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.
Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the next as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery. First, sandalwood.
Sandalwood: The Elephant in the Room
When we talk about traditional Indian distilled attars, the elephant in the room is the one carved in sandalwood. Sandalwood is a key component of attars because attars are botanicals, woods, and resins distilled directly into sandalwood oil. To be less technical about it, it is at least fifty percent of the magic.
Until a few decades ago, sandalwood oil would have certainly meant Santalum album oil from the Mysore region of India. However, thanks illegal poaching, over-harvesting, and careless disregard for sustainability, the famed Mysore sandalwood oil is now largely unavailable. Supply to the traditional attar making industry has dried to a trickle.
Mysore sandalwood is, or was, one of India’s most precious natural resources. Accordingly, depletion of this resource seems to have caused a national-level paroxysm of anguish. The right to harvest the dwindling number of sacred giants in Mysore is a privilege restricted to individuals or outfits with the proper state licenses, which are difficult to obtain. The totality of the crackdown on sandalwood initially resulted in a spate of illegal harvesting, smuggling, violence, and corruption of government officials, most acutely in Karnataka state – but these issues seem to have abated somewhat in recent years. The consensus seems to be that the sandalwood trade is now quite firmly under the control of the government.
Due to its status as a key national resource, the Indian government has legal ownership rights over all sandalwood trees on the territory of India, even those growing on private land. People often have sandalwood trees growing in their backyard, but if they chop it down to sell or make oil, a quarter of the proceeds must be tithed to the Government[i].
When I say that Mysore sandalwood is no longer available, I should clarify that this does not mean that Mysore oil is not being produced at all. Small-scale harvesting does continue in certain areas of India where it is still allowed, and several large French perfume houses have contracts with private plantations in India to supply oil. However, it is not available in commercially significant quantities, i.e., it is not available in quantities that would satisfy the need of the commercial perfume and attar industry.
In an interview[ii] with me for Basenotes in 2017, attar maker JK DeLapp explained the issue of availability thus: ‘It is my understanding that 50 or so tons of sandalwood oil are produced in India every year. Not necessarily all from the Mysore region, but they are producing. Global annual demand is closer to 400-600 tons of sandalwood oil, which is why Indian sandalwood is generally not used any longer. From an industry perspective, it “no longer exists”. What that really means is that demand exceeds availability, hence the newer Australian and Hawaiian Sandalwood oils filling in to satisfy demand’.
What this means is that the flow of Mysore sandalwood oil outside of India’s national borders is extremely limited. Whatever is left in the forests of Mysore is controlled by the Indian government, and export of the oil outside of India is technically illegal. Furthermore, India consumes roughly ninety percent of the essential oils and attars it produces, be it kadam, kewra, or sandalwood oil, further staunching the flow of sandalwood outside its borders.
Naturally, the sandalwood supply problem has greatly affected the traditional attar-making sector within India. The flow of oil to domestic attar production has slowed to a trickle, with the rising costs of what oil is still available forcing traditional attar makers to turn to cheaper synthetic solvents (such as IPM), or traditionally less valued wood species such as Australian sandalwood oil (Santalum spicatum). By corollary, the past three decades has seen the number of attar houses in Kannauj fall by nearly 80%. More on that here.
Small amounts of Mysore oil are still available locally through the state-run Cauvery[iii] Silk Emporium shops in the Karnataka district of Mysore, but unless one is lucky enough to find a trusted local intermediary, this oil is largely inaccessible. It is also not available in the quantities required for attar-making and distillation. Furthermore, the purity and provenance of the oil is difficult to verify. Given the high prices fetched for Mysore oil outside of India and the huge demand for it in perfumery, adulteration is more a probability than a possibility.
Trygve Harris, respected owner of Enfleurage in New York and a distiller of frankincense in Salalah, Oman, confirms this, stating that the oil she tested in 2012 from the Cauvery Silk Emporium had clearly been adulterated. In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris described the oil as follows: ‘It didn’t even try to smell like sandalwood — it was some floral-ish perfume. It was hideous, the product of an ill-employed bureaucrat who imagines it is what tourists want to smell. And there was only 7 ml in the bottle as well. Really disappointing. It was an outrage, actually’[iv].
Is it Mysore sandalwood or Santalum album that is rare?
Here is the good news. While real Mysore sandalwood oil from vintage, well-aged stock is a 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 (Southern India), 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.
A positive thing to have emerged from the current scarcity of, and restrictions on Mysore santalum album, is a renewed awareness of just how good santalum album is. The demand for santalum album is as robust as ever. Individual consumers want it. So do the big perfume companies like Chanel, Guerlain, and Frederic Malle. And where there is demand, there is a way.
Currently, there are plantations of a new generation of santalum album being grown under controlled conditions in Australia, meaning that there will be a future supply of santalum album available to the market. And although the trees are still too young to compare the quality of the output to the original Mysore stock, the first results are promising. Many expert noses report the scent of santalum album grown in Australia to be exquisite, with the same creamy, soft, santalol-rich aroma characteristic of Mysore sandalwood.
The only differences at this stage are likely to be that of aging, both of the tree itself (specifically, its heartwood) and of the oil in the bottle. Aging works wonders for the quality of santalum album oil. Oil from heartwood that has been allowed to develop inside the tree for two decades or more will naturally be richer and more complete in aroma than heartwood cut out of a six-year-old tree. Still, these new santalum album plantations are good news for both attar and Western perfumery, as well as for sandalwood enthusiasts.
A word of caution[v] from JK DeLapp about the new santalum album coming out of the Australian plantations (though it is likely that only diehard Mysore enthusiasts will care about this):
‘The Australian s. album quality is good, if we are looking at the total santalol content (santalols being the benchmark for sandalwood quality testing). A Grade Australian s. album tests at a consistent 90% total santalol load (our own Rising Phoenix sandalwood oils test at an average 91-93% total santalol load, for comparison sakes). I think the new Australian material is pretty close to this benchmark, although the trees are 20 or so years old, which is young for sandalwood. That means that you can distill it in good conscience, but its tone will lack the subtle nuances present oils drawn from the heartwood of older sandalwood trees.
One thing I’ve noticed with the new Australian album oils, though, is that they tend to smell like popcorn. If you like buttered popcorn, then great, you’re in luck. But it is a different type of “buttery” aroma that you get in older Mysore oils or in Rising Phoenix oils, which tends to be deeper and more sandalwoody (yes, that’s a word). Sandalwood enthusiasts will grasp immediately what I mean by that. For casual sandalwood oil users, I doubt the difference will matter much.
The upshot is that for large-scale compounding, I think the Australian album material is a great replacement for the Mysore oils of yore. But on its own, as a perfume for personal use, it won’t quite hit your sandalwood sweet spot in the same way. Therefore, globally, Australian plantation s. album is great news for larger scale perfumery, but it won’t satisfy customers in the small-batch, artisanal production sense.’
The same note of caution is sounded by Trygve Harris. Having visited the Mysore plantations twice – once in the late 1990s and again in 2012 – she is familiar with the oil coming out of India and how it compares to the newer Australian plantation s. album.
In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris noted: ‘The Australian album trees are quite young but are already being harvested and I think the odor profile matches the traditional one for sandalwood grown in Mysore. It is not the same, but if you are enquiring only if Santalum album will once again be available, then yes, I think it is already, and it smells good. And, if they keep up the plantations, then it will probably be better in a few years. But will we ever again smell that magical being from Karnataka? I don’t see it. Nature is patient. And nature is magic. And while plantation trees or laboratory Petri dishes might yield an ultimately adequate product, they won’t yield an exquisite or magical one’[vi].
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.
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Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.
[iii]Sometimes written as Kauvery