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