcome.  Don’t get me wrong – The Queen of Sheba is genuinely very nice, drying down to a pale woodsy affair with soft milky suede accents.  But for the price, it is not doing very much.

 

I think the main problem in Arrival of The Queen of Sheba is that it features the signature Possets vanilla (or four different variations on it) in a starring role instead of relegating it to the back where it can do no harm.  When pushed to the fore, you can see plainly that it is the sort of vanilla that smells a bit plasticky, like melted ice-cream or a vanilla candle at the Yankee Candle store.  It is not offensive or jarring, but it does smell slightly cheap.

 

 

 

Bois Exotique (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Bois Exotique is a puzzle.  It features a sharp, almost rooty sandalwood note (surely synthetic) over an amber and patchouli base that reads as creamy, soapy, and vaguely minty.  The balmy mouthfeel of the sweetened patchouli is close to the waxy white chocolate texture of Hiram Green’s wonderful Arbolé Arbolé.  (In terms of overall aroma, however, they are nothing alike).

 

There is also an attractive Coca Cola note at the beginning, common to many superb sandalwood fragrances such as Bois des Îles and Egoïste, both by Chanel.  Yet, undeniably, the quality and density of this scent places Bois Exotique in the same category as other indie perfume oils rather than alongside those belonging to classic perfumery.  There is both a handmade quality and a loose, casual structure to Bois Exotique that reminds me of popular ‘sandalwoody’ indie oils, such as Alkemia’s Arabesque or Nava’s Santalum.

 

Still, no shade intended.  There is something deeply pleasing about the dichotomy in Bois Exotique between the bitter, woody facets and the sweet waxy-milky facets.  Powdery incense notes shift in like a sprinkling of crystallized sugar on top of plain bread.  The combination of bitter and sweet adds a frisson to the scent.  At points, it is as moreish as chocolate.

 

It is this clever counter-posing of notes that helps me to finally settle the overall place of Ava Luxe in the pecking order as somewhere between the American indie oil sector and niche.  Her work is more nuanced than most indie oil companies, and she is deeply beloved by her loyal customer base.  Yet the uneven quality and low quality of some of the raw materials rank her output at just slightly below other American indie perfume brands such as DSH Perfumes, Aftelier, and Sonoma Scent Studio.  Still, when something works, it really works.  And on balance, Bois Exotique works.

 

 

 

Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood)  

Type: essential oil

 

 

Dabur sandalwood oil is pure Santalum album from India, though not from the Mysore region.  It is sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than a perfume, a fact many sandalwood fans (including me) choose to ignore, using it as perfume instead.  It comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, but for perfume purposes, it is highly advisable that, once opened, you decant the oil into another container so as to avoid contamination from the rubber cap.  Personally, I am not that meticulous, so my bottle of Dabur oil sits happily in its original bottle, and if there is a little rubbery taint to the topnotes, well then I do not mind.  It adds character.

 

Dabur is a solid Santalum album oil, as equally unpretentious in aroma as it is in price.  The topnotes are tainted with a bitter, smoky rubber overtone, which I genuinely enjoy.  Once past that, the oil settles into a sweet, buttery sandal aroma with miles of depth.  Like all s. album oils, it is not loud, but it is certainly a great deal more robust than more delicate artisanal oils.  It is also not as linear, thanks to those notes of rubber, smoke, and fuel exhaust.  I do not know if the supply of this oil is sustainable, so I am planning to stock up.  Though it works brilliantly under commercial perfumes that need a sandalwood boost, it is also a thoroughly satisfying wear on its own.

 

 

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

 

Khaliji (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Khaliji is the most daring fragrance in the Al Rehab rollerball line-up.  In pairing a fresh, aromatic lemongrass with an armpitty cumin, it arrives at a compromise between a good Southeast Asian curry and the undershirt of a Cairo taxi driver in high summer.  It is equally repellent and attractive, which is, of course, precisely what makes it interesting.

 

Its vegetally-green cardamom note momentarily recalls the water-logged ‘figgy’ sandalwood of Le Labo’s Santal 33.  But in truth, the strongest point of comparison is to the aromatic, cumin-flecked woody notes of Le Labo’s Rose 31.  In case that comparison got your hopes up, let me equivocate.  First, there is no rose in the Al Rehab (some will not miss it).  Second, the scratchy synthetic wood aromachemical that defines the Le Labo is absent, replaced by a smooth, featureless sandalwood accord.  Third, the curried-armpit nuance is stronger in the Al Rehab. 

 

I find Khaliji to be a striking fragrance, with a deeply aromatic drydown that lasts forever on the skin.  Get past the shock of the cumin-and-lemon tandem in the opening and you are good to go.  It would make for an excellent masculine, its swampy, spice-laden woodiness blooming beautifully on sweaty male skin in summer.  The juxtaposition between the fresher aromatic notes (lemongrass, cardamom) and the warmer, dustier ones (cumin, sandalwood) is very well handled, especially for a low-budget oil perfume such as this.  The final impression it leaves is that of savory bread pudding made entirely of creamed woods.

 

 

 

Majan (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Majan is a sort of twin to Molook, except where Molook is a duet between Hindi oud and ambergris, Majan is a duet between sandalwood and ambergris.  As in Molook, the quality of the ambergris used in Majan is sublime – softly fecal, marine, warm, deep, and with tobacco and leather tonalities for depth and vigor.  Something about it feels aged, like the pages of an old manuscript, but there is a feathery sweetness there too.  The vintage feel is enhanced by the slight civet-like undertone of the ambergris.  Wearing it may remind vintage lovers of older ambergris- and civet-heavy fragrances such as Patou Joy parfum and Dioressence.

 

Working backwards from the base – ambergris – to the top, the first half of this attar is almost purely sandalwood, with a side of musky rose.  The sandalwood used in Majan is very high quality.  There is quite possibly some amount of Mysore sandalwood here, although it is might also be oil from the newer Santalum album plantations in Australia mixed with a sandalwood synthetic or two to get it to sing.  Whatever the material, the opening is a joyously creamy sandalwood affair that will tug on the heartstrings of any sandalwood aficionado.

 

The prevalent aroma, to start with, is slightly oily, peanut-like, and raw, like a freshly-split log of wood, which is typical of genuine Mysore sandalwood.  The lumberyard notes soon soften as they melt into a warm, rosy, milky aroma associated with fine sandalwood.  Rose adds a flush to the cheeks of the wood, and vanilla a sweet creaminess – but these are bit players, there just to help flesh out the aroma of the sandalwood.

 

At some point in the life of the attar, the sandalwood and rose drop away completely, revealing the warm saltwater taffy of that wonderful ambergris.  The switch is complete, leaving very little overlap between the first layer (sandalwood-rose) and the second (ambergris).  However, when the two main players of any attar are as incredible as natural sandalwood and ambergris, then it matters not if they aren’t seamlessly knitted together.  Majan is first rate work, and my personal favorite from the older Amouage line just behind Badr al Badour.

 

 

 

Memphis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sandalwood, Spicey [sic] Berries, Egyptian Musk, Citrus, Heliotrope

 

 

I am beginning to suspect that the strangely waxy-gluey nuance at the top of most NAVA blends is their version of sandalwood.  Pitched halfway between furniture polish and vegetable oil, it casts an unattractive layer of sealing wax over the other notes, obscuring and muffling their sound to such an extent that one sometimes smells very little indeed.  I am at a loss to name what natural or synthetic sandalwood smells like this, but its blond, pale nature does indeed suggest a sandalwood note of some derivation.

 

As with most NAVA blends, the muffling wax ladled over the opening of Memphis eventually dissipates somewhat to reveal something of the underlying structure, which here consists of sharp fruit, citrus, and an accord that I would describe as ‘generic men’s aftershave’.  Mixing with the blandly oily sandalwood, this forms an accord that is both fresh-bitter and milky-gluey.  This might have been a better perfume had the dial been moved more definitively towards one or the other, but as it is, Memphis is the epitome of ‘almost there-ness’.  I don’t think Elvis would have been particularly moved by this either. 

 

 

 

Mysore 1984 (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This oil, a vintage Mysore oil unearthed and verified by Ensar Oud himself, was allegedly stored for decades in a rusty old tin by a guy who had no idea he was sitting on a pot of gold.  (Maybe it is true, I don’t know. In the artisanal sector, swallowing a bit of guff comes with the territory).  Anyway, in what seems to be an almost predictable piece of good fortune, the same vendor managed to unearth a second tin of the same oil, sold it to Ensar, and is now once again available for purchase.  As ever, once it is gone, it is gone.  Perhaps by the time this Guide finally gets published, it is already a relic.

 

Griping about implausible backstory aside, the 1984 Mysore from Ensar Oud is, for me, the epitome of what a Mysore sandalwood oil should smell like.  Most people smelling Mysore sandalwood for the first time are surprised at how distant it is from the fantasy version presented in commercial perfumery, where a cocktail of sandalwood synthetics and vanilla are used to fluff out its proportions to stadium-filling volume.

 

Having said that, Mysore 1984 smells more like the fantasy of Mysore sandalwood long held in my head than any of my other Mysore samples, meaning it skips completely over the blond “peanutty” and terpenic portions of Mysore to get straight to the meat of the aroma.  It is boomingly sweet, indecently rich, red-brown in aroma, and possessed of an incensey depth suggestive of resin and amber.

 

In fact, this oil does not possess any peanut-shell rawness at all, displaying instead a gouty roundness suggestive of maturity.  It teeters between sweet and salty, perhaps tipping the scales a little more towards sugar than the salt.  But it contains just enough resin and wood notes to counter the sweetness, and so everything is held in perfect balance.   Later, the oil develops that dry-creamy push-pull effect so characteristic of fine Mysore – the buttery, sour cream facets pushing back against the dry, aromatic dustiness inherent to sandalwood.  I love it in the wistful, quasi-resentful way one loves any non-renewable resource.  

 

 

 

Mysore Sandalwood (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: essential oil

 

 

At first, this oil is quite sharp, green, and bitter.  It also smells smoky, as if the oil has crossed paths with a campfire. Immediately detectable are the keenly terpenic, head-spinning rawness that sandalwood shares with industrial glue, which makes me think that the oil is genuine but just needs to settle a bit.

 

The next stage is more characteristic of Santalum album, with its salted peanut savor and cloudy milkiness.  However, it lacks the fatty, double-creamed body of the other samples, and comes across as a sort of de-fatted version of the real thing.  With its brusque, astringent woodiness, it reminds me more of the inside of a wood carver’s workshop than a true Mysore.  It is perfectly nice, but not worth the price I paid for it, which was $25 for one milliliter.

 

 

 

Mysore Sandalwood (via Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Josh Lobb very kindly included a sample of Mysore sandalwood oil in an order I made with him in 2017, presumably the same sandalwood he uses in Slumberhouse blends that feature it prominently, such as Grev.  It is always interesting to smell the oils and absolutes that artisanal, small-batch perfumers use in their perfumes, because if the customer is not going to be wearing it neat, then the raw material or essential oil itself does not have to display the same range of nuances or subtleties – it just has to be strong enough to make its voice heard over a cacophony of other materials.

 

This is the case here: the sample smells rather pungent and cheesey, like a Laotian plantation oud oil with lots of stale, dusty ‘off notes’ that might make wearing it neat a bit of a trial.  However, in a blend, it is potent and creamy enough to broadcast a message of ‘sandalwood’ in large neon letters, which is all that is really required of it.  Worn neat, the drydown of the oil smells furry and slightly foul, as if cross-contaminated with deer musk or ambergris.

 

 

 

Mystery Indian Oil

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Kindly included in a care package of attar and oil samples sent to me by an American-Indian friend, this oil seems to be a no-name oil picked up in one of the perfume shops in Mumbai or Delhi, of which there are hundreds.  I include it here because, although its provenance is murky, its aroma is somewhat typical of what one might expect of an oil like this, and therefore my description might be of use.

 

The topnotes smell tainted, as if it has encountered heavy metals, rubber tubing, and smoke, before being filtered to remove most – but not all – of the impurities.  Many sandalwood oils, especially the cheaper ones, smell contaminated in this manner, but with a bit of patience, one can learn to tolerate and even appreciate the odd little bits of detritus floating in and around the pure sandal aroma.  Similarly, one of my favorite Western niche sandalwood perfumes – Etro’s Sandalo eau de cologne – smells like an industrial accident at first but ultimately manages to frame it as an elegant quirk rather than a defect.

 

What makes the mystery Indian oil a bit different, however, is its strong current of sour, greenish terpenes and nail varnish, making me suspect that the oil has been cut with paraffin, D.O.P., or a low quality santalum spiccatum.  This ‘inferior wood’ impression dissipates after a while, allowing us to glimpse the smoky, buttery sandal aroma lurking underneath.  It is more sandalwood-ish than truly sandalwoody, but again, I have smelled far worse.

 

The best way to describe the sandal oils one buys in Indian shops is that they put on a good impression of real sandalwood oil, but only in fits and bursts.  This oil is no exception.  Its smoky-creamy midsection is genuinely pleasing, but when a sharp, aftershavey base arrives to obscure the sandal, it gives up any pretense of being real sandalwood.  Still, the fresh, almost bitter shaving foam finish to this oil would make it a good option for men who prefer barbershop-style sandalwoods over the sweet, creamy version that women instinctively prefer.

 

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 Ava Luxe, Oil of Sandalwood, Arcana, NAVA, Possets, Alkemia, Amouage, Al Rehab, and Gulab Singh Johrimal. The samples from Ensar Oud, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Clive Christian were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. Other samples were kindly donated to me by Josh Lobb and 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: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

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

Sandalwood: A Primer

23rd March 2022

 

 

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

 

Why is Santalum album so magical?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Unsplash

 

Is that Mysore sandalwood in my attar?

 

Honestly? Probably not.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

What does real Mysore sandalwood smell like anyway?

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

 

The Other Sandalwoods: If Not Mysore, then What?

 

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

 

 

Santalum album – Tamil Nadu type

 

 

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

 

Aroma: Creamy, sweet, with a Mysore tonality.

 

 

 

Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Santalum austrocaledonicum (Vanuatu and New Caledonia types)

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Australian plantation-grown Santalum album

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Amyris balsamifera

 

 

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

 

Aroma: clean, terpenic, with bitter, smoky topnotes

 

 

 

Sandalwood synthetics

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

 

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

Ambergris Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Review The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Ambergris Reviews G-Y

4th March 2022

 

Ghaliyah Kacheri (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

An ambergris-forward version of the Ghaliyah series produced by Rising Phoenix Perfumery. Ghaliyah Kacheri adds a Hindi oud oil to the blueprint, but surprisingly, the Hindi keeps its big mouth shut until the far reaches of the drydown. What is most noticeable at first is the creamy, apple-peel freshness of champaca flower mixed with a silky, wheaten sandalwood-ambergris foundation. There is a golden tone to it, like flowers drenched in the saltwater glitter of ambergris.

 

The sour smoke of the Hindi oud breaks through after an hour, fusing with the salty, creamy florals to give the scent the patina of aged woods, leather, and campfire smoke. The contrast between the fermented funk of the Hindi and the rosy, shampoo brightness of the champaca is the key to its charm. Ghaliyah Kacheri is a clever and unusual floral ambergris with a great payoff. Sillage-wise, however, be aware this version is quite muted compared to the other Ghaliyah mukhallats in the series.

 

 

 

Molook (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Molook is a paean to the glories of two of the stinkiest raw materials in all of perfumery, namely, ambergris and the most animalic of Hindi oud oils – the kind revered in the Emirati market. The Hindi is up front in all its creamy, sheep-cheesy glory. But it is the ambergris that really shines in this mukhallat. Redolent with the fetid marine stink of the softer, darker types of ambergris, the note still bears some resemblance to its original whale dung sheathing. Its fecal warmth acts as a magnifying glass for the oud, heating it up until a three-dimensional picture of animal fur has been rendered.

 

I suspect that many Western noses might be initially put off by the hot, sour blue cheese aroma that swells up on the skin the minute you dab it on. But that is just Hindi oud for you. Its heavy breath of fermentation and tanned leather is what most people in the Arabian Peninsula identify as the real smell of oud.

 

Although I personally prefer the smell of what is marketed these days as Cambodi oud – fruitier, sweeter, and less animalic – there is no denying that something about Hindi oud keeps my nose returning to my wrist. Its odd sourness is deeply compelling, and more mysterious and interesting overall than Cambodi oud. The aroma of the Hindi oud settles eventually, becoming rounder and warmer (although not sweeter) as the ambergris takes over, softening the blunt twang of the oud with its salty, musky glow.

 

Insofar as any mukhallat can be said to lean towards one gender or another, Molook leans masculine. It is fascinating to wear, especially for those interested in getting a picture of what a high quality Hindi oud or natural ambergris smells like.

 

 

Photo by roberta errani on Unsplash

 

Pure Amber (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Like so many mukhallats with the word ‘amber’ in their title, this is not amber at all but rather, ambergris.  To anyone unfamiliar with ambergris – or indeed to anyone actually expecting amber – the opening could prove to be quite a shock. It is as earthy and stale as a clod of soil freshly dug up beside a marina where the carcasses of several marine mammals have begun to slowly rot. There is a distinct dung-like facet to the aroma but let me reassure you that the damp soil effect ensures the scent remains fresh-dirty rather than fecal-dirty.

 

Many ambergris oils or blends have a natural line of intersection with civet. But Amber makes it clear that this is a different animal altogether. Ambergris is a little stinky in that slightly rude, open-hearted way of farmland and the seaside, but not at all sharp, like civet can be. Pure Amber showcases the earthy, fungal undertones of ambergris, with a sideswipe of fresh horse dung for good measure. It warms up into the pleasant scent of freshly-mucked-out stable, complete with nuances of clean earth and warm straw. Equestrians and horse enthusiasts will understand that this is the scent of beauty itself.

 

Later, other nuances drift into the picture, principally an arid, aromatic sandalwood, and the vanillic smell of old books. It is at this stage that one realizes that Pure Amber is really a simple blend of two exquisite materials – white ambergris and sandalwood. The drydown is a careful balance between the nutty warmth of sandalwood and the mineralic radiance of ambergris. Those obsessed with the evocative scent of antique bookstores and long, windswept Atlantic beaches may want to lay their souls on the line for a sample.

 

 

 

Royal Amber Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Royal Amber Blend is a lower-priced reiteration of the Royal Amber AA Blend, below, and therefore a more streamlined version of the same basic scent profile. Like its progenitor, it features a medicinal, iodine-tinged amber note over a funky grade of ambergris. However, Royal Amber Blend lacks the sweet, taffy-like depth of the labdanum in the original. Instead, it is unsweet, greenish, and moldy in the vein of sepulchral ambers like Ambra Nera (Farmacia SS. Annunziata), occupying a sourish register that will be unfamiliar to those used to the vanillic ambers of mainstream perfumery. With its muscular, briny-herbaceous undertones, Royal Amber Blend actually smells far more Indian than Middle Eastern in style.

 

 

 

Photo by Maskmedicare Shop on Unsplash

 

Royal Amber AA Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A very complex and interesting mukhallat. As with most mukhallats, it doesn’t have the traditional top-down structure that we are used to with Western alcohol-based spray perfumes. Instead, when it is first dabbed onto the skin, the notes appear as a thick blanket of scent before spreading out in concentric waves to reveal the basic facets of the scent. Body heat intensifies and warms the notes so that they become ever more radiant. 

 

Royal Amber is primarily all about the ambergris. The ambergris note is unabashedly inky and medicinal at first, denoting the helping hand of saffron, a material with iodine-like properties. This combination pulls the scent down a hospital corridor towards the operating theatre in much the same way that White Oud (Montale) does.

 

While the iodine note never disappears entirely, it is soon joined by the more attractive facets of natural ambergris, namely newspaper and sweet marine air. After a protracted period of salty sea air, the central accord takes on a far thicker and tarrier nuance, indicating the use of soft, dung-like black ambergris or, at the very least, a dark grey-brown specimen. The tarry facet is further accentuated by an unlisted labdanum resin. In its combination of sweet, sticky resins and animalic, leathery notes, Royal Amber shares common ground with the earlier Slumberhouse releases, such as Vikt and Sova.

 

Hearty, a bit rough around the edges, and with a one-two punch of ambergris and labdanum, Royal is simple but incredibly satisfying. It strikes me as the perfect scent for someone who spends a lot of time outdoors on beaches or in forests, preferring the scent of sticky tree sap and sea salt on their skin to the smell of perfume.

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Royal Amber Spirit AAA (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

It is educational to apply Royal Amber Spirit AAA side by side with ASAQ’s slightly lower-priced amber blend, Amber Jewels. There is a price difference of approximately $100, but the step up in quality and complexity is greater than the price differential suggests. While Amber Jewels is a straightforward portrait of ambergris, Royal Amber Spirit AAA dresses the ambergris up in exotic jewels and finery.

 

Amber Jewels is light in texture and body, with a slightly raw, marine quality that persists for most of the fragrance, before fading into the caramelized tones of labdanum amber in the base. It smells fresh – ozonic almost – as if filtered through a herb-laden breeze carried straight from the ocean.

 

Royal Amber Spirit, on the other hand, is immediately heavier and more sweetly ambery. Although the raw marine quality of ambergris is present and correct upon application, it quickly becomes fused with a luxuriant, balsamic amber that feels pashmina-thick. Compared to Amber Jewels, it is infinitely more textured and three-dimensional. It maintains a salty-n-sweet ambergris tenor almost all the way through, though it is pleasurably muffled by a waxy layer of amber in the final stretch. A judicious dose of dusty spice – saffron, cinnamon, and clove perhaps – swims around in the treacle-like murk of the amber, adding a pleasant heat. What emerges is a warm, dusty leather with rich, balsamic touches.

 

There is also, I believe, a touch of sweet myrrh – opoponax – in the mix, present in the form of a bubbling, golden resin that encompasses both the waxy, honeyed texture of almond butter and the verdant bite of lavender. The opoponax adds a herbaceous dimension that freshens the breath of the scent’s resinous backdrop. The scent finishes in a blaze of ambery-woody warmth that, though now lacking the salty radiance of ambergris, still feels multi-dimensional in scope.

 

I recommend Royal Amber Spirit AAA to serious ambergris fans with a discerning palate and the means with which to pay for it. Be warned that it is tremendously expensive at $469 per tola, give or take. Is it worth the price of admission? In my opinion, yes.

 

 

Royal Ambergris (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Coming as close to the aroma of an ambergris tincture as one can get in oil format, Royal Ambergris is a superb ambergris attar. It shares similarities with both Sweet Blue Amber by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Amouage’s Amber attar but is drier than the former, and more natural in feel than the latter.

 

At first, it smells of clean marine silt and low tide, but then smooths out into the enticing aroma of warm hay, clean horse stables, fresh sea air, and the great outdoors. Later, a tiny bit of golden sweetness creeps in. In general, this is an ambergris that tilts more towards earth and tobacco than resin. Highly recommended both for layering and wearing alone.

 

 

 

Sandal Ambergris (Aloes of Ish)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

As advertised, ambergris and sandalwood. The ambergris opening is earthy to the point of smelling like freshly-cut mushrooms caked in black soil. The fungal dampness feels clean and saline rather than sweet.

 

After a transition that smells of wet and then dry newspapers, the emphasis shifts to the sandalwood in the base. At this price level ($20 or so per quarter tola), it is improbable that this is pure Indian sandalwood. But even if the natural oils are fluffed out a little by synthetic sandalwood, the overall effect smells so natural that it is difficult to find fault. The sandalwood accord is buttery, salty, papery, dry, and aromatic. It is also durable, lasting for the better part of an entire day.

 

It is interesting to compare something like Sandal Ambergris with the Santal Ambergris tincture by Abdes Salaam Attar (La Via del Profumo). Both address the same theme and focus on the same two materials, and though one is all natural and the other not, they are both very pleasing takes. As always, however, you get what you pay for. The quality in the La Via del Profumo version is clearly superior, while the Aloes of Ish oil involves a little bit of willful fantasizing on the part of the wearer.

 

 

Saqr II  (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: mukhallat

                                                                  

 

Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.

 

The play of light on dark is well executed. The tart green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.

 

The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. There is even a little tobacco-ish sweetness thanks to the ambergris. However, typical for the house, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes it such a masterful example of its genre.

 

Saqr II is complex, beautiful, and above all, easy to wear. I love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer on the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, it is one of the most beautiful perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling in my life.

 

 

 

 

Sweet Blue Amber (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Sweet Blue Amber is essentially a hunk of brownish-grey ambergris left to macerate in carrier oil until maximum halitosis has been achieved. The first time I tried it, I was repelled. The opening howl of civet struck me as foul, and the body of the scent thin and wafty. It smelled uncomfortably like someone with very poor dental hygiene breathing on me in a packed space. 

 

But now, with several years of ambergris experience under my belt, I can say that Sweet Blue Amber is just a very faithful rendition of grey or brown ambergris. This grade of ambergris is admittedly funky, but it eventually mellows out into a salty, skin-like scent that is very sensual in an organic way.

 

I like to layer Sweet Blue Amber under certain Western scents like Shalimar or Mitsouko to add a bodily funk missing from the modern versions. Jacques Guerlain once said that all his perfumes contained something of his mistress’ undercarriage in them, but even he would have scandalized at what Shalimar smells like with a layer of Sweet Amber Blue lurking beneath. Shalimar doctored in this way smells utterly carnal, the ferocious civety skank of the Sweet Blue Amber glowing hotly through the smoky vanilla of Shalimar, like tires on fire at a bacchanal.

 

A bottle of Sweet Blue Amber could be a brilliant DIY solution to fixing perfumes in your collection that have lost their animalic spark through reformulation, age, or the banning of nitro musks. Imagine the current versions of Bal a Versailles and No. 5 restored to their former animalic glory. The possibilities seem endless. Buy a tiny bottle of Sweet Amber Blue and have fun with it!

 

 

Photo by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash

 

Truffe Blanche (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Truffe Blanche is so-named because it contains white Alba truffle extract, orris pallida, and white ambergris from the West of Ireland. However, it does not smell particularly ‘white’, at least not in the manner that most people would interpret it in the context of a scent, i.e., creamy, cloudy, milky, icy in texture, with lots of white musks, blond woods, and so on.

 

Instead, Truffe Blanche is quite an earthy, dusty scent, its character driven in the main by a smoky birch tar, which loses no time in mopping up all the juicy sweetness of the Meyer lemon and florals used up top. Thanks to the benzoin, birch, a charred (meaty) guaiac wood, and white ambergris, Truffle Blanche smells most enticingly of old books, desiccated wood, soot, black leather, and the remnants of ash in the grate. The camphoraceous facet of benzoin is in evidence here, too, but the scent never feels fresh or minty.

 

As the scent develops, a few of the sweeter, more animalic notes make a run for it. Escaping from underneath the rafters of that leathery dust are a bittersweet ‘roasted’ caramel note, a dry vanilla bean, and a pungent, honeyed civet. The contrast between dusty library papers and syrupy-dirty civet is tremendously effective. Truffe Blanche succeeds because it manages to both smell great on the skin and evoke a place or a mood. 

 

Oddly, Truffe Blanche smells very differently on the skin compared to on the toothpick I used to fish out a drop. On wood, it smells immediately like a dry, caramelized vanilla – almost purely white ambergris and benzoin, with a faint smudge of soiled panties. On the skin, the dusty, smoky effects of the birch tar are far more in evidence and linger longer. However, it is worth noting that it too winds up in the same dry, ambergris-civet vanilla and benzoin track.

 

Truffe Blanche is, for me, one of the all-time standouts of the Sultan Pasha Attar range. If you too love the scent of dry vanilla pods, white ambergris, books, and dusty libraries, then this is most definitely worth your time.

 

 

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

 

Sheikh al Faransi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Sheikh al Faransi is a bestial blend of ambergris, oud, and amber that is intensely evocative of the sea, mountains, earth, and rot. It opens on a note of sweet varnishy decay, like a mixture of mold on an apple and mildewy furniture left to fester in an abandoned mansion. Something about the blend seems on the verge of collapse, which introduces the thrill of uncertainty.

 

Slowly the halitosis stink of grey-brown ambergris begins to peek out through the woody rot, bringing with it its unique alchemy of sea air, silt, and horsehair. It is met with a light dusting of icing sugar, likely an amber and sandalwood sweetener placed there to offset the suggestive saltiness of the ambergris.

 

For the longest time, the perfume lingers in a midsection of sea salt and sweet powdered amber. But the drydown is pure ambergris in the fullness of its mammalian splendor. It is gorgeous, and 180° removed from its rotting, feral, damply-fruited start. For a mukhallat, it is decidedly non-linear and exciting to wear. Recommended to those who are looking for a wild ride.

 

 

 

silencethesea (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

silencethesea immediately joins the ranks of ambergris perfumes to try before you die. Although there are other notes or materials, to my nose, this smells as close to a pure ambergris tincture as is possible in niche perfumery.

 

Ambergris can smell very differently from piece to piece, grade to grade, etc., but the ambergris in silencethesea smells like a deserted beach in winter. It has a dry, oceanic smell, like the smell of stones and rocks left to dry in the sun after the tide has gone out. Dry salt, minerals, and the stony loneliness of inanimate objects on a beach with no people around to witness it.

 

Silencethesea smells completely organic to me – elemental, and a bit wild. It has the type of aroma that one finds utterly normal in nature but does not expect to find in a personal perfume, and thus, it feels shocking. It is raw and slightly intimate.

 

There is no warmth to the aroma, apart from the vague funkiness inherent to ambergris that reminds us that this is a substance that originated in the intestine of an animal. Wearing it is like wearing no perfume at all, because it smells more like the cold air in one’s skin and hair after a long, solitary walk on a windswept beach than a perfume. This is not a perfume for community or cuddling or clubbing. It is for the pleasures of solitude.

 

 

Photo by Shibi Zidhick on Unsplash

 

White Cedar Rose (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This scent is dominated by a buttery, grass-fed coconut milk accord with an oddly meaty ‘lime peel’ quality to it. Coconut can smell both creamy and savory, an effect that is pushed to breaking point here. In fact, if beaten any further, one suspects that the lactonic accord at the heart of White Cedar Rose would start forming small lumps of butter.

 

The cedar helps stabilize things by bulking out the coconut milk and adding a saline muskiness. But the citrusy, rosy brightness that cuts through the salted butter and coconut is what ultimately turns this simple coconut tanning cream into a delightful rum-and-coconut cocktail treat not far removed from Creed’s Virgin Island Water.

 

Once the crazy lactones calm down a bit, I can perceive more clearly where the beefy saltiness is coming from – a golden, toffee-like, but also downright marshy ambergris and civet pairing in the base. The creaminess of the coconut and the bright lime notes slot into place over this sexy, skin-like ambergris for a result that is just wonderful. The clean smokiness of the cedar notes combines with the salty, sweaty skin notes and coconut milk to conjure an image of steamy lumberyards and beaches. If you love Virgin Island Water by Creed, Sex and the Sea by Francesca Bianchi, or even Cadjmere by Parfumerie Generale, then make it a priority to sample White Cedar Rose.

 

 

 

Yeti Attar 2012 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is the single best double billing of ambergris and sandalwood currently in production. (Though, given the ominous 2012 tag in the title, I am not so sure about the ‘currently in production’ bit). Still, if you can get it, you are in for quite the experience. Yeti Attar coats the skin in a liquid hug of savory-sweet sandalwood with nuances of creamed coconut, peanut shell, and melted Irish butter. There is little better, when you are a sandalwood lover, than smelling the real deal and in such generous amounts.

 

Yeti Attar has a relatively simple structure – sandalwood, then ambergris, and then sandalwood again, like the best sandwich you ever ate but don’t remember ordering. When materials are as good as these – like the best conversationalists at a party – your job is simply to introduce them to each other and then leave them alone to do their thing. The ambergris used here is a subtle, golden one, with a spectrum of aromas ranging from earthy tobacco to damp newspaper and finally to dry, salty newspapers left out on a beach to curl up and yellow at the edges.

 

It is difficult to smell the ambergris in its totality when you smell it directly from the skin, and in fact, its nuances only reveal themselves in full when sniffed alongside something else on your other hand. This phenomenon is true of all attars featuring the finest grades of white ambergris – the scent profile is hauntingly subtle but its effect on the overall scent profound and noticeable. Once my nose smells another attar, and then returns to the Yeti Attar, I suddenly grasp all the facets of the ambergris used. Strange sensation!

 

The ambergris used here is soft, earthy, saliva-ish, intimate, and golden, like just-licked skin. It is not overbearing, dirty, or animalic in a horsey way. Yeti Attar 2012 is sensual and delicate to the point of being ethereal. A must-try for any sandalwood and ambergris lover.

 

 

 

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, Maison Anthony Marmin, Arabian Oud, and Mellifliuence. The samples from Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Strangelove NYC, Al Shareef Oudh and Sultan Pasha were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. The sample from Aloes of Ish was sent to me by a Basenotes friend.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

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

The Attar Guide: Ambergris Reviews A-E

2nd March 2022

 

 

Afrah (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The only nice thing I can say about Afrah is that its three-way clash between the fruity, musky ‘shampoo’ aroma of champaca flowers, the licorice-like basil, and the marine bilge unpleasantness of a soft, pooey (black) ambergris is, uh, original.

 

The opening is heady, with the champaca taking on the form of sticky peach syrup mashed into a sweaty clump of indolic flowers.  The basil gives the champaca a salty, minty licorice kick that lightens the load somewhat, but, in general, Afrah is heavy going.  There is something indigestible about its cyanide-ish brew of white flowers, honey, peach, and bitter almond. It is alluring and toxic in equal measure, reminding me of Hypnotic Poison (Dior) in feel, if not in aroma.

 

My main objection is that the civety stink of the ambergris refuses to play well with the other notes.  It manages to recreate with uncomfortable accuracy the sweaty, sugared pungency of the skin of someone with a medical condition like Type 2 diabetes.  I think should stop here lest I offend anyone who loves it.

 

 

Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash 

 

Ambergris Civet Caramel (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris Civet Caramel opens with a blast of intensely aromatic aromas, chief among them the ferrous twang of burnt caramel and the bitter, woody edge of freshly-ground Arabica beans.  In fact, the aroma is so true to life that it feels like you are standing directly behind the barista at some artisanal Ethiopian joint while they grind the beans to go into your pour-over.

 

The bitter char on the caramel saves the blend from excessive sweetness, and the coffee grounds give it a woody edge that is a pleasant surprise in a scent with the word caramel in its title.  Red-gold hints of maple syrup and autumn leaves thread through the coffee and caramel gloom, making me wonder if that a touch of immortelle has been roped in to add its handsome, late October sunshine appeal.

 

The ambergris makes its presence known very quickly for such a bolshy crew, elbowing past the maple caramel, singed coffee grounds, and autumn leaves to assert its marshy presence.  The ambergris used in this blend manifests as an unclean combination of licked skin and unwashed hair.  This salty funk blends well with the dry caramel for an effect that is far woodier and far less gourmand that one might imagine.

 

Gourmand fans – try this.  But be aware that you really need to love less conventionally pleasing accords, such as burned coffee grounds and salty marine funk, to fully appreciate it.  Fans of the half-edible, half-woody Parfumerie Generale scents such as Coze and Aomassaï will click with it.  Pink Sugar lovers need not bother.

 

 

 

Ambergris Grade I (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris Grade I is an interesting take on ambergris.  It does not initially smell of ambergris, but rather of bright soapy lemon and indeterminate fruits.  Later, however, hints of an outdoorsy sweetness with a side order of salt and lightly-toasted tobacco leaf signal its presence.  Most tinctures of white ambergris share a certain lightness of aroma that smells very little of anything save for mineralic rocks baking in sunshine and fresh sea air.  And this is the case here.

 

The mineralic glow of this grade of ambergris is the same as that used in exclusive Western perfumes such as the now-discontinued (but brilliant) Angelique Encens by Creed, and the glittery Encens Mythique d’Orient (Guerlain).  Not only does ambergris act as a fixative in these perfumes, but it magnifies the effect of the other materials – incense, rose – rendering their texture airy and almost effervescent.  The cool thing about Ambergris Grade I is that it allows us to study this effect in isolation.

 

 

 

Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya is less of an ambergris scent and more an archetypal attar smell, i.e.,  starchy saffron and high-pitched roses blended together.  This familiar rose-saffron pairing is enormously popular and thus finds traction in every single attar house.  The problem is that it runs the risk of being a little too familiar.  Either you have to put a twist on it for it to stand out or else you produce a version that out-exquisites all others in the crowded field.  Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya, though competent, fails to do either.

 

The model makes sense from a compositional point of view.  The pungency of the leathery saffron is mitigated by the soft sweetness of the rose, and in return, the rose gains a backbone.  This rose-saffron attar idea has been lifted wholesale into Western perfumery.  Most Western oud-themed niche perfumes are constructed around a central axis of rose and saffron, with a dollop of synthetic oud added in for extra screech woodiness.  This template, repeated from brand to brand, has inculcated in Western customers such a strong association between the materials of oud, rose, and saffron that, like Pavlov’s dog, all we have to do is smell saffron and we fill in the oud blank on our own.

 

And this is what happens here.  When you first smell Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya, the spicy rose-saffron duet makes the mind flash on oud.  There is no oud here, of course.  However, if you are a Westerner and want to have a rosy saffron mukhallat that recalls the traditional rose-oud-saffron triad without paying oud prices, then Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya may do the job.  It is a somewhat traditional, sharp, and spicy blend, tilted towards the austere.

 

The delicate sweetness of ambergris is nowhere to be found in this scent.  It is missing, presumed dead under the pungent weight of the other materials.  Briefly there is the suggestion of something radiant, sparkling, and metallic lifting the spice and flowers, which could be the cited ambergris.  But in terms of actual aroma, the ambergris is undetectable.  It is simply a decent rose and saffron mukhallat.

 

 

 

Ambergris Taifi (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The thrillingly tart, peppery scent of the Ta’ifi rose fills the nose upon application.  The scent of a Ta’ifi rose always reminds me of a raw beef filet encrusted in green peppercorns and harsh lemon peel, and this bears true here.  However, this version of Ta’ifi rose is far softer than the purer versions I have smelled from both Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Al Shareef Oudh.  Its lack of purity translates into a smell that is less pungent, which might be more appealing to noses unused to the nose-searing properties of the unadulterated stuff.

 

This mukhallat possibly contains a small quantity of Ta’ifi rose mixed with a greater quantity of rosa damascena oil from another region, such as Turkey or Bulgaria.  Or it might be that only Bulgarian rosa damascena was used, as rose oil harvested from Bulgaria features many of the same sour, herbaceous aspects of the Ta’ifi rose.  Either way, it doesn’t really matter (except to a purist) for this rose note is sublime – fresh, tart, with a pickled lemon edge that makes you want to smack your lips.

 

Ambergris Taifi becomes rosier and creamier as it develops, blooming into a rich and durable red rose accord that shimmers on top of the golden, salt-marsh ambergris beneath.  The ambergris does not assert its presence strongly aside from a salty radiance.  Instead, it acts as a heat lamp, magnifying the rose and causing it to vibrate in 3D splendor.  The blend finishes in a blaze of salted caramel and rose, casting a pink glow around the wearer.  For those who can stomach the price, this is a great rose-ambergris mukhallat.

 

 

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

 

Ambergris White Blackberry (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Fruit is difficult to capture well in attar and mukhallat perfumery because there are no natural enfleurages or extracts of fruit, leaving the perfumer with the choice between Jolly Rancher synthetics or naturals with a somewhat fruity character, like osmanthus or ylang.  Berries in particular are hard to get right.

 

When a synthetic fruit note is used alongside a bunch of naturals, its synthetic character can often become painfully apparent, like plopping a fake Nike trainer down beside an authentic one.  Place a fruit synthetic alongside real ambergris, for example, and it has the potential to stick out and catch on you, like a clothes pin forgotten inside a sweater.

 

Thankfully, this is not the case in Ambergris White Blackberry.  The blackberry note, though certainly synthetic, manages to be dark, plump, and slightly syrupy, with none of the ‘overexposed photograph’ shrillness of most synthetic berry notes.  This is probably due to the softening effect provided by a tandem of sweet, creamy amber and the earthy, musty ambergris.  Neither the amber nor the ambergris clouds the structure, however.  The texture remains crystalline, allowing the luscious berry to shine through uninterrupted. 

 

There is also a momentary hit of spice – cinnamon or clove perhaps – but this recedes quickly, leaving the focus on the blackberry.  The blackberry note is fleshy, but thankfully, doesn’t attempt photorealism.  It is more the suggestion of pulp and stained fingers than the metallic brightness of most synthetic berry notes.

 

Two ambery accords are notable here.  First, a traditional amber accord with perhaps a hint of maltol, acting like a simple sugar syrup to buffer the first explosion of berry flavors upon application.  Then, the earthy, almost fungal tones of the ambergris, which here smell like a clod of clean, wet marine soil freshly dug up near a harbor.  The mixture of the sweet and earthy really makes this an amber-ambergris duet really worth wearing.

 

This is one of the few fruity mukhallats that I can recommend without reservation, even to those who normally find fruit notes in perfumery off-putting.  The sweet, earthy magic of the ambergris is suggestive of the ground from which the blackberry bushes sprang, giving us the full blackberry-picking fantasy of ripe fruit, leaves, and humus-rich forest floor.  A true Pan’s Labyrinth scent.

 

 

Photo by emy on Unsplash

 

Ambergris White Chocolate Opium (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris White Chocolate Opium opens with a rich, nutty accord that smells like the steam that rises off a pan of flaked almonds fried gently in brown sugar.  This accord is enrobed in a silky white chocolate casing that manages to be creamy without being sweet.  Think translucent nut nougat dipped in artisanal white chocolate, with perhaps a tiny sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper for contrast.  It is admirably restrained, teetering on the edge of full-on gourmand territory but ultimately pulling back to give you a taste of chocolate and nuts without any of the calories, bloating, or regret.

 

Slowly, the ambergris in the blend begins to make its presence known.  A sweet and salty smell, full of brisk air and sunshine.  There is something of old paper here but also freshly upturned soil.  There is the sleepy suggestion of mustiness, like the mildewy aroma that clings to clothes taken out of storage for the winter season.  This aroma is not unpleasant because it never comes across to the nose as unnatural.  It simply mirrors the familiar scents of home, namely, closed-up closets, earth, newspapers, salt, vanilla extract, and the crumbed tobacco leaves from cigarettes. 

 

Unfortunately, the rich white chocolate accord does not last past the first hour and is disappointingly faint from the second hour onwards.  Longevity is good, but with the scent whittling down to a mere shadow of itself within hours, it is like buying an expensive balloon at a fairground and having it deflate to the size of a condom within minutes.  Still, something about the smell of salty, creamy white chocolate in Ambergris White Chocolate Opium is so pleasing that one is tempted to forgive its wimpy performance metrics.  Maybe.

 

 

 

Ambergris White Gold (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris White Gold is a great option for those who like the idea of ambergris but can’t deal with its often very animalic properties that often resemble halitosis, low-tide effluents, and dirty horse stables.  This is the friendliest, most approachable ambergris mukhallat on the block.  Opening with a thick caramel note so intense it approaches bitterness, Ambergris White Gold soon evens out into a musty, vanillic accord that smells like a cross between Communion wafers and old paper.  Underneath these softly sugared ‘white’ elements, there is an undertow of stale saliva and warm horse flank.  These notes merely nod at the presence of real ambergris but are not dirty enough to scare the truly skank-averse.

 

The blend is based on white ambergris, which is the finest and most expensive grade of ambergris.  White ambergris does not smell foul – in fact, it barely has a smell at all other than the scent of fresh, mineral seaside air.  If you smell white ambergris for a long time, you will also notice the subtle aroma of sea salt, paper, vanilla, and tobacco leaves.  These more delicate properties of ambergris have been enhanced in Ambergris White Gold through the addition of a caramelized amber note up top and a dry, minty vanilla in the base.  The overall effect is of a sweet, papery vanilla with facets of white sugar, pastries, salt, and clean marine air.

 

I recommend Ambergris White Gold to people who like the cleaner, sweeter side of ambergris, as well as to those who love gourmand notes such as salted caramel, pastry, vanilla, and mint toffee.  The closest equivalent to this in the niche sector would be Dzing! by L’Artisan Parfumeur, which employs a similar gourmand approach to an animalic material (musk).  Think of Ambergris White Gold as a sheaf of old manuscript papers, grown dusty and sweet with time, and finally, lowered into steaming vats of hot condensed milk and sea salt.

 

 

 

Amber Jewels (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Lovers of ambergris owe it to themselves to smell something like Amber Jewels at least once in their life, if only to establish a benchmark for quality.  The notes list says ambergris only, but forget that, as there is clearly a lot of labdanum doing the heavy lifting in the lower register.  The opening is pure marine air, thick, pungent, but also hyper-clean, as if all the elements have been doused in disinfectant.  It smells huge with a capital H – a hulking block of dusty rock, baking in the sun, the air fizzing with hot sea minerals, salt, and ozone.

 

Under the dusty minerals and caked-on sea salt, there is something balsamic shifting, keeping everything moist.  This comes across as something thick, tarry and black, with a rubbery sweetness in its undertow.  This charred rubber is a facet common to many ambergris-based fragrances.  It carries a tinge of smoke too, similar to the petroleum honk of some jasmine materials.  The sweet tar sitting under the marine notes acts as a layer of insulation for the more diffuse ambergris topnotes.

 

The ambergris is eventually joined by a rather masculine leather-amber accord, likely to be labdanum.  This base thickens and sweetens the ambergris somewhat, cloaking its salty sparkle in a dense blanket of leathery resin.  It is important to note, however, that the amber-ambergris accord never tumbles too far down the well of sweetness.  This is not the affably herbaceous amber of, for example, Ambre Precieux (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) or Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens).  In fact, it retains a slightly rough, textured woodiness that is very characterful.  It is precisely this salty, woody edge that will recommend itself to fans of amber scents that walk on the macho side of the fence.   Although not equivalent or even similar in smell, Ambra Meditteranea by Profumi del Forte has a similar brusqueness, so fans of that might want to give this a try. 

 

 

Photo by J Lopes on Unsplash

 

Amber Ood (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Despite the name, Amber Ood is neither amber nor oud but ambergris, and specifically the black, soft kind of ambergris so fresh it resembles the whale turd from whence it came.  Freshly dotted on the skin, Amber Ood smells like old peanut butter, ancient fishing tackle that has been shat on by seagulls, and the halitosis stench of someone who’s dislodged a kernel of corn from their back molars after not having flossed for two months.

 

I would love to be able to tell you that it gets better.

 

Both Indians and Arabs seem to love the fouler pieces of ambergris (black ambergris), finding the smell intensely erotic and skin-like.  But although the smell does eventually reveal some interesting hints of old newspaper, tobacco, and marine soil, Amber Ood retains this turd-cum-halitosis stench all the way through, ceding only to a bitter fir balsam and Ambroxan pairing at the tail end that smells like it has been cross-contaminated with a splash of Dior Sauvage.  The Ambroxan does nothing to mitigate the essential foulness of the smell.  Rather, it accentuates it, broadcasting the stench like an airborne virus.

 

 

 

Ambre du Soleil (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre du Soleil is a bright, lemony frankincense and bergamot blend over a rugged ambergris.  I suspect that the ambergris tincture was made from black ambergris, because there is a softly dung-like aspect to it at first that might seem fecal to some.  It might even have been boosted by a drop of civet.  But mostly this smells like pure ambergris tincture to me, made from a non-white grade of ambergris.

 

Later, the blend develops into a natural, warm marine aroma, with tinges of low tide and earthy, raw tobacco to remind us of its origin.  Ambre du Soleil is an excellent example of the depth that natural ambergris can add to a blend, serving as an amplifying glass for all the other elements in the mix.

 

 

 

Ehsas (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A musky, salty ambergris-based fragrance with more than a lingering air of cheap men’s sports cologne.  Ehas opens with a citrus and white musk combination that is about as comfortable as someone squirting lemon juice into your eye.

 

The ambergris note adds a dirty, musky salinity, and there are some nice green florals in the mix, but really, nothing in this mukhallat distinguishes it beyond the standard Iso E Super- or Ambroxan-powered sports dross so popular in modern masculine perfumery.  If you like this sort of nose-singing rubbish, just buy Sauvage and be done with it.  No need to get fancy schmancy with an attar.

 

 

 

Encens Mythique d’Orient (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Encens Mythique d’Orient by Guerlain is a resinous ambergris fragrance with a bright rose and lots of aldehydes.  It is a rather complex fragrance, and not easy to dupe.  When worn on its own, the dupe captures the general feel of the scent quite well, but worn side by side with the original, some vital differences emerge.

 

The first difference is texture.  The steam-pressed hiss of aldehydes of the original is missing in the dupe, leading to a slightly flattened effect, as if all the air had been let out of the tires.  The original has incredible body and lift, with salty ambergris adding a rough, animalic sparkle.  The dupe lacks the radiance central to the character of the real Encens Mythique d’Orient and therefore most of the point.

 

The other main difference is in the quality of the rose.  Whereas the original uses a sharp Ta’if rose – dry, peppery, and neon pink – the dupe uses an ordinary Turkish rose synth and tries to beef it up by adding a jumble of mint, blackberry, and raspberry notes, a discordant mishmash that doesn’t feature at all in the original.  The dupe is also less finely soapy-musky than the original, veering off instead into berry jam territory.

 

Sometimes, the most important question to ask of dupes is whether someone would mistake it as the original when smelled in isolation, or in the wild.  I think that the dupe is recognizable – just about – as Encens Mythique d’Orient.  But it can only sustain the illusion for a short time.  In the end, the dupe morphs into a blackberry musk with a curiously waxy edge, reminiscent of Mûre et Musc by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  If you are fond of this particular L’Artisan Parfumeur scent, then you will probably like this dupe for what it is, rather than caring about what it is not.  Those specifically in search of Encens Mythique d’Orient, however – well, this ain’t it.  

 

 

 

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 Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Al Haramain, Amouage, Agarscents Bazaar, and Universal Perfumes and Cosmetics. The samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi and Sultan Pasha were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. The sample from Gulab Singh Johrimal was sent to me by a Basenotes friend.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

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

The Attar Guide: Ambergris – A Primer

28th February 2022

What is Ambergris?

 

There is a common belief that ambergris is whale vomit​.  But it is now largely believed to be a waste product from the small intestine of the sperm whale that is excreted from the anus along with its poo.

 
Based on best available evidence, here is how ambergris is thought to be formed:


The sperm whale (a massive mammal) will typically eat up to a ton of squid and other sea creatures a day.   The squid beaks, pens, and other indigestible detritus will build up in one of the whale’s four stomachs until it becomes an irritant, whereupon the whale will vomit most of it up.  However, some of these beaks and indigestible materials pass through to the gastrointestinal tract.

Once in the gastrointestinal tract, the mass that will later become ambergris begins to form around the squid beaks and other detritus.   Because the intestinal tract is really only designed to hold liquid feces and slurry, the whale’s body produces a soft, waxy material to wrap around the beaks and protect the tract from any sharp edges.


This material is thought to be made up of a mixture of ambrein – a fatty cholesterol-type material responsible for the odor of ambergris, bile duct excretions (epicoprostanol), gut effluvia, and liquid feces, which build up to form a solid lump of material called a coprolith.   Over time, the pressure from liquid feces hitting this solid lump of hard material increases, finally propelling the ambergris to be excreted along with the (normal) liquid slurry.

 

That is, if the whale is large enough.  In some cases, smaller whales are unable to pass the ambergris, so the mass continues to build until it tears the rectum, causing the whale to die and the ambergris to be released into the ocean.

 

In other words, ambergris is the result of either a massive poo or a violent death caused by a massive poo.

 

 

It takes time (and seawater) to make good ambergris


When ambergris is freshly excreted, it is soft, black, and dung-like in both shape and odor.   In its fresh state, it is practically useless as a perfumery ingredient.

 

Ambergris bobs around in the open ocean for anywhere between ten to twenty years before washing ashore.  During this time, it is bleached into its familiar grey-white appearance.  The seawater effectively cures and weathers the ambergris, turning it into the hard, waxy substance so prized in perfumery.  Washed ashore, it will often bake and cure further under the sun, taking on the mineralic smell of the sand or stones with which it mixes.

 

 

Amber ≠ Ambergris


There is some confusion over the terms amber and ambergris – and this confusion dates all the way back to the Middle Ages.  The word amber, which comes from the Persiatic word anbar, was the word used in Middle English (Anglo-Saxon language) to describe ambergris.  But simultaneously, the word amber evolved in the Romance languages (Latin, French) to mean amber resin – specifically the hard, yellow tree resin that was washing ashore along the Baltic coast at the same time.  Since both ambergris and the amber resin were both egg-sized lumps of material washing up on beaches, it is easy to see why people confused amber with ambergris.

The people of the Middle Ages attempted to cut down on confusion by using color theory to distinguish amber from ambergris.   Hence, amber resin was originally known as ambre jaune (yellow amber) and ambergris as, well, ambre gris (grey amber), thus-called because of its greyish-whitish cast.   However, this only perpetuated the myth that amber and ambergris originated from the same source, differing only in color.  


Of course, nowadays everyone understands that ambergris and amber are not from the same family.  Here are the main points of comparison:



  • Ambergris is of animal origin (a sperm whale); amber is of plant origin (a Baltic pine tree).
  • Ambergris has a low burning point (a heated needle passes through it easily); amber has a high burning point (200C+)
  • Ambergris is porous, opaque, waxy, lighter than water (it floats); amber is hard, transparent, and heavier than water (it sinks)
  • Ambergris can be used directly in perfumery through tincturing; amber resin is not used directly in perfumery because it does not produce its own essential oil*


*There is a fossilized amber resin oil produced through the process of dry distillation, whereby the amber resin is burned, producing a smoky, tarry-smelling oil.   However, this is not an essential oil of amber, but a by-product of burning.  Fossilized amber oil, when used in a perfume composition, produces a smoky, balsamic effect, and must be dosed very carefully in order not to overwhelm the other notes.  It is sometimes called black amber, and is used in some niche perfumes, such as Black Gemstone (Stephane Humbert Lucas).


Amber in modern perfumery is therefore a fantasy composition – an accord – rather than an actual material.  It is an abstract idea of warm, honeyed, sweet, and resinous flavors rendered by a combination of labdanum (rockrose extract), vanilla, benzoin, and sometimes copal resin.  Ambergris itself may have been once used in the place of labdanum, but that is certainly no longer the case.   If you are curious to know more about amber, the accord, and the fragrances that feature it, then there is no better resource than the amazing series on amber by Kafkaesque here and here.

 


The Legality of Ambergris

 


In most countries, it is perfectly legal to buy and sell ambergris.


CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is the international body that governs, among other things, the trade and use of ambergris.  Since 2005, CITES has agreed that ambergris is a ‘found’ material equivalent to flotsam or biological waste like urine and feces, and therefore it is not illegal or unethical to buy and sell lumps of ambergris that wash up on the shore.

However, CITES is not a government and cannot make laws: it is an international agreement to which states sign up voluntarily.  That means that signatory countries can choose to enact national laws that adhere to the CITES framework…or not.  Either way, a national law made by a government will always supersede the authority of the CITES agreement.


So while it is currently perfectly legal to salvage and sell lumps of ambergris that you find on a beach in the European Union, the UK, and New Zealand, it is illegal in Australia, where it is strictly considered to be a whale product and therefore protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999.

 

In the US, the legal situation is a little less clear cut.  Sperm whales are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which technically means it is illegal for anyone to sell, trade, buy, or otherwise profit from ambergris (because it is a by-product of an endangered species).


However, enforcement of this act is lax in America, and natural perfumers buy and use natural ambergris in their perfumes without fear of indictment by the Federal authorities.  The general line of thought in America is that since ambergris is a found, salvaged item like driftwood or other beach detritus, and not the product of hunting or cruelty to the whale by a human, then it’s perfectly ok to sell, buy, and use it.


In other words, American authorities basically agree with the CITES view of ambergris but just haven’t put it into writing yet.

 

 

The ethics of ambergris

 

 

The consensus is that while beach-cast ambergris is fine, ambergris hacked out of a whale’s gut is not.  However, in the case of Middle-Eastern attar perfumery, there is more cultural tolerance for animal-derived substances and therefore, buyers for the large attar companies don’t seem as bound by CITES conventions or ethics as buyers in the West.

 

For example, when a thirty-ton male sperm whale washed up dead on a beach in Holland in early 2013, with eighty-three kilograms of ambergris lodged in its rectum, the ecological NGO Ecomare oversaw the process of dissecting the dead whale and the Dutch Government oversaw the selling off of the ambergris.  The largest portion of this fresh, black ambergris was bought by Ajmal, the Indian attar company that sells to a primarily Middle-Eastern market.

 

This case shows that there is an appetite even for the freshest, stinkiest grades of ambergris in the Middle-East.  It also demonstrates that some buyers for the Middle-Eastern attar companies do not mind trawling in the grey area between hacked-out and beach-cast ambergris.

 

By the way, ambergris is not ‘hunted’.  Ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of a measly one percent of male sperm whales.  That translates to one in a hundred sperm whales.  In other words, it doesn’t really make sense for hunters to go out and try to kill sperm whales to harvest their ambergris because the sheer odds of finding it make it a losing proposition.  Therefore, the incidence of killing sperm whales purely for their ambergris is low to non-existent.

 

 

The use of ambergris in perfumery

 

 

Ambergris is used in perfumery in two main ways: as a fixative and as a prime component of the perfume’s aroma.  Ambergris is a superlative fixative that gives depth and a halo-like glow to the finished perfume.  It deepens the impact of all the other notes in a composition and extends the perfume’s tenacity on skin.  Think of it like blowing on a fading fire, one’s breath reviving the hot red brilliance of the coals.  If ambergris is used as a fixative in the base of a commercially-produced perfume and is not the main note being emphasized, then a synthetic ambergris replacer is normally used in the place of real ambergris.

 

Ambroxide, sold under the trade names of Ambroxan and Cetalox, is a synthesized material that is almost identical in chemical make-up to ambrein, the fatty, cholesterol-like component of ambergris responsible for its odor.  Ambroxide mimics the fixative properties of ambergris perfectly, is cheap to use, of consistent, replicable quality, and very easy to scale up for mass production.  It makes no sense to use real ambergris if all you need it for is its fixative properties deep down in the basenotes.

 

The other use of ambergris in perfumery is as the main fragrant component of a finished perfume, meaning that the perfume will smell quite strongly of ambergris itself.  Ambergris has a very complex scent profile which depends on the type and grade used, but it is not very easy to define.  Some perfumes focus on capturing the more tangible facets of ambergris scent profile, such as salty, marine, sweet, tobacco-like, earthy, or even dusty vanilla-paper facets.  Often, perfumes with real ambergris have a funky, civet-like character that some compare to halitosis.  As a rule of thumb, real ambergris is used mostly by natural perfumers, small indie perfumers, and attar makers.  Beyond a certain price point, most of the attars and mukhallats described in the Attar Guide use real ambergris rather than synthetics.

 

 

 

What does ambergris smell like?

 

 

The sea.  Salt.  A harbor at low tide.  Poo.  Earth.  Tobacco.  Rocks.  Musk.  A freshly mucked-out stable.  Vanilla milk.  Old newspaper.  Ambergris can smell like any and all of these things, depending on the grade (quality) of ambergris, the age of the piece, and the specific micro-environmental conditions surrounding its formation.  Each piece of ambergris smells different from the next, but its aroma and quality are classified as one of three categories, as follows:

 

 

Black Ambergris:  The freshest pieces of ambergris are blackish in color, quite soft, and dung-like.  Fresh black ambergris smells quite strongly of horse manure mixed with straw and marine bilge.  If you have ever mucked out a horse’s stable, then you will be familiar with this smell – it is pungent, fecal, but also warm and horsey.  It is not unpleasant, but it is animalic.  These lower grades of ambergris have not been cured as long in the ocean and therefore retain their original poo-like shape, color, and smell.  While the very soft specimens are useless to perfumers, there is great demand in the Arab world for the harder lumps of ‘fresh’ ambergris, which produce a animalistic undertone in attars and blends.

 

 

Grey (Standard) Ambergris:  Aged for a good many years in the ocean, grey ambergris has an ashy grey or brownish color, and is hard.  The greatest range of aromas seems to be present within this grade of ambergris, with specimens smelling alternately of tobacco, old (yellowing) newspapers, vanilla, bad breath, marine silt, damp earth, harbors at low tide, seaweed, hay, horsehair, books, and warm salt.  The initial aroma is warm, salty, and halitosis-like.  Once the nose adjusts to the slight fecal or bad breath tonalities, the aroma is very pleasant – rich, round, and earthy, with an undercurrent of clean seawater.

 

 

White Ambergris:  The highest grade of ambergris is, as the name suggests, white.  There is little to no actual aroma clinging to the actual specimens besides a hint of sweet dust, dried salt, and something mineralic.  In fact, white ambergris smells like anything that’s lain on a beach under the sun for a while, meaning dusty, mineralic, faded, and pleasantly ‘au plein air’.  It has a silvery driftwood feel, bleached of all color and animal tendencies.  It smells light, bright, clear, and kind of sweet.  It is actually a very difficult smell to define other than a subtle salty-sweet ozone aroma that drifts in and out of the outer field of one’s perception.  White ambergris is the type prized for its fixative abilities and for its power to magnify all the other notes without imposing its own character on the composition.  Smelled on its own, it is a very difficult aroma for the human nose to define.

 

N.B. These descriptions come from personal experience with smelling many different specimens of beach-cast ambergris, kindly facilitated by face-to-face meetings with the owner of Celtic Ambergris in Kilkee, County Clare, in the West of Ireland.

 

 

Ambergris in Attar Perfumery

 

 

Oil perfumes on the cheaper end of the scale likely use the same Ambroxan or Cetalox used in most Western commercial perfumes.  But the more expensive, luxurious mukhallats that list ambergris as a note will contain real ambergris.  Culturally speaking, there is a long-held reverence in the Middle East for ambergris both in perfumery and for other, more obscure uses, like fattening up a thin child.

 

Cultural preferences also come into play when it comes to the selection and buying of pieces of ambergris.  The Middle Eastern customer is much keener than the average Westerner on animalic notes in their perfumes, exhibiting a healthy appetite for the darker, funkier forms of ambergris, oud, and musks.  Therefore, even the fresher specimens of ambergris are appreciated and used in Middle-Eastern perfumery.

 

Anyone interested in ambergris might want to order samples of some single-focus ambergris oils and tinctures, in order to establish a baseline for how ambergris smells in isolation.  For a high-quality tincture, order a few drops from La Via de Profumo. Dominique Dubrana, or Abdes Salaam Attar as he is more commonly known, is a highly reputable and respected perfumer that makes and sells his own tinctures, attars, and spray perfumes using only natural ingredients.

 

 

Note: This article is an updated and attenuated version of an article originally written for Basenotes in 2019 (here). It is reprinted with the kind permission of Basenotes’ owner, Grant Osborne.  

 

Photos: All photos in this post were taken by me and should therefore only be reproduced with my permission. 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.