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Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Resins The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Middle-Eastern Mukhallats

8th November 2021



Now we come to Middle-Eastern mukhallats.  First, let’s get etymology out of the way.  The word mukhallat simply means blend in Arabic and refers to a mix of pre-distilled attars and ruhs with other raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords.  Remember, unlike traditional Indian attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials.


One of the most famous types of mukhallat is the rose-oud mukhallat, a pairing that matches the sour, smoky bluntness of oud oil with the peppery brightness of Taifi rose.  This coupling has taken the world of Western commercial perfumery by storm, flooding the market with hundreds of rose-oud fragrances that ape the structure of the original mukhallat template.


Of course, in modern-day parlance, the words attar and mukhallat are used almost interchangeably.   Hence, Amouage calls its (sadly discontinued) range of perfume oils attars even though, from a technical perspective, they are mukhallats.  The same applies to Sultan Pasha and most other young, modern attar makers – although technically mukhallats made by blending distilled attars and essential oils (some of which the attar maker may even distill himself), the final product is always marketed as an attar, because attar is the word that modern customers know and recognize.


It is important to note that the cultural ties and trade in perfume between India and the Middle-East go back thousands of years, which has led to a symbiotic exchange of materials, knowledge, and even language about perfume between these cultures.  For example, the word attar is virtually identical across all major languages in the area, meaning Hindu, Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, etc.  Thanks to the rich melting pot of cultures and arts encouraged by the Mughal dynasty, themselves an empire of traders, attars are something of a fluid, boundary-crossing art, claimed by all cultures in this part of the world as their own.


But the culture of use of perfume throughout Turkey, Northern Africa, and the Middle East has evolved quite differently to that of India.  Though it is difficult to speak on this without flattening entire and richly diverse cultures into one generalization, it is broadly accurate to say that people of Arabian, Persian, Turkish, and Northern African descent have a cultural preference for richer and heavier animalic aromas, such as those from oud, deer musk, and ambergris.  While Indian attar perfumery is inward-looking, focused almost exclusively on India’s own natural bounty, Middle-Eastern oil perfumery avails itself of a much broader range of raw materials sourced outside their own national borders, likely the result of the centuries-long history of Arabic-Persiatic empire-building and trading.


Oud oil, for example, is sourced from humid jungle areas of a geographically-vast sweep of countries ranging from North India and Borneo island to China and the countries of the Mekong Delta (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand).  Resins and gums such as frankincense (loban/luban) and myrrh are more important in Arabic oil perfumery than in Indian perfumery, because these resins are not native to India – they are grown and gathered in the hot, desert-like areas of Arabia and Africa (with some like copal resin, Peru and tolu balsams even coming all the way from Peru, Colombia, and Argentina, in South America).  Use of these smoky, sometimes vanillic gums and resins has come to define a whole genre of perfume, formerly known (inaccurately) as the oriental family of perfumes (a term now being replaced by more culturally and etymologically-correct terminology, such as ambery or resinous perfumes, see note here).  In general, the Middle-Eastern market for perfume displays a strong, cultural preference for more heavily perfumey smells than Indians.


But the cultural and historical links between these two perfume-making cultures run deep.  Arab and Persian perfumers value Indian ruhs and attars for their purity and use them to mix into their mukhallats.  One of the biggest attar companies in the world, Ajmal, is an Indian company that distills oud and makes mukhallats almost exclusively for the Middle-Eastern market.  Furthermore, it was India, and specifically the Assam region in Northern India, that gave Arabs their first taste of oud oil, stoking a fire in their hearts for the animalic, Hindi (Indian) style of oud oil that burns brightly to this day.



End Note

Reminder:  We are working our way through the four categories of oil-based perfumery as I see them, which are (1) traditional distilled attars (discussed here, here, and here), (2) Middle-Eastern mukhallats (this chapter), (3) foundational essential oils such as oud oil and sandalwood oil, and (4) concentrated perfume oils.  The main differences are briefly outlined below:


Traditional distilled attars:  In contrast to its catch-all categorization today, the word attar originally referred to a specific method of production, and a tradition that was almost exclusively Indian.  True attars are made through the slow, laborious process of hydro- or steam-distilling flower petals, herbs, exotic woods, and resins directly into a base of sandalwood oil.


Middle-Eastern mukhallats:  While traditional Indian attars are distilled from a fragrant material, mukhallats – meaning ‘mix’ – are compounds of many different oils that have already been distilled, tinctured, or otherwise produced elsewhere.


Foundational essential oils:  Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery.  In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.


Concentrated perfume oils:  Although all attars are by nature concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars.  For example, a perfume oil from Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, or BPAL is not an attar.  Neither is the Al Rehab dupe for Dakar Noir that you can buy on Amazon for four dollars.  They are perfumes in oil format but made in a completely different manner (and intent) than attars.


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.

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Complex Indian Attars

5th November 2021


Complex Indian attars are the result of a multi-distillation process, whereby several fragrant materials are co-distilled in the same deg or created by mixing several distillates and attars together after distillation.


In a multi-distillation process, the various fragrant materials are placed in the deg to be distilled together, with the distillers adjusting and adding to the formula over the course of the ten, or even twenty-day distillation process, beginning each day with a new blend of botanicals, resins, herbs, and spices.


Alternatively, some complex attars are built by mixing already-distilled attars, ruhs, choyas, or sandalwood oils together.  Ambery attars, for example, although not a huge feature of Indian attar perfumery, are not derived through a single distillation of an amber material, but instead composed of several complete essential oils from materials such as labdanum and benzoin.  Below is a description of some of the most characteristic and significant of complex traditional Indian attars.




Majmua Attar



Majmua attar is a complex blend of four other already-distilled attars and ruhs, namely, ruh khus, ruh kewra, mitti attar, and kadam attar (described individually here).  Majmua displays deep, green forest-like tones first, then the pungency of hay or saffron, followed by soft fruits, brown earth, the scent of rain on terracotta pots, herbs, flowers, hay, and moss.  Majmua is also suggestive of the furriness of warm animals, without containing even a drop of musk. Evolving over the course of a day, its transition from one set of aromas to the next is nothing short of mesmerizing. If one aroma could be said to predominate, it would be the bitter, mossy greenness of herbs.


Together, the combined aromas in the attar mimic the lush, earthy feel of India during monsoon season. Majmua is powerful to the point of being overbearing, especially to a Western nose.  Therefore, it is not a bad idea to dilute it in carrier oil before using as a personal perfume. A Turkish perfumer friend of mine (Omer Pekji)  layers it under Serge Lutens’ beastly Muscs Khoublai Khan, and I can confirm that this combination of bitter, green, and foresty with musky, sugary, and rosy works to perfection.







Shamama, sometimes also called hina (not to be confused with gul hina, which is a henna-only attar), is a highly complex attar distilled from a compound of more than sixty different aromatic materials such as woods, moss, cloves, ambrette seed, saffron, and sandalwood.  Shamama attar also seems to be semi-analogous with so-called shamamatul amber, which possibly involves an evolution of the original formula to include heavier woods, labdanum, and musks.  Shamamatul amber can be as pungent and as animalic as some Hindi ouds.


The exact recipe to shamama is a closely-held secret.  Each traditional attar-making family has its own recipe, which is handed down from father to son unaltered.  The big attar companies also produce their own version of shamama.  The diversity among shamama attars means that no one shamama smells like the other.


There are any grades of shamama attar, ranging from $50 per kilo to $2,000 per kilo, depending on the amount, quality, and type of raw materials used (some shamama attars are distilled into pure sandalwood, others over a synthetic solvent like IPM).   Interestingly, M.L. Ramnarain, a Kannauj-based attar distillery, which sells most of its shamama attar to Europe and the Middle East, must keep the different shamama distillations destined for different market separate[i]. This is because most shamama attars contain charila, an oakmoss-like lichen, and therefore cannot be sold in the EU, due to the ban on the atranol contained within the material, i.e., much the same issues pertaining to European oakmoss absolute.  (Read more about that here).    


According to Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics, the traditional shamama attar will normally contain some combination of ‘turmeric, spikenard, yew, oakmoss, cardamom, juniper berry, nutmeg, mace, clove bud, ambrette seed, laurel berry, valerian, and red sandalwood’[i].  It is a recipe that can be varied or added to in a seemingly infinite number of ways.  With the advent of cheaper synthetics and the contraction in the traditional art of attar-making, the number of families still producing shamama in the traditional manner is tiny.  Most shamama attars on the market these days are a mixture of synthetics and naturals, with many of them smelling surprisingly good.


Even so, it is interesting to look at the old-school method of distilling shamama attar[ii].  It is a process that is far more complex and laborious than a single-material attar, and it takes at least two months to make one from start to finish.  The distillation is divided into stages.  The first stage is a distillation of charila, a lacy lichen covering rocks in the forests of the Himalayas that possesses an inky, bitter, mossy aroma similar to that of European oakmoss.  (Shamama distillations meant for the European market will accordingly skip this particular step).  The charila is hydro-distilled directly into sandalwood oil in the classic manner over a period of ten days.  The second stage is a distillation of ground-up and lightly roasted aromatic plants, roots, and botanicals, many of which are unfamiliar to the Western nose, like spikenard, valerian root, cyperus root, and sugandh kokila, a dried berry from an evergreen laurel-like tree that grows in Nepal.  The aromatics are distilled into the lichen-fragrant sandalwood oil from the first stage.


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is charila-768x1024.jpg

Photo: Charila, a type of Indian lichen that is similar to oakmoss. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor.


The third stage is a spice and herb distillation.  Each day, fresh quantities of pulverized cinnamon, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, clove, patchouli leaves, and ambrette seeds are loaded into the deg, with the vapors pouring directly into the aromatized sandalwood oil in the bhapka, itself already heady with moss and aromatics.


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shamama-1024x768.jpg

Photo: Aromatics, spice, and dried plant material being loaded into the deg. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor. 


An optional fourth stage for the attar wallah, separate to the distillation process, is to prepare a choya.  There are three main types.  Choya nakh consists of seashells that are first charred, roasted, and smoked over a dry fire in a sand pit, and then macerated and cooked gently in sandalwood oil.  Choya nakh is also not permitted as an ingredient for shamama attars destined for the European market, due to the phenols present in the material after the charring process.  When strained, the oil is aromatized with a mysteriously smoky, salty aroma.  Tango by Aftelier is one of the few artisanal, non-attar perfumes that featured choya nakh (review here), however it is no longer available.  Choya loban is a dry distillation of frankincense resin, whereby the liquid tears of resin are either scraped off the inside of the heated degs or the vapors directed into a receiving vessel (without sandalwood oil).   Choya Ral is a balsamic dry distillation of the resin of the Sal Tree (Shorea robusta) that yields a dark, sweetly resinous smoky-leathery aroma that is useful in a fougère composition.   The attar maker may choose to prepare and add a choya to the main shamama distillate as and when they see fit.  The choyas add a smoky, resinous depth to the shamama.


The final stage is mixing the shamama attar with already-distilled attars, such as attar of roses, jasmine, kewra, champaca, and so on.  Before finishing, other fragrant materials such as rose hydrosols, musk grains and even ambergris tinctures are added, left to macerate in a sealed pot over a very low fire for twenty-four hours, skimmed for purity, and poured into leather caskets to age and settle.  Given the complexity and difficulty involved in producing shamama attar, it is no wonder, then, that a traditionally-distilled hina or shamama attar with the full whack of natural raw materials starts at a minimum of $2,000 per kilo[iii].


Despite their differences, shamama attars do share some basic common characteristics, such as a bitter, medicinal topnote, notes of earth and vetiver, a pungent saffron or henna note with hay and iodine tonalities, a rich ambery-aromatic heart, animalic facets that mimic the scent or texture of ambergris, civet, heavy musk, and Hindi oud, and tenacious basenotes that smell like moss, wood, baked earth, tea leaves, and medicinal ointment.




Kasturi-Type Attars (Black Musk Attars)



Black musk or Kasturi-type attars count as a complex attar rather than a single-material attar because, despite the name, they rarely contain natural deer musk.  The hunting and killing of musk deer in India and Pakistan is illegal, and although this does not mean that attars containing real deer musk do not exist, most Kasturi-type attars use other ingredients to approximate the scent of musk.  This is more due to issues of cost and availability than legality.


Kasturi-type attars derive their musky aroma through a complex array of aromatics and botanicals such as patchouli, costus root, and vetiver, mixed with either a botanical or synthetic musk.  In the past, ambrette seed oil would have been the main material used to mimic the muskiness of genuine deer musk, but today, due to reasons of cost, attar makers likely use other less expensive musk botanicals or a combination of synthetic musk molecules.  Musk plays a far more significant part in Arabian perfumery than in traditional Indian attar perfumery.



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.

Photos: Kindly given to me by Pranjal Kapoor with full permission to use in these posts. 


[i] The White Lotus Aromatics newsletter on hina (no longer available online)

[ii] I am indebted to Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics for the bulk of the information on the complex process of distilling shamama attars. 


Attars & CPOs Shopping The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: The Practicalities

27th October 2021

Alright, before we get into the fun stuff, let’s get the practicalities out of the way. Certain questions and concerns consistently pop up when people start getting into oil-based perfumes, such as:

How much oil should I be applying?

Where do I buy attars?

How can I be sure that I am getting the real stuff, as opposed to something that will burn a hole in my wallet and maybe even my skin?

Will my attar project as strongly as a spray perfume?

Why are some oils sold in tolas and others in grams?

How will I know if something is good or not?

What do I do with the stuff that I don’t like?

Let’s answer some of that in this section.

Sizing & Packaging

Many attars and mukhallats are sold and marketed as loose oils, which means that they are packaged in generic glass tola bottles with a plastic wand for application. A non-loose oil is an oil packaged in an elaborate and rather blingy-looking bottle with a metal wand built into the cap (see examples of what I mean below).

Photo of loose oil in generic tola bottle by Asif Akbar from FreeImages

Photo of non-loose oil, borrowed from the Ajmal website

Most of the bigger oil companies sell oils in units known as tolas. A tola is an ancient Indian unit of measurement for oils that works out to 11.6638 grams, although most sellers round this up to twelve milliliters. In the attar and oud community, people commonly buy oils in the following quantities: one tola, a half tola, and a quarter tola. This works out at 2.916 grams per quarter tola, and 0.972 grams per what we normally understand to be a one milliliter vial.

Most oud and attar artisans, on the other hand, sell strictly according to the exact number of grams. As a rule of thumb, small batch guys sell their oils by weight while the bigger oil companies sell by volume. Selling by weight is more accurate. Expect, therefore, to see grams used as the unit of measurement on the websites of the small-batch artisans like Rising Phoenix Perfumery and Ensar Oud, and millimetersor tola measurements on the websites of everyone else from Ajmal to Rasasi.

In the indie perfume world, perfume oils come packaged in five milliliter bottles (with wand caps) or roll-ons. Larger sizes are sometimes available. In the world of concentrated perfume oils (CPOs), it really depends on the market segment. For example, the oils sold by Nemat, Al Rehab, and Auric Oils in drugstores and health food stores are usually in eight milliliter roller balls. In the luxury niche segment of oil perfumery, populated by brands such as Clive Christian, Aroma M, and Nabucco, the oils are packaged in very nice bottles, which usually contain no less than ten to fifteen milliliters per bottle.

Application: How to wear oil-based perfumes?

For attars, oud oils, and mukhallats: Remove the metal cap or top, and ease the plastic wand cap out of the tight bottle neck, making sure to slide the wand applicator against the inside of the bottle to remove excess oil and prevent drips. Then, swipe the wand applicator gently on the skin on your hands, behind the ears, arms, and generally wherever you want to be scented.

For CPOs and roll-ons: Unscrew the top, and either roll onto the skin (if it is a roll-on) or place a clean fingertip over the neck of the small bottle, covering the opening completely, and tip it sideways to a slight angle to allow the oil to wash over the pad of your fingertip. Remove your finger from the bottle, and then apply the oil residue to your skin.

Oils can differ tremendously in strength and concentration, but in general, remember that these are concentrated perfume oils and need to be applied very conservatively. In other words, err on the side of caution. Start with one small dab and work up from there. If people can smell you several rooms over, you’ve gone too far! (Unless you want everyone to smell you coming, in which case, keep going).

If you are male and have a beard (or even you are female and have one), an alternative way of wearing oil-base perfume is to apply a small dot to the hair and rub gently to disperse. One can also rub a dab of oil into the tips of hair or along the collars of clothes and coats, with a careful eye on the potential for staining.

Although some oud oils and attars are incredibly strong, do not expect the same sort of projection you would get with an alcohol-based spray. In general, oils wear close to the body. Longevity, on the other hand, is usually excellent, with some oils lasting for days. Attars and mukhallats tend to be far richer in body than traditional spray perfumes.

Attars and mukhallats evolve differently to Western perfumes, which tend to unfold in a top-down fashion, with the fresher, more volatile topnotes burning away to reveal a heart (where the florals, spices, and aromatics hang out) before finishing up in a fudge of heavier basenote materials such as sandalwood, musk, or resins. In contrast, attars do not usually have topnotes, instead heading straight for a heart-base accord that radiates outwards like the glow from a fire. Imagine concentric, overlapping circles rather than a pyramid and you have the right idea.

Shopping: How to sample and buy oils

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Buyer beware – traditional Indian attars and ruhs are costly and difficult to track down, with authenticity a serious concern. For honest-to-goodness attars that have been distilled in the proper manner, stick to well-known suppliers of essential oils and perfumery materials. In the United States, reputable suppliers include John Steele, Enfleurage NYC, and Eden Botanicals. The sandalwood oil sampler ($58) offered by Eden Botanicals, for example, is an excellent way to educate your nose about the very different scent profiles of the different species of sandalwood that you are likely to encounter in attar perfumery. A reputable supplier in India is M. L. Ramnarain Perfumers, a family-owned business in Kannauj that still distills attars and ruhs in the traditional Indian manner (this company supplies raw materials and attars to perfumers, brands, and individuals worldwide).

No discussion of attars can take place without mentioning the huge role played by White Lotus Aromatics and Tiger Flag. Both outfits sourced, produced, and sold a wide range of high quality traditional Indian attars and ruhs, such as ruh khus, mitti, kandam, majmua, and so on. In particular, Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics has spent most of his career educating people about the processes involved in attar making and essential oil production, visiting the raw materials producers in the field and then writing many detailed articles and blog posts about their work. Unfortunately, both have since shuttered their doors. They are much missed by perfumers, attar enthusiasts, and the fragrance community at large.

In America, Enfleurage, a NY-based company specialized in the distillation and sourcing of the most sublime essential oils from around the world, should be your go-to for sniffing the essential oils that go into attars. In Europe, a reputable provider is Aromata Mirabilis, based in Lithuania. None of the attars or oils from these sources are inexpensive but you may be assured of their quality and purity.

If, however, you are just looking for a quick snapshot of traditional Indian attars and ruhs, then eBay is a reasonably good source. I have found decent examples of ruh khus, majmua, shamama, genda, nargis, mogra (motia), darbar, and ruh gulab on eBay, and although I would not testify in court to their purity, most gave me a rough idea of what they were supposed to smell like. 

eBay is also a good source for quarter tola samples of popular mukhallats from the big name brands such as Ajmal, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, Al Haramain, and Rasasi. Some sellers even offer one milliliter sizes. In fact, for any seller offering a large selection of oils, it is always worth writing a note to the seller to enquire as to the possibility of buying one milliliter samples, especially if you intend on sampling broadly from among their wares. The worst they can do is say no, and if they say yes, then you get to sample widely without incurring too much of a financial loss.

Distributor-retailer websites, such as Al Rashad in the United States, in Britain, and Oriental in Europe offer a wide selection of attars and sample sizes, with prices roughly comparable to eBay. Service from these sites is very good, with the owners happy to suggest other attars based on your taste.

Another way to sample is to go through a large distributor company, such as Zahra’s, which stocks a huge selection of attars and mukhallats from many of the big-name brands. The advantage of this is that you can simply give the folks at Zahra’s a list of what you want to sample, and they will send you one milliliter samples of each, without you having to jump from supplier to supplier to access the stuff you are interested in. Also, it often works out cheaper per milliliter than going through European or American sources. The downside to Zahra’s is that shipping is slow (four to six weeks) because the company is based in the Middle East, and there are mixed reviews on reliability. I have not personally shopped there, but plenty of people are happy with the service and if you are of the adventurous type, then you might want to go this route.

Of course, there is also the option of visiting a company’s website or physical store location. Arabian Oud, for example, has wonderful store locations in both New York and London, and the staff are delightful. An advantage to showing up in person is that they may show you rare attars and ouds that are not available in their online catalogue. (Whether you are in the position to afford them is another matter entirely).

Be aware that the brands’ own websites tend to be a mixed bag, varying wildly in terms of language accessibility, buying options, and shipping costs. Do your homework first. Also, if you are doing a bit of sneaky browsing at work, remember to mute your computer’s speakerphone, as many of these websites blast loud Arabic music or run videos automatically on Flash like it is 2002 all over again. 

In the United States, I highly recommend The World in Scents, a Princeton-run family business that used to specialize in the sale of high-end Abdul Samad Al Qurashi attars and oud mukhallats, Agar Aura pure oud oils, and some of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery oils. A couple of years ago, TWIS phased out its branded stock in favor of its own line of perfumes, but it is worth contacting Mark, the owner, to ask about his back stock. I expect TWIS to continue to sell off its branded oils over the next few years.

During special celebration periods on the Muslim calendar such as Eid and Bayram, most brands and websites will run special offers, often reducing prices by up to fifty percent, so plan ahead and shop wisely if you intend to buy a full size of anything expensive.

If you are interested in the work of Sultan Pasha, then know that he offers samplers of his work on his website, Sultan Pasha Attars. Currently, a 29-piece attar sampler is offered at £75 (pre-order only). He used to sell a magnificent eighty-attar sampler of a broad range of attars from houses such as Amouage (including all the discontinued attars), Ajmal, Al Haramain, and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi. However, it appears as if this option is no longer available. Keep checking the website, though, as this might change in the future.

For pure oud oils and oud wood chips, my advice is to buy directly from the artisans themselves, all of whom have professional, well-run websites and top-notch customer service. Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, the Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Agar Aura are all names you can trust.  

Most of the artisan oud and attar producers have sample packs of oils for sale on their sites. These are curated to enable the customer to get a taste of the range of styles on offer. For example, Ensar Oud sells an oud legends sampler set ($750) that contains a curated selection of pure oud oils from a diverse range of regions and style profiles, each vial containing 0.15 grams of oil. The Rising Phoenix Perfumery sells a sandalwood sampler set for around €138 (the set contains 8 gram samples of Mysore, Tamil Nadu, and Papua New Guinea sandalwood oils). Expensive? You bet. With some of these sampler sets, you will be eating ramen for a month. But for someone beginning their journey into the world of oud or sandalwood, these vials of liquid contain an entire education for the nose. It is like staring tearfully at a complicated puzzle for hours and someone finally handing you the one piece that makes sense of it all. If you have the means to calibrate your nose with a fantastic baseline, then do it. Because it will inform and guide your every choice after that.

For a wide range of oud, musk, and ambergris mukhallats, you can also try Agarscents Bazaar – they sell a wide selection of samples for you to try before you buy. This company has both a brand website and an Etsy page. Do the perfumes feature genuine oud, musk, or ambergris? Personally, I suspect not (or at least not in anything more than holistic amounts). But if you can suspend disbelief for a while, then there are some true gems in the Agarscents Bazaar stable.

In the category of concentrated perfume oils (CPOs), ease of sampling depends greatly on the segment you are interested in exploring. It is tremendously easy, for example, to sample the wares of the American perfume oil brands, because they all sell samples, either individually or in sets, on their websites or Etsy storefronts.

Solstice Scents, for example, sells a set of five samples for $17.50, or ten samples for $35. BPAL sells sets of samples (called Imp’s Ears) curated according to theme (gourmand, witchy, churchy, gothic, floral, etc.). They also sell individual samples, should you know what appeals to you out of the 67,000 perfume oils they seem to stock. However, COVID-19 seems to have put a halt to the gallop of some indie oil perfume brands – many of these were out of stock at the time of publication. Hopefully, things will begin to return to normal soon, so keep an eye out for these sampler sets. They are terrific value and provide a low-risk means of dipping your toes into their bewilderingly huge back catalogues. Solstice Scents in particular is worth the squeeze.   

For international customers, and for certain brands, like Arcana, however, it appears to be easier (and less pricey on the shipping front) to shop for these oils on retail sites rather than through the brand website itself. Sites such as Femme Fatale out of Australia, Pretty Indulgent in Canada, and Nui Cobalt in the USall provide excellent service. (Just keep in mind that these sites sell full bottles only, not samples).   

Sampling the pricier, more upmarket niche oils takes some patience and homework. Aroma M, Ava Luxe, and Olivine are good examples of American niche oil perfume brands that know what the American customer expects, and therefore offers well-priced, accessible sampling options. For example, Aroma M sells a set of eleven perfume oils for $40, and Olivine a set of eight samples for $45. Although Ava Luxe does not sell samples of her oil-based perfumes, you can sample the EDPs for ten dollars a pop, and then buy the oil version later if you like (her oil perfumes are priced at $40 for five milters).

Moving further up the food chain, we have luxury and niche brands such as Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, Clive Christian, Strangelove NYC, Andy Tauer, and so on, who offer, or have offered in the past, perfumes in oil format – and this is where sampling becomes a little more difficult. While Bruno Acampora does provide a sampling option (sample sets are €49 per set) on the brand website, for the others, it is best either to check the brand website for special deals, or indeed, skip the brand altogether and buy a sample from one of the brand’s official retailers, like Luckyscent, First in Fragrance, Essenza Nobile, Alla Violetta, Skins NL, and other sites. Keep in mind that sampling in this segment can be as expensive as high-end attars. A 0.3ml sample of Bruno Acampora Gold Musc costs $10 at Luckyscent, for example.

What to do with oils that don’t work out

Naturally, not everything you sample will be a success. And when you don’t love an oil, even one milliliter of it can seem like an awful lot. The first port of call for offloading unloved oils should be, of course, trying to sell them on the secondary market. Some of the artisanal oud oils hold their value or even increase on the re-sale market, as do some of the rarer, discontinued attars like the Amouage oils or a brand stand-out, like Areej Le Doré’s Russian Musk or Ajmal’s Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq.

Unfortunately, though, it is difficult to sell any oils that do not fall into this narrow bracket, for largely the same reason why secondhand underwear never does well in thrift stores, i.e., no matter how much scrubbing and sterilization is done, nothing can erase the thought of a stranger’s skin cells on such an intimate article. The higher the ick factor, the lower the resale factor.

Swapping is a possibility, although the same hygiene issues apply. If you are lucky enough to belong to a forum or online community of fellow enthusiasts, then your potential pool of swapees might be big enough to make it work. The advantage to swapping within a closed circle of enthusiasts is that hygiene is a non-issue. Keep in mind, though, that swap negotiations for oils can be exhausting because of the difficulty of establishing like-for-like values and because attar enthusiasts have annoyingly specific swap parameters.

Alternatively, you could always MacGyver rejects into what they call air care in the fragrance industry, meaning candles, air fresheners, room sprays, aroma diffusers, and reed diffusers. Rub the oil on an unlit, unscented beeswax candle, for example, and when the candle is lit, it will carry the scent into the room as the upper layer of wax liquefies. Empty whole vials of attars into the top of a simple oil burner, adding a few drops of water, and light a tea light underneath. Add a few drops to an aroma diffuser in the place of the same-brand essential oils they always tell you to use, and voilà, instant aura. You can also impregnate a piece of cloth or tissue with oil and rub it gently over (unlit) light bulbs and the tops of radiators – once turned on, the heat will cause the scent to diffuse throughout the entire room. You might even discover that you enjoy the oil much more when smelled on the air than on your skin.

Another idea is to turn your mistakes into something you can use for personal care, such as body oils, hair serums, bath oils, and so on. My husband’s favorite beard oil is an ever-changing concoction that I make for him by mixing unloved perfume oils, attars, and mukhallats into a quantity of high quality neutral oils such as jojoba or almond oil. Blend attars into Argan oil using a rough one-to-nine ratio, and voilà, you have an exquisitely scented hair or beard oil that would probably cost you forty dollars from a posh spa brand.

Oh, and if all else fails, there is always altruism! Gift oils you are no longer enjoying to loved ones, family members, friends, the postman – anyone you might think would be interested. Buy those little red or black velvet pouches with the drawstrings from Alibaba in bulk for anything between five and twenty cents apiece, and you have the perfect stocking filler or little birthday present ready to go. In my experience, there is not a person alive who is not thrilled to receive a little velvet baggie of perfume oils as a gift. Even if they chuck them in the bin later on, you will be positively bathed in the glow of good karma.  

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.

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Introduction

22nd October 2021

Are you mystified by mukhallats, confused by concentrated perfume oils, anxious about attars, open-mouthed at oud, and dithering on dupes?  You are not alone.  The world of oil perfumery spans a vast territory from the squidge of artisanal oud that will set you back a month’s rent to the Kuumba Made roll-on you lob into your cart with the toilet paper.


I have written this Attar Guide to help you make sense of it all.  Over the next few weeks (or months), I’ll be uploading chapters of the Guide right here on Takeonethingoff, starting with a primer on attars, ruhs, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils, and seguing into actual reviews.  Stick with me, and by the end, you will be able to buy oils with confidence, secure in the knowledge that you know what goes into making them and why they cost what they do.  You will be a smarter, tougher consumer, able to look past the flashy exoticism of those little gold-capped tola bottles and spot the true gems.


The Guide sets out to do two things.  Its first purpose is educational.  Not all oils were created equal, and this will give you the tools you need to tell the difference.  I want you to saunter into the marketplace with the confidence that comes from knowing why one perfume costs thirty-five dollars per millimeter and another only two. 


The second purpose of the Guide is critical.  By this, I mean in-depth reviews of a cross-section of oils offered by brands active in each segment of the market, with the aim of sorting out, for you (the reader), the good from the bad, and the sublime from the ridiculous.  I am going to blow open the doors to the often mysterious and ill-lit world of oil-based perfumery, and answer the question that rarely gets answered to my satisfaction, which is: what does it actually smell like?


The Attar Guide is by no means exhaustive.  Seven hundred (give or take) oil-based perfumes is a decent sample size, but still just the tip of the iceberg.  Turnover in the oil-based perfume world is intense – what takes your fancy today might not be available to buy tomorrow.  Treat this Guide as you would a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Plant Guide you find on a bus seat.  It still identifies – in broad strokes – the top two or three places in a country worth visiting but features information that was going stale even while the ink was drying.


However, for someone who is interested in oil-based perfumes, this Guide could prove very useful indeed.  The genre is so bewilderingly huge that anything that points you in one direction or the other is welcome.  After all, whether you are already knee-deep in the oil-based perfume world, or just starting out, then you will already have discovered just how expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating a journey it can be.


First, the cost of entry is high.  Samples of attars are not as widely available as designer scents and even the smallest size bottle (quarter of a tola or roughly three milliliters) can run into the hundreds of dollars, especially if oud or ambergris is involved.  A quarter gram sample of pure artisanal oud can cost up to forty dollars, and even then, you are relying on the vendor’s description to figure out whether you will like it or not.  At this level of investment, trying to find something that will be exactly to your taste is fraught with danger.


Sampling within the indie perfume oil world is much easier, not to mention cheaper.  This is because the indie oil scene is dominated by companies in North America, a culture where sampling is regarded as a democratic birthright, in comparison to Europe, where Sales Assistants seem to have always ‘just run out’ the moment you ask.  Americans simply expect that reasonably-priced samples are provided as part of the ‘try before you buy’ portion of the sales funnel.  (We would be foaming at the mouth with jealousy were it not for fact that we’ve seen what their healthcare system entails). 


Second, exploration of attar perfumery can be difficult because there is often a dearth of information on what these oils actually smell like.  The official notes published by most of the big houses like Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Ajmal are vague, incomplete, or just plain wrong.  In the American indie perfume oil world, we have the opposite problem.  Purple-prosed product descriptions running to half a page are not uncommon, as well as notes lists so comprehensive that one suspects they contain the actual formula.  While the sparse descriptions for Arabian attars leave the buyer grasping at straws, the descriptions in the indie perfume oil sector give too much information, creating unrealistic expectations in the mind of the buyer as to how the perfume will actually smell.


The exception to the problem of too much or too little product information is the artisanal oil niche.  In recent years, there has been a significant upsurge in the number of artisanal attars hitting the market.  Largely ushered in by the market-storming popularity of distill-it-yourself brands like Ensar Oud, Bortnikoff, and Areej Le Doré, these attars have attained the exclusivity and cachet formerly only associated with luxury brands such as Roja Dove and Clive Christian.  Perhaps sensing a small but noticeable shift in luxury or high-net-worth consumer interest in oil-based perfumes, many luxury and high-end indie brands, from Xerjoff and Clive Christian to Auphorie, now have their own lines of attars.


Because it attracts mostly genuine fragrance connoisseurs, attars in this segment of the market tend to be very well reviewed and described.  The 313-page (and counting) Basenotes thread on Areej Le Dore is proof of this, as are the wonderfully detailed reviews and interviews with attar and oud artisans on blogs such as Kafkaesque and Persolaise.  However, for most everything falling to the left or the right of this narrow niche, you are largely at the mercy of fulsome marketing copy or the odd mention on an Internet forum (such as the Oudh Ud Aoud Oud Agarwood thread on Basenotes.  or the Ouddict forums). 


Of course, blind buying is exciting. Nothing tops the thrill of stumbling over an oil that makes the heart beat a little faster.  As in any situation where you cannot easily test the product or even find out very much about it in advance, the only benchmark turns out to be the question ‘Do I like this?’  But for the risk-averse or those who do not have a bottomless well of money to gamble away, well, that risk is a serious barrier.


For many, these are hurdles not worth jumping over and the interest stops there.  After all, if you are about to spend several hundred dollars or a thousand dollars on an unknown oil, then you want as much information about it before whipping out your credit card.  One wouldn’t invest in a horse or a husband before inspecting its undercarriage, and the same due diligence applies here.  Too often, the simple question, ‘What does it smell like?’ is not answered to my satisfaction.  I assume it is the same for you.  And that is why I have written this Guide.





The Attar Guide has been ‘under development’ for roughly six year now, but, as with most efforts like this, it has not happened in a vacuum.  Over the years, I have had the immense good fortune of learning from true experts in the field.


First of all, any guide or book on fragrance owes a great debt of gratitude to the work of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the parents of modern fragrance criticism.  Their books both popularized and legitimized the notion of fragrance criticism, elevating it beyond the sphere of influence traditionally dominated by glossy magazine editors and salespeople.  Beyond this, Luca Turin has been a wonderfully supportive, kind, and only occasionally bitchy friend to me over the years.     


Then there are the experts in raw materials.  I have been fortunate to learn at the knee of Mandy Aftel, the mother of natural perfumery, as well as Christopher McMahon of (the now sadly closed) White Lotus Aromatics and Trygve Harris of Enfleurage – people with inarguably the most first-hand experience of essential oil production in the world.  Their books, writings, interviews, and explorations have been instrumental to me in understanding how raw materials are produced and how they behave in compositions.  Michelle Krell Kyd of Glasspetalsmoke, a well-respected educator who uses natural science to explain olfaction, has also been a fantastic source of learning for me and many others.  If you are lucky enough to live in Michigan, please sign up to one of her Smell and Tell, or Taste and Tell workshops.  


I would like to thank Grant Osborne of Basenotes for not only inviting me to author several articles and interviews for Basenotes over the years, but for just being good people in general.  Always kind, supportive, and fair-minded, Grant is tireless in his dedication to making Basenotes a welcoming home for fragrance enthusiasts.  The length of my articles recently forced him to adjust the code for how long an article can be on Basenotes, which is something I’m inordinately proud of.


Other friends are Franco Wright of Luckyscent and Sjorn Plitzko of Essenza Nobile who have not only employed me as a writer over the years, but generously supplied me with friendship, advice, samples of oil-based perfumes, and valuable insight into the commercial side of the perfume world.  Speaking of Franco, the late, great Jtd (Connor McTeague) was the person who introduced us.  Connor was the best writer I have had the pleasure of knowing and I miss him sharply. (I am not sure that it is correct to say ‘sharply’ here but that is how it feels).    


On Instagram, the place to which much of today’s fragrance discussion has moved, I would also like to draw attention to the efforts of perfumer-slash-activist Christophe Laudamiel, Pranjal Kapoor (one of the key distillers of raw materials and attars in India, supplying perfumers and fragrance brands), and Scent Festival, an account run by Yosh Han, to raise awareness of cultural, social, and equity costs connected to the production of raw materials.  Together, they are working to dispel some of the smoke and mirrors around perfumery.  It is often eye-opening stuff.     


My heartfelt thanks go to the countless individual artisans like Ensar Oud, Russian Adam, J.K. DeLapp, Taha Syed, Ws of Kyara Zen, Dominique Dubrana of Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdullah of Mellifluence, Sultan Pasha, and the folks at Al Shareef Oudh and Imperial Oud, who have all spent considerable amounts of time and money in educating my humble nose.  Many of these artisans sweat it out in some of the world’s most inhospitable places to produce exquisite raw materials.  The very act of making attars, mukhallats, or pure oud oils is an expensive, messy, and all-consuming.  That some of this labor of love has made it onto my skin is something for which I will never not be grateful.


Finally, though I was unable to convince any publisher that a book on oil-based perfumery could be marketable to anyone beyond a tiny band of people inside an already narrow niche, I am immensely grateful for the support and advice shared with me by Dominique Brunel and Jeanne Doré of Nez, La Revue Olfactive, the most important and prestigious publication on perfumery and raw materials today, and Barbara Herman, author of the wonderful book ‘Scent and Subversion’ (as well as founder of Eris Parfums).  What I’ve learned is that publishing is a tough sell, unless you already have a platform, a name to trade on, or a quantifiable market that you know will buy your book.  Since I lack most of those things, I have made the decision to put the Guide out there myself, on the one platform I do have, which is Takeonethingoff.  I figure that I owe it to all the wonderful people who have given their own time and resources to help me write this Guide, as well as to anybody who is searching for attar-specific content and not finding it elsewhere.   


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.