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Oudy Mukhallat Reviews: D-W

23rd May 2022

 

 

The oud reviews continue!  Reminder – we have moved away from reviews of pure oud oils (which are grouped and alphabetized here: 0-C, D-K, L-O, and P-Y) to reviews of oudy mukhallatsMukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled or compounded elsewhere. Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor).  Generally, mukhallats are viewed by Arabs and Persians as the perfect vehicle for oud oil.  Indeed, given the preference in the Middle East for rich, complex blended perfumes, oudy mukhallats might even be preferable to wearing the oud oil neat.

 

The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one.  Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).  The rose-oud mukhallat is the most famous type of oudy mukhallat in the world, providing the basic template for the thousands of Montale, Mancera and Armani rose-ouds that now populate the market.

 

But before you start reading, oud-heads and oud newbies, do check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.  Then read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.

 

 

 

Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan (Al Haramain)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

At this price point, which currently stands at about $23 per tola, there is zero chance that there is any real oud in the formula of Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan.  And yet, this does not stop this cheap little mukhallat from smelling authentically oudy.  Constructed from – I suspect – a robust core of oud synthetics bracketed on either end by tree moss, vetiver, amber, and some industrial smoke notes, Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan passes pretty convincingly as oud oil for much of its time on the skin.

 

The name Kalimantan is designed to pull our expectations in the direction of Borneo, the island formerly known as Kalimantan, a place famous for a style of oud that is sparkling, sweet, and green-resinous. The oud note in this does not resemble Borneo-style oud to my nose, but it does possess a sweet, non-animalic woody character that is pleasing.

 

The rubbery, almost cheesy facets of this perfume oil remind me briefly of the rubbery oud in By Kilian’s Pure Oud, a perfume based on the aroma of Laotian oud. But I won’t tie myself into knots pinning down the specifics of this oil, and neither should you – not at this price. Simply enjoy it for the illusion of oud oil it manages to pull off.

 

Sweet, resinous amber and a dank green vetiver note bring up the rear and extend the rubbery oud notes for as far as they will go. A cheap oil that manages to construct an oud oil aroma this convincingly with synthetics? It makes me wonder how many of the oud oils sold as pure are really that pure, when it is this hard to tell.  

 

 

 

Photo by Alexandra Kikot on Unsplash

 

Ghaliyah 85 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Ghaliyah 85 is yet another variation on the Ghaliyah attar theme, this time with the addition of a vintage Cambodi oud oil from 1985, myrrh, and a noticeably large amount of ambergris. I find this variation to be the most interesting and engaging of the Ghaliyah series, probably because none of the materials smell exactly of themselves, especially in the opening. There is a hint of mystery to the almost indistinguishable mass of oily florals, resins, and woods, all glossed with a slick of clear nail varnish, that first rises to greet the nose.

 

As the opening notes begin to loosen up, the oud comes out to play. The oud oil used here reminds me somewhat of Ensar Oud’s vintage Kambodi 1976 in that it smells as sweet as a regular Cambodi-style oud oil, but presents a far darker, weathered version of itself. Think less jammy red berries and more ancient wood stained magenta with sour plum juice, tar, and resin. The ghost of berries -the bittersweet twang of fruit skin and fruit mold, not fresh pulp – lingers in the grain of the wood. The oud is prickly and peculiar, a strange effluent from an industrial fire that is at once poisonous and narcotizing. 

 

 

 

Ghaliyah Hakusni (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Ghaliyah Hakusni is enjoyable because it combines many of the key features of the other attars in the Ghaliyah range, thus giving you the best of all worlds in one single oil. What it loses in focus, it makes up for in richness. There is the tarry, gasoline-tinged jasmine floral from Pursat, the creamy, musky champaca flower from Kacheri, the rich, aged berry incense smack of the Cambodi oud from 85, and the same myrrh, saffron, and rose triad seen in several of the Ghaliyah attars, in different combinations.

 

Thanks to a touch of birch tar, cade oil, and frankincense, Ghaliyah Hakusni displays a strong but not overpowering current of smoke. The smoke element is not the charred leather sort, but rather, the cleansing, fir balsam-inflected smoke from a forest fire where soaking-wet branches of conifers and spruce are being burned. The vaporous greenness of the smoke gives the blend a lift, freshening all the resins, oud, and tarry, burnt florals.

 

There is a purity and sincerity to most all the attars in the Rising Phoenix Perfumery Ghaliyah series, but Hakusni feels natural to the point of being crunchy granola. A swoon-worthy oud blend that will ease beginners in, as well as a clever microcosm of the entire series, I recommend it highly to those interested in finding a good gateway to the RPP Ghaliyah range.

 

 

 

Photo by KHAWAJA UMER FAROOQ on Unsplash

 

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

First, a piece of nomenclature: any attar bearing the word ‘Kaaba’ in its title refers to the famous black cube that stands in the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, around which the sea of Muslim pilgrims moves during the annual hajj, a special ritual called the tawaf. The pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj is the sacred duty of all adult Muslims, who must make the trip at least once in their lives. The Kaaba is there to protect a sacred black stone that was said to have been placed there by Muhammad in 605 A.D. Ghilaf is the Urdu word for the black and gold cloth that covers the Kaaba, literally meaning ‘sheath’ (Ghilaf seems to be analogous to kiswah, the Arabic name for the black cloth). 

 

Ghilaf is a clever name for any rose-oud attar because the cloth itself, with its band of gold threads richly embroidered onto a matte black background, is a good metaphor for the contrasts inherent to the classic rose-oud pairing. Like streaks of sunlight on black velvet, the brightness of the rose illustrates the darkness of oud, and the darkness of oud throws the brightness of the rose into relief.

 

In my experience, rose-oud attars are sublime only when two things happen: a high content load of superior raw materials, and a perfect balance between the light and dark elements of the blend. The first, in attar perfumery, will depend on how much the attar maker and his customers care about the quality of the raw materials. Some people prefer the modern horsepower of synthetics, even in attars, and therefore, there are attars that smell less natural (but more powerful) than others. Most small, artisan attar makers cater for an audience that cares deeply about the naturalness of raw materials. They go to great lengths to secure the best rose oil, the best wild oud, tincture their own materials, and so on, all with the purpose of simply setting the materials in the blend like polished jewels and allowing them to shine as nature intended.

 

The Rising Phoenix Perfumery is one of those small, artisan attar-making outfits that cares first and foremost about having the most beautiful raw materials to showcase in its blends. Ghilaf-e-Kaaba features a rare, steam-distilled Gallica rose otto that displays a bright, silky character – not as jammy or beefy as a Turkish rose, and not as lemony-sharp as a Ta’if rose. The oud is a wild Hindi oil from Assam, a forceful, raw-edged spice and leather affair that comes at you all guns blazing but later dies back to reveal a stately bone structure.

 

If great raw materials are a question of selection, then the second is a question of alchemy – that strange magic that happens when a talented attar maker knows what to do with his bounty. Balance in attars and mukhallats is more difficult to achieve than one might imagine, because of the way naturals behave, continuing to evolve and even deepen over time. In a way, rose notes are like citrus oils in that their brightness is volatile and changeable, while oud, while deeper, also has its own set of permutations to cycle through, from cowhide, to leather, to woodsmoke, to herbs, and so on. The attar maker must consider not only how each raw material will behave but when. 

 

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba is a surprise because normally, in rose-oud attars, one note dominates before giving way to the other. But with this attar, sometimes it smells like oud, sometimes like rose, despite the aroma being exactly the same from one moment to the next. From the sample, I smell a deep, fiery rose otto; on the skin, the first thing I smell is the pungent, slightly raw-edged Hindi oud. Moments later, although I can’t say that the attar has changed or evolved, I can suddenly smell the rose, but not the oud. At the rare times the two notes appear together, the blend smells excitingly coarse and strong, like a retsina wine, full of sour, woody tannins and turpentine.

 

Both the main raw materials used here are spicy and a bit fierce, so that sets the tone. The Gallica rose otto burns with a purity that could cut through cloth, and the Hindi oud, although smooth, has a feral edge reminiscent of just-cured leather skins. After a rough but exciting start, this very potent blend starts to relax, meandering along a languid path towards woodsmoke, dry leather, and woods tinged with the sour brightness of rose petals.

 

A custom blend of floral attars, labdanum, and benzoin is there to support the rose and oud from the base, but the drydown is not particularly ambery, sweet, or powdery. The resins are just there for ballast. In other words, this attar is single-minded; it doesn’t deviate from its central rose-oud script. Ghilaf-e-Kaaba is very Arabic in tone (obviously) but even if it does tread the centuries-old, tried and tested route of rose-oud pairings, the quality of the raw materials distinguishes it. It lasts forever and is phenomenally concentrated, with just one tiny drop required to keep a body pungently scented for twenty-four hours. This is a rose-oud attar for purists and those for whom excellent raw materials are a prerequisite.

 

 

 

Hajr Al Aswad (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Attars bearing this name (or a variation thereof) refer to the Black Stone at the center of the Ka’aba in Mecca and are said to pay homage to the unique smell of the black stone itself. If this attar is true to its inspiration, then the famous black stone must be fragrant with copious amounts of oud, roses, amber, and musk. Despite this lineup of heavy-hitting ingredients, however, Hajr Al Aswad is not overbearing. In fact, something attractively gauzy and light-wearing about its texture ushers it out of the Very Big Scent category and into the Everyday Easy Wear one – a plus for anyone who wants to smell discreetly exotic rather than loudly so.

 

The oud, unusually for oud, graces only the topnotes. It is clean and medicinal, with a fine aged wood character that adds a tone of gentle nobility. Its patina of old wooden furniture coats all the other notes in a fine layer of dust, tamping down noise levels further to a hush. Once the haze of oud lifts, a subtle duet of rose and musk muscles its way to the fore. Velvety and cushioned in feel, no one note dominates over another. The base is faintly ambery, but any sweetness is kept in check by the smoky sourness of the remnants of the rose and oud notes. Overall, Hajr Al Aswad is resinous, tart, and woody rather than vanillic or creamy.  Its sense of restraint will please anyone who likes the idea of a musky rose-oud attar but would prefer a sotto voce version.

 

 

 

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

 

Heritage Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

I walk into an old Chinese apothecary. At the back of the rather dark, dusty space, there is an ancient wooden medicine cabinet, the kind with hundreds of separate little drawers and compartments. The air around it is thick with the brown smell of old wood varnish that has broken down and seeped into the air. I open the little drawers and inside I find all manner of dried, desiccated oddities like dried elephant penis, unidentifiable dried herbs, and pieces of what looks like human ears.

 

Everything smells leathery, pungent, and aged. There is a hint of varnish, and something terpenic. The old Chinese man watching me explains that these dried and salted things can be used to cure all kind of modern-day ailments. It is an undeniably strange smell – medicinal, ancient, woody – but also clean in a spiritually rousing way. It is a smell more than a scent, an experience more than a perfume. It is not something that lends itself to easy interpretation, at least not with the tools of the Western mind. The effect of Heritage Blend is that of stepping off a sunny street into a darkened doorway and suddenly falling down a wormhole into a different time and place.

 

Later, a drier, cleaner woods accord moves into place, with the more familiar scent of logs splitting on an open fire, as well as sheaves of saddle leather being aired out in the hot, gluey fumes of the tannery. The scent slowly transitions from the spicy, medicinal sourness at the start to these sweeter, crustier accents of wood and leather in the base. 

 

This mukhallat is a great introduction for the Westerner to the mysterious smell that is oud. Heritage patently contains a quantity of the real deal, and for a beginner, it is a thrill to finally catch a glimpse of the material that so many Western firms spend peanuts trying to emulate using synthetics and nagamortha. Heritage doesn’t shock the beginner’s nose with an overdose of sour funk, however. Rather, it charts a gentle and meandering course through the neural pathways of oud, flanking the oud with other notes to draw attention to its main features: medicine, varnish, dust, wood, leather, spice.   


Texturally-speaking, Heritage is quite thick and brown. It has a powerful smell right off the bat, but it does not smell at all barnyardy or as animalic as one might expect. Supposedly, there is rose and quite a lot of it, but to my nose, this reads more as a potpourri-ish spice that adds depth to the leathery saffron. 

 

No single Western fragrance is similar in effect or overall smell to Heritage Blend. The closest are the pungent pomander fragrances that Diptyque used to put out in the seventies and eighties, like L’Eau and Eau Lente. Or possibly a fragrance such as Onda by Vero Profumo, which is equally sepulchral and resistant to interpretation. If you can want to experience the ancient, primordial-ooze attraction of real oud, but with the polish of a more complex perfume, then Heritage is an excellent place to start. 

 

 

 

Jewel Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

The story of Jewel Blend is the story of my own personal breakthrough with the scent of oud oil. To begin to appreciate the complex smell of aged oud, I had to reach back into the prehistoric part of my brain, unlock a little door, and just stand still for a while to let it all in. It truly is this oudy smell that marks the greatest difference between East and West, and all the cultural and memory associations in between.

 

In my case, appreciation did not come immediately. I did not find the aged oud in Jewel Blend at all easy to like or understand. In fact, I was so bothered by what I thought of as a hot, sour, rotting-wood smell that I couldn’t see past it. But it is a compelling smell, this aged oud, and I found myself testing it and re-testing it over a period of two weeks. Finally, it all clicked into place for me.

 

I must have tested Jewel Blend alone five or six times, just about scraping the bottom of my small sample vial, when I just one day decided to apply a tiny amount, let it rest, and not smell it too closely for the first hour. I applied a small smear to the back of my hand. And as I went about my business, small but persistent wafts of something deeply woody, warm, and spicy began to hit my nose.

 

When I put my nose closer to my skin, although I can’t say that the basic smell of aged oud had changed, something in me had changed so that I could now perceive the smell in a different way. It is possible that my mind simply became more open to the possibility of the unknown. Now what I was smelling was dark, mysterious, damp, woody, but also sweet and sour at once, and later, warm, full of spices and amber. I repeat this experience here in the hope that it might reach the eyes of someone who is also struggling with their first exposure to real oud oil. My breakthrough experience was incredibly important because it allowed me to finally experience the full beauty and complexity of oud oil.

 

The trick was in forcing my mind to disassociate the sour aroma of oud oil with negative aromas such as bile and cow shit, and train it instead to link its smell to that of good fermented things instead, like leather, fruit, pickles, tea, and matted hay. Freed from negative associations, the mind begins to make new connections and build a honeycomb structure of nice things to which it now defaults upon smelling oud. Resetting the trigger switch in the mind is crucial to opening it up to new experiences – just like with food.

 

After this Damascene conversion, I began to appreciate how Jewel moved seamlessly from this warm, sweet-sour, intensely woody, dusty, ancient-smelling oud accord to warm, salty amber without missing a step. In fact, the base seems to be a mash-up of their Amber Jewels and Royal Amber AAA blends, which is no bad thing in my book. More than anything, however, I appreciate Jewel Blend because it opened that door in my brain to allow me to properly appreciate oud oil in general. I dearly wish I had invested in a bottle before ASAQ reformulated all their oils in 2014.

 

 

 

Lanna (Mellifluence)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Lanna pairs a pungent Old School Thai oud oil with an aged patchouli oil for a full-on experience of rotting wood meeting rotting earth, whether you asked for it or not. It is a no-holds-barred approach to an oud mukhallat that works as long as you can stomach the stench of fermenting leather and barnyard filth clinging to every hair in your nostrils. Forget about the patchouli – it took one look at the oud and ran away screaming for Mother. Not for tender noses.

 

 

 

Photo by Caleb Shong on Unsplash

 

Mehndi Oud Imperial (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

One of the better oudy mukhallats I have come across. Though incontrovertibly dominated by oud, Mehndi Oud Imperial has been given a spicy lightness by way of hina attar and a golden sweetness by way champaca, rendering it a more multi-dimensional and exciting take on the oudy mukhallat theme than is usual.

 

The opening is pure Cambodi-style oud, pungent in its dried fruit and caramel intensity. But thanks to a rich assortment of other materials such as sandalwood and florals, the opening soon peels off into a variety of different tracks, ranging from smoky woods to creamy sweetness and the earthy sensuality of hina musk, the complex Indian attar distilled from over a hundred different aromatic herbs, woods, and spices.

 

Champaca and orange blossom add a certain balminess, but this does not result in the mukhallat taking on an overtly floral or feminine character. It is the smoky, tarry oud that reigns supreme here, supported by a spicy leather undertone and the lactic sourness of Australian sandalwood.

 

Mehndi Oud Imperial dries down to a dusty but debonair leather-oud combination with a pleasant smokiness running softly in the background. There is enough light and air between the molecules to allow you and other people in the room space to breathe. In fact, it is the rare oud mukhallat one might wear politely in a professional setting. Zero barn, one hundred percent class.   

 

 

 

Mukhallat Al Farisi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Translating directly to ‘Persian Blend’, this is a nuanced woody attar with a somber feel to it. It will likely appeal to people who prefer subtlety over loud perfumes, and by corollary, frustrate the hell out of people obsessed with the twin Gods of longevidee and sillaaaage. Although the first half is quite oudy in character, a calm woodiness that prevails in the end, making Mukhallat Al Farisi an excellent choice for office and formal wear.

 

Up front, there is a lot of saffron and wood, creating a dusty atmosphere redolent of ancient wooden furniture left to molder in the back of a storeroom. Despite the brief hit of wood varnish and glue vapors, the oud accent in Mukhallat Al Farisi is reminiscent more of a piece of oud wood than the oil itself. And though there is a hint of those famous Cambodi fruit notes, it is as dry as a tannic red wine. No friendly red berries or caramel-slicked juices running down the chin here.

 

The base is mostly sandalwood – probably Australian if the sour, lactic greenness is anything to go by. It reminds me somewhat of homemade yoghurt. My only real complaint here is that the complexity and depth of the first part tapers off too quickly, leaving behind a rather plain, generic woodiness to do all the heavy lifting in the second.  

 

 

 

Mukhallat al Quds (Al Haramain)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat al Quds is an example of how the major Indian and Arabian perfume houses often have both terrible and great perfumes within their own catalogue deliberately aiming for different segments of the market and levels of purchasing power.

 

So, where Ehsas by the same brand is dreck of the worst, chemical-smelling sort, aimed at young men lured into thinking that attars must be a step up from regular perfume by sheer dint of their (implied) exoticism, Mukhallat al Quds is a sublime rose-oud over sandalwood attar that quietly oozes class from every pore. And yet, Mukhallat al Quds sits side by side with Ehsas in the same catalogue, seemingly unembarrassed and unaffected by the proximity.

 

Mukhallat al Quds is excellent. Built around the marriage of a tart Taifi rose and a dark, dusty aged oud, its jagged edges has all been smoothed away by time and careful aging. What remains is a silky, dusty wood note that does indeed smell like ‘precious woods’, the cynical phrase used by modern niche perfumes in notes lists to describe any oud synthetic.

 

The vegetal spiciness of a saffron-tinged amber serves to rough up the smoothness of the woods somewhat, but really, the impression is one of an integrated whole – the dusty sourness of aged oud in balance with the creamy, narcotic sweetness of sandalwood. Highly recommended to fans of gentle, ennobling rose-ouds blends, as well as of the traditional rosy sandalwood attars of India.

 

 

 

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

 

Mukhallat Al Siraj (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Al Siraj (the ‘lamp’ blend) has officially been discontinued by Arabian Oud, and if you ask the staff at the London store, they will charmingly insist that it never existed. However, you can still find this beauty sold online (mostly on eBay). The notes are Laotian oud, Istanbul rose, amber, tobacco flower, and sandalwood. Al Siraj is the first attar I smelled that blew my mind and will therefore always occupy a high position in my list of favorites.

 

Whatever – probably holistic or more likely non-existent – amounts of oud have been used in Al Siraj come across as deliciously smoky and dry, with mercifully none of the animalistic sourness that can scare the bejeezus out of beginners. Despite the lack of funk in the trunk, the oud note is still a little, dare I say it, a bit dirty-sexy-money.

 

The oud is set atop a bain marie of warm caramel flecked with flakes of sea salt, and left to melt into sweet, smoky amber. Amid all this sweet smokiness, a bold Turkish rose swells up and gives it even more lushness. Beautiful, easy to wear, and toothsomely rich from top to bottom, there are few attars as rewarding to wear as Mukhallat Al Siraj. If I could find a steady supply, I might even wear it every day.  

 

 

 

Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq is a masterpiece of mukhallat perfumery. With a long name that translates to (roughly) ‘Aged Oud Blend’, it earns a place in any list of top ten or even top five mukhallats in the world. Essentially an essay on the beauty of aged Hindi oud, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq wanders through the umami flavorways of noble oud oil, touching upon sweet, sour, salty, woody, and even herbal facets as it passes through.

 

It may at first appear pungent or animalic to the uninitiated, but once the leathery spices rise through the initial wall of funk, you will find it difficult to tear your nose away. Sweet red roses, musk, and greenish herbs – perhaps a touch of vetiver – provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding and buttressing it with layers of complexity, body, and richness. 

 

The other notes, while extremely rich and high quality, do not distract from the star of the show, namely that beautiful, aged Hindi oud. The oud slowly softens and melts like a pool of warm honey, pumping out wave after wave of spiced, syrupy goodness throughout the day. This intoxicating concerto of aromas is top of its class at representing the unique pleasures of oil perfumery.

 

In the far drydown, natural ambergris lends the scent a golden glow, as well as a hint of coniferous bitterness that recalls fir balsam. Think of sea breezes blowing a forest of pine trees sideways, the salty freshness of the sea air mixing with the resinous greenery of the trees and the golden sweetness of tree sap. The ambergris amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the brilliance of its rich Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and incredibly rewarding to wear, Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq goes straight into the pantheon of must-haves for any serious mukhallat lover.

 

 

 

Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

 

Oud Al Amir (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Oud Al Amir pairs a very fruity Cambodi oud with an achingly sweet river of honey, producing an aroma that runs perilously close to the scent of syrup-slicked canned strawberries. There is also a hint of doll head plastic. I don’t know, man. Somebody out there must enjoy this sort of thing.

 

 

 

Oud Cambodi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Not real oud, of course, and certainly not the pure oud distillation suggested by the name – not at this price point. But want a mukhallat that combines honey with incense, amber, and lamb fat? Then you’ve come to the right place. Oud Cambodi is bizarre and almost entirely wearable, a gourmand riff on oud with a savory grease twist in its tail.

 

There is a clue to this attar in its consistency. Slide the plastic applicator out and it forms thick, loopy strings like a spoon lifted out of the treacle jar. The initial hit is head-spinning, the friendly fruitiness of Cambodi oud jostling with a thick, syrupy amber, honey, and the smoke of High Mass. For a hot minute, this accord reminds me of the balance between the bitter, smoky resins and the cinder-toffee amber of Amber Absolute (Tom Ford), and my pleasure receptors go wild. The smoke, wood, dried fruit, and syrupy honey make me think of ancient European cathedrals, wooden pews, and fruitcakes eaten in medieval banquet halls.

 

But then the scent develops a lamb fat note that makes me feel like I am eating honey in a stall with a herd of sheep. This is not entirely unpleasant, I hasten to add. But the secondary aromas of animal fat, wool, and curd remind me that this is not a simple honey and incense amber à la Amber Absolute after all, but something darker and oudier in nature.

 

Taken simply as another entry to the genre of oudy mukhallats, Oud Cambodi immediately distinguishes itself as something a little off the beaten track. I recommend it to lovers of labdanum but also to those who love the scent or texture of goat-curdy Laotian oud. Fans of Oudh Infini by Dusita Parfums, for example, might also like this.

 

 

 

Oudh al Mithali (Rasasi)

Type: ‘oudy’ mukhallat

 

 

Rest assured that no actual oud was harmed in the making of this mukhallat. I was having difficulty pinning down Oudh al Mithali until it finally struck me that it was a blend of all the other mukhallats I have smelled at the cheaper end of the spectrum. It possesses a pleasant but slightly featureless aroma that’s vaguely exotic and ‘attar-ish’, backed by tons of soapy amber tinged with dull-as-dishwasher floral notes.

 

Essentially, it is a pastiche of orientalism cynically knocked up by an Eastern company for a Western audience. I have no doubt that a newcomer’s nose might find this exotic, and I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. But to someone with a bit of smelling experience under their belt, this sort of stuff is a waste of time and skin real estate. Take my advice – put your hard-earned money into something more interesting than Oudh al Mithali.

 

 

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

Oudh Cambodi Maliki (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Oudh Cambodi Maliki is a blend of mature Cambodi oud oil (aged for fifteen years), sandalwood, rose, and musk. That sounds as if it might be heavy but actually, it is a light affair, brimming with fruit juice flavors. For beginners or people who don’t want a too-dominant presence of oud in their blends, Oudh Cambodi Maliki is perfect.

 

The oud here has none of the spicy leather, hay, or funky barnyard notes present in other ouds. In fact, what I appreciate about this blend is that all the most approachable and delicious berry notes of the Cambodi oud have been magnified to the power of ten and placed up top to tempt the nose. The fermented facets of the oud oil are cleverly hidden behind the musk so that they emerge later and very slowly. The way the oud has been handled here is like the nurse who distracts you with jokes, so you don’t even realize that the needle’s already in your arm and five vials of your blood safely siphoned off.

 

Freshly applied to the skin, a basket of fruit flavors jostles for attention – fistfuls of glistening cherries, redcurrants, and blackberries suspended in a clear mint jelly. The aroma is sparkling, light, and as close to edible as one can get. Later, a clean woody oud note takes the center stage, but while it grows in oudiness, the animalic nuances are carefully managed. Aromatic mint and sweet berry notes continue to enliven the blend throughout the day. This is thoroughly acceptable for beginners and for those who are wary of full-on ouds.

 

 

 

Requiem (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

On the face of it, Requiem is a syrupy, animalic rose oud. But something in it proves poisonous to my lymphatic system, causing me to wheeze and my scalp to tighten uncomfortably at the back of my skull. Reactions like this are rare for me and are caused as often as not by a large dose of naturals, Indian patchouli and saffron oils in their purest forms being my latest (and most surprising) nemeses.

 

I will try to describe Requiem as best I can under the circumstances, so bear with me. It seems to be a rich, gouty mixture of fruity Cambodian oud, boyah (oil distilled from the pale, uninfected parts of the agarwood), frankincense, white ambergris, and a feral Hindi oud that is part piss-soaked straw, part freshly-tanned leather.

 

These more animalic elements are floodlit on all sides by a lush, fleshy rose composed using several different types of pure rose ottos and absolutes. The rose smells rather pungent but edible at first, introducing that push-pull tug in your mind between ‘eat me’ and ‘poison’. Then it is simply greasy, like toothpaste smeared onto a rug. There is also a bitter almond undertow that’s not helping dispel the image of the evil queen holding out a cyanide-tipped apple to Snow White.

 

The ending is dry, dry, dry – a bone-crushing combination of vague musks, woods, and amber molecules that reminds me somewhat of the base of Portrait of a Lady, at the precise moment when the berry-tipped rose is consumed wholesale by billowing gusts of acrid incense. I have no doubt that this would be stunning on the right person’s skin. On mine, however, it cuts like a whip.

 

 

 

Rihan Al Aoud (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

At around $250 per tola, Rihan Al Aoud is fairly priced for what I would consider a perfect ‘starter’ oud for women. Rihan is said to contain a blend of different oud oils from ‘Southeastern Asia’, a description that is so maddeningly non-specific that it must be deliberate – a bit of smoke and mirrors designed to gloss over what that blend of oud really entails. My guess is that Rihan Al Aoud contains a mix of plantation oud oils blended expertly with fillers like vetiver, nagamortha, resins, and possibly even some oud synthetics to create a blend that is far smoother and more perfumey than any mix of pure oud oils. 

 

In other words, perfect for the beginner, or a woman, who wants a taste of real oud, but you know, like, not really. There is nothing aged, balsamic, or animalic about the oud in Rihan Al Aoud. Whatever oud has been used here registers simply as a pleasantly smoky ‘buzz’ that clings to the scenery in the background. In fact, it doesn’t smell that much different from Black Agar, the oud synth commonly used to give commercial and niche perfumes the aroma of agarwood chips heated on a burner. Those familiar with Dior’s Leather Oud and Diptyque’s Oud Palao will have some idea what this note smells like. However, it must be noted that in Rihan Al Aoud the dirty, leathery aspects of the Givaudan material are missing completely. This is warm and smoky, but little else.

 

The smoked oud chip accord is further doped up with the fruity-floral mélange beloved of ASAQ in their female blends – a characterless blend of grapey jasmine, orange blossoms, and neroli, fluffed up with an ocean of white musk. This signature accord is so sweet that it almost always approaches pink bubblegum territory, but thankfully, Rihan Al Aoud applies the brakes just in time. Although the flowers are sweet, they are also at least juicy and vibrant, as if someone had sluiced the generic white floral mix with a glass of ice-cold orange juice.

 

Rihan Al Aoud would be a more than acceptable starter oud for women, or for male beginners who don’t mind flowers in with their oud. It smells good, and although it sure ain’t the pure oud blend advertized by ASAQ, it gives the nose a broad idea of what real oud smells like.

 

 

 

Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash

 

Rouh Al Aoud (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Rouh Al Aoud smells wonderful. Better still, as (supposedly) real ouds go, it is easy for a beginner to like and understand. This is a lightly-aged oud oil, blended with some spices, rose, and a touch of musk. What’s particularly appealing about Rouh Al Aoud is its balmy sweetness, created thanks to – I suspect – some unlisted vetiver and tonka in the background. This velvety accord is redolent of piles of sweet hay, pulverized nuts, and soft, nutmeggy woods. There is a brown butter aspect to Rouh Al Aoud that might appeal to fans of Chergui and the older Carons, like Nuit de Noel pure parfum.  There is nothing rotting, fermented, or barnyardy about the oud here.  And not being challenged to a fist-fight by a stinky oud means that the pleasure in smelling it is immediate and uncomplicated.

 

The texture of Rouh Al Aoud is notable.  At first, it is dense, sweet, and compact, like a tin full of compressed icing sugar, almond butter, and hay, with hints of rose and spices.  But when a kind of dustiness moves in to aerate the mix, the simultaneously creamy-syrupy-powdery ‘mouthfeel’ creates the delightful impression of biting into a marron glacé.  This isn’t the Pink Sugar kind of sweetness that will put most men off.  Rouh Al Aoud’s deep sweetness comes from the oud wood itself, the tobacco-ish tonka note, and the nutmeggy spices, rather than from flowers or Maltol.  This is guy- and gal-friendly.

 

 

 

Royal Private Blend (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Royal Private Blend is a limited edition run of two hundred quarter tola bottles, priced at close to $600 a bottle.  Is the juice worth the squeeze?  (Is it ever?)

 

Well.  Listen, it is undeniably high quality.  It contains what reads to my nose as a generous dose of Taifi rose oil, which gives the mukhallat a sharp, spicy green character and a rocket fuel-like forward thrust.  Unusually, the Hindi oud hides shyly behind the rose at first, refusing to exert its aquiline brutality and lending only a wash of antiseptic wood varnish.  There is nothing of the traditional Hindi oud profile here – no leathery spice, briny sourness, or fermented funk.  Instead, the oud note is clean and medicinal, as if scrubbed down hard with hospital bleach.

 

Saffron and Indian ruh khus (a pure vetiver distillation) add a beautifully dry, grassy spice to the balance, tethering the high notes of the rose and oud to the earth and making sure they don’t fly off into the ether.  Royal Private Blend is a beautiful if rather sharply-pitched rendition of the rose-oud theme and strikes me as being quite formal.  If you routinely wear a bespoke three-piece suit to work, then Royal Private Blend is the kind of thing you might wear to match. 

 

 

 

Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

 

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalid Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalid Blend is a winner.  A smooth but potent blend of heavily aged oud, amber, ambergris, spices, maybe a smattering of florals, and certainly some resins, it manages to present the bilious pungency associated with Hindi in such a suave, elegant manner that it would be churlish to resist, even if you’re not a Hindi fan.  Sure, the Hindi note is all the things it is famous for – hot, sour, oily, and leathery – but the creamy, balsamic backdrop effectively cushions its impact all the way down to the base.  The bittersweet, honeyed resin backdrop never tips the scent into sweetness, though. It is there simply to buff down the sharp elbows of the Hindi.

 

Countering the balsamic warmth of the woods and resin is a waft of natural ambergris, its silvery, cool-toned saltiness infusing ozonic air into the blend.  The ambergris also produces a subtly mossy, outdoorsy-green effect that works very well with the oud, pulling it firmly towards the masculine side of the scale.

 

The sillage is subtle, making it perhaps the best candidate of all the ASAQ blends for the suit-and-tie brigade.  It would appeal, I suspect, to the kind of person who doesn’t have to raise their voice to make themselves heard or respected.   Naturally, all this corporate-style elegance doesn’t come cheap.  Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalid Blend is priced at about $1,300 per tola.  But there is such a discreet refinement to this scent that I cannot help viewing it as the perfect pick for someone who rules with a quiet hand in the corporate world.

 

 

 

Sheikh Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

This is pretty much all oud and nothing but the oud, so help me God.  It broadcasts a message of raw, masculine power as effectively as Burt Reynolds’ hairy chest.  It is all man.  Forgive me, but as a woman, I need some sweet nothings whispered in my ear to make the medicine to go down.  I am not disputing the excellence of Sheikh Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Blend, just stating right off the bat that it is so not for the likes of me. 

 

Describing what it smells like tests the boundaries of my vocabulary.  The best I can do is to assert that it smells like rotting wood, primordial ooze, wet earth, bears in mating season, and the tears of the hundred lesser men.

 

I recommend Sheikh Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Blend to someone who needs to smell as objectionably male as they can, like the weedy accountant who has been handed the job of walking onto a half-finished construction site and telling thirty sweaty, muscled contractors that they’ve been laid off.  If you smell something like Sheikh Samad Al Qurashi Blend on someone, you instinctively drop to a submissive position.

 

 

 

Tohfa (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Tohfa is a perfectly-judged balancing act between the earthy funk of ambergris, the spicy heat of Taifi roses, and the smoldering leather jacket that is Hindi oud.  Animalic?  Hell yes.  But possessed of such polish that one would feel bad for not taking it out on the town every now and then.  It has verve, this one.

 

Apply a small dab and a wave of pure oud washes over you – a delicious, spicy caramel glaze studded with juicy red berries and dried fruits.  The mouth waters.  You can tell it is oud, but it is almost edible in its sugary sweetness.  Almost immediately, the smoking leather jacket notes hustle their way to the front, clearing away all the sugar and breathing its warm, sour Hindi breath all over you.  At the same time, a spicy-green Ta’if rose bubbles up like champagne, sweetening the oud for an intoxicating dance of sweet flowers and sour, smoky woods.

 

What I love about this mukhallat is its graceful twisting and turning throughout its progression, from sugar to sour, from roses to leather, and from the mineral, marine funk of ambergris to the steam-pressed starch of saffron.  For an oil-based perfume, it is remarkably non-linear, and therefore makes for a rewarding wear over the course of the day.  One of my personal favorites from Arabian Oud.

 

 

 

Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

 

Woroud (Amouage)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

An old world take on the classic rose-oud pairing, Woroud put the richest and most animalic of essences at the forefront, openly challenging the wearer to shrink back.  Featuring a boozy rose, sour oud, and a papery frankincense, this attar smells like the stale emanation from a centuries-old religious manuscript.  There is something magnificent and world-weary about this aroma, as if pre-aged for your smelling pleasure.  Woroud is highly recommended for those looking for a dusty, ancient-smelling rose-oud pairing rather than the sharper, brighter renditions.

 

 

 

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

 

Source of samples:  I purchased samples from Amouage, Ajmal. Arabian Oud, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Maison Anthony Marmin, Mellifluence, and Al Haramain.  Samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Sultan Pasha Attars and Rising Phoenix Perfumery were sent to me free of charge by either the brand or a distributor.     

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo of oudy mukhallats in my collection, photo my own (please do not use, circulate, or repost without my permission)

 

 

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

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: P-Y

13th April 2022

 

 

Oud-heads and oud newbies, check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.  Also, read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.  Also, don’t miss Pure Oud Reviews: 0-CPure Oud Reviews: D-K and Pure Oud Reviews: L-O.

 

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

 

 

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

 

Port Moresby (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Papuan (Gyrinops)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash

 

Purple Kinam (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Pyrex Nepal (Blend) (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Mixed

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Qi Nam 2005 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Royal Seufi Oudh (Arabian Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Jonas Hensel on Unsplash

 

Semkhor – Wild Hindi – First Fraction (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi (wild)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Singgalang – West Sumatran Wild (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Indonesian (Sumatra)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sinharaja – Ceylon 2016 (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Ripley Elisabeth Brown on Unsplash

 

Sutera Ungu (Agar Aura)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Tawau Al Awwal (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Prchi Palwe on Unsplash

 

Thai Leather (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Thai Pa Pa Kea (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna (wild harvested in Thailand)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Andres Vera on Unsplash

 

Thai Roast (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Thai Suede (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna grown on Thai Plantation

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Tigerwood Royale, Tigerwood 1995 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Ethan Rheams on Unsplash

 

Trat Jam (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Trat (Thailand)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Yunnan 2003 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

[2] Mukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled or compounded elsewhere. Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor). The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one. Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).

 

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

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

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: L-O

11th April 2022

 

 

Oud-heads and oud newbies, check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.  Also, read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.  Also, don’t miss Pure Oud Reviews: 0-C and Pure Oud Reviews: D-K.

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Layth (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

 

Limau Hijau (Blend) (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: mixed

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Low Quality Thai Oud (Al Haramain)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Malay Penyulingan 2004 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

 

Malaysia Classic (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysia

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Malaysian Oudh Royale (Arabian Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Nastya Kvokka on Unsplash

 

Mamberamo – North Papua Gyrinops (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Papua (Gyrinops)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Old School Thai (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Noah Kroes on Unsplash

 

Oud #1 (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Oud Ahmad (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Alexandre Trouvé on Unsplash

 

Oud Dhul Q (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai mixed with Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Alejandro Duarte on Unsplash

 

Oud Haroon (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Oud Hindi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: pure oud oil (ish)

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Oud Royale 1985 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Indonesian (Sumatra)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

 

Oud Sultani (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Oud Yusuf (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo-style oud with Cambodi characteristics

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Source of samples:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Imperial Oud, and Kyara Zen. The Abdul Samad Al Qurashi samples were sent to me free of charge by a distributor.   

 

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

 

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

 

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

[2] Mukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled or compounded elsewhere. Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor). The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one. Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).

 

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

 

 

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

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: D-K

9th April 2022

 

 

Oud-heads and oud newbies, check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.  Also, read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

 

Dehn al Oud Cambodi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: pure oud oil (ish)

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

 

Dehn al Oudh Cambodi (Ajmal)

Type: pure oud oil 

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Big Dodzy on Unsplash

 

Din Dang (Feel Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: mixed

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

 

Green Papua (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Papuan oud

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Hind (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Rafael Cisneros Méndez on Unsplash

 

Hindi Classic (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash

 

Hindi Gengaridai (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by blackieshoot on Unsplash

 

Hirta (Agar Aura)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Hudhayl (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

 

Indah Banga Central Kali Micro (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi mixed with Borneo characteristics

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

 

Jing Shen Lu (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Thai with some Vietnamese and Borneo characteristics

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Photo by Aida L on Unsplash

 

Kambodi 1976 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Photo by Hamed Hosseini on Unsplash

 

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

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Unknown

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Kedaulatan – Malay 2013 (Imperial Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Malaysian

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Kinamantan (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Source of samples:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Imperial Oud, and Kyara Zen. The Abdul Samad Al Qurashi samples were sent to me free of charge by a distributor.   

 

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

 

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

 

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

[2] Mukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled or compounded elsewhere. Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor). The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one. Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).

 

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

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

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: 0-C

6th April 2022

 

This is where the oud reviews begin.  But before you start reading, oud-heads and oud newbies, do check out the introduction to oud here, which covers everything from how oud is distilled, its uses in oil-based and commercial perfumery, and the different markets that consume it.  Then read my Oud Primer, consisting of Part I: The Challenges of Oud, Part II: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does and Part III: The Different Styles of Oud.

 

A word on how I am structuring the review section.

 

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

 

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

 

Oudy Mukhallats:  Second, reviews of oudy mukhallats.  Mukhallats are blends (mukhallat being the Arabic word for ‘blend’) of essential oils and other raw materials that were distilled, tinctured, or compounded elsewhere.  Some of them include carrier oils and synthetics, while others do not (price is a factor).  Generally, mukhallats are viewed by Arabs and Persians as the perfect vehicle for oud oil.  Indeed, given the preference in the Middle East for rich, complex blended perfumes, oudy mukhallats might even be preferable to wearing the oud oil neat.

 

The mukhallat is a uniquely Middle Eastern form of perfumery, while the attar is a traditionally Indian one.  Note that for most of the perfume-wearing world, the words ‘attar’ and ‘mukhallat’ are largely interchangeable (read about the actual differences here and here).  The rose-oud mukhallat is the most famous type of oudy mukhallat in the world, providing the basic template for the thousands of Montale, Mancera and Armani rose-ouds that now populate the market.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Pure Oud Oil Reviews: 0-C

 

 

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

 

 

1985 (Kyara Zen)

Type:  pure oud oil

Style or Profile:  Possibly Chinese

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

 

Al Malek Al Ceeni (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Al Malek Al Maliyzi (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Al Ruba’ie (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: pure oud oil

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

 

Aroha Kyaku (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Plantation Crassna with kyara-incense characteristics

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Assam 3000 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi with Borneo style characteristics

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Mitch Fox on Unsplash

 

Assam Organic (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Hindi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Borneo 2000 (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Borneo 50K (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Borneo

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Andres Hernandez on Unsplash

 

Cambodia Classic (Kyara Zen)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Cambodi Non-Aged Oudh (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Cambodi

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

China Sayang (Ensar Oud)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Chinese

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

 

Crassna 25 Years (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: pure oud oil

Style or Profile: Crassna (Cambodi style)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Source of samples:  Most of the pure oud samples I am reviewing in these chapters were kindly provided to me free of charge by oud artisans and distillers, namely: Ensar Oud, FeelOud, Al Shareef Oudh, and Kyara Zen. The Abdul Samad Al Qurashi samples were sent to me free of charge by a distributor.   

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

The Attar Guide: Why Oud Smells the Way it Does

31st March 2022

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Photo by Alex Lvrs on Unsplash

 

 

Taxonomy

 

 

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

 

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Geographical Region & Microclimate (Terroir)

 

 

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

 

Photo by Paul-Vincent Roll on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Manner of Cultivation

 

 

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

 

 

Wild Cultivation

 

Photo by Mike Blank on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

There is very little wild oud left, however.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Plantation Cultivation

 

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Distillation Methodology

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attars & CPOs Oud The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 2 (Oud)

12th November 2021

 

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 previous one as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery – sandalwood and oud oil.  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.

 

 

 

 

Oud: The Noble Rot

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is galen-crout-4xUxkAyQ2jY-unsplash-1024x876.jpg

Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

 

While sandalwood is the most important essential oil for traditional distilled attars, the truly essential oil for mukhallat perfumery is oud.  Oud is an oleoresin, a word that literally means ‘oily resin’.  The dark, damp oleoresin forms inside the wood of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops species of tree as a response to external trauma – the equivalent of white antibodies in the human body sent to fight infection.  The external trauma can be anything, from an infiltration of a fungus through the bark or chemical inoculation by farmers to bug infestations, drilling holes into the bark, burns caused by molten lava, or even strafing by bullets.  In other words, oud resin is the tree’s way of defending itself from attack.

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Aquilaria_crassna-681x1024.jpg

Photo of an Aquilaria crassna tree with (darker) oud oleoresin clearly present. The strafing on the trunk was done by poachers to allow an airborne fungus access to the wood, hopefully prompting the tree into producing more of the oleoresin as a response to the ‘attack’.  Photo by Blaise Droz,, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2254233

 

The appearance of the oleoresin is dark brown, greyish, or even black, and clearly distinguishable from the light creamy color of the non-resinated wood.  Older resinated specimens such as genuine kyara or incense-grade wood will not display such clear delineation between the oleoresin and the uninfected wood, instead appearing as one piece of wood uniformly threaded with greyish resin.

 

Oud wood refers to the piece of wood that contains the oleoresin.  Resinated oud wood can be heated gently over a burner as incense or carved into prayer beads and other objects.  In Arab culture, the smoke from heating oud wood is used to fumigate clothes (both personal and ceremonial robes), houses, and even the hair or beard.  The Japanese grind agarwood to powder to use in their world-famous stick incense.  The Chinese and the Japanese both have a long tradition of carving precious oud wood into prayer beads and ornaments to be used for ceremonial or religious purposes.  The very wealthy may even buy a top quality piece of oud wood (kyara) and display it in a glass case as a showpiece.

 

Most oud is consumed in oil form, however. Oud oil is the essential oil distilled from resinated oud wood.

 

 

Why is oud so important?

 

No other essential oil in the world is as subject to hysteria, obsessive behavior, collector’s mania, and controversy as oud oil.  Its rarity and expense parallels that of Mysore sandalwood oil, and yet, you don’t really find whole Internet communities dedicated to the minutiae of sandalwood oil.

 

There are several reasons for this. First of all, oud oil is so complex in its aroma profile that it wears as a complete perfume on the skin. Oud oils can have topnotes, a heart, and basenotes, just as in a commercial fragrance.  It is therefore the rare essential oil that provides the wearer with a full 360° experience.  This marks it out as different from other essential oils such as sambac jasmine or vetiver.

 

Second, oud oils are exciting because they vary a lot in basic aroma profile from region to region, terroir to terroir, style to style,, and species to species.  Therefore, if you don’t like the barnyardy honk of Hindi oud oils, no problem – simply move onto the sweeter, friendlier Cambodi style oud oils, or the super-treacly Trat ouds.  Likewise, one might find oneself nerdily consumed with the different types of oils that are distilled from wood grown on the island of Borneo, each with their own little quirks and personalities.  There is something in the oud pot for everyone.

 

Third, oud oils satisfy the eternal human hunger for individuality, rarity, and uniqueness.  Oud oils are the perfect riposte to the mass-market, standardized wave of products we consume in our daily lives.  Pure oud oils are small-batch and limited edition, full of minute but important nuances never to be replicated with a hundred percent exactitude again.  The idea that one can own something a tiny piece of a non-renewable resource is irresistible, especially to those with a keen collector’s mentality.

 

The final reason why oud oils can be the focus of obsession is that they, unlike other essential oils, allow for a large degree of artisanship and creativity on the part of the distiller.  Even minor tweaks to the distillation process can produce surprising variations in the resulting aroma.  Therefore, not only is the raw material more intrinsically nuanced than other materials, but its manner of distillation is more open to innovation.  The result is still an essential oil, but in experimenting with different distilling materials, mineral content of the water used, cooking temperatures, soaking times, and post-distillation aging, the distiller can arrive at a slightly different result each time.

 

This ‘room to play’ aspect of oud distilling has resulted in oud oils that display a surprisingly wide range of notes that might not otherwise appear in the oil, such as lilac, chocolate, musk, and even hints of salty, golden ambergris.  One oud artisan describes it as alchemy.  This aspect of creative experimentation in oud distilling has attracted a greater proportion of artists and artisans to the process, far more than are drawn to either sandalwood or other essential oil distilling.

 

 

 

The Process of Making Oud Oil

 

The process of distilling oil from resinated wood is very traditional.  In many ways, the process is like that of producing a ruh (essential oil) in the old Indian method, namely slow steam distillation using clay, steel, and copper degs.  First, the hunters arrive out of the jungle, bearing wood they have chopped out of living trees or felled to access the wood.  If the oud wood is from a plantation, the wood is harvested just like any other farmed crop.

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Agarwood.jpg

Uninfected agarwood, i.e., bunkwood. Photo by Hafizmuar at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4782613

 

The big logs will then be broken down into shards of oud wood and inspected for bunkwood, which is wood in and around the darker, resinated areas of the wood that do not contain any essential oil or resinoid at all (see photo above).   If the distillation is a high quality one, then the bunkwood is carefully carved out of the piece of wood and discarded.  In lower-quality distillations, the bunkwood is left in to make up the weight needed to pack the distilling pot to capacity.

 

The remaining wood shards are soaked in water for varying periods of time, but usually for no less than ten days.  Longer soaks will ensure that the wood rots a little, adding a sour, fermented note to the resulting oil.  This is an effect that consumers of Hindi oils (the Arab market) have come to prize as the principal characteristic of good oud oil.  The mineral content of the water used for soaking will impart its own character to the resulting oil, with varying effects coming from carbonated water versus spring water versus tap water, and so on.

 

After soaking, the still is loaded with about seventy kilos of soaked wood chips and a fire built underneath the still.  The oud oil is distilled from the wood over the course of a week, using very exact heat and condensing methods to keep the wood at exactly the right temperature.  Steam distillation is the preferred method of extraction because it is easier to keep the heat constant using this method.  It is vital not to allow the still to get overheated.  The average yield from a seventy kilo distillation is only about twenty to twenty-four grams, which is enough for two tolas of pure oud oil.  The yield depends on the species of the wood used, as some species are notoriously low-yielding.  The water in which the agarwood has been distilled (called a hydrosol) is valuable to producers because it still contains little particles of oud oil, so the hydrosols are used again and again to wring out the most oud particles possible.

 

 

 

The Scarcity of Oud

 

 

Oud is scarce.  Less than eight percent of wild Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees contain oud resin.  Its scarcity means that it is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  Its status as an endangered species is partly because of the naturally-low infection rate among wild trees and partly because mass deforestation across South-East Asia is mowing down much of the forests, including the agarwood-producing species of tree.  Wild oud-bearing trees are facing depletion in much the same manner as Mysore sandalwood.  Oud wood from wild trees is rare and costly, leading to high demand, which in turn means that people will spend anything or do anything to get their hands on it. 

 

Although technically it is true that trees are a renewable resource, it takes a lot of time to replace an wild tree that has spent eighty plus years growing that precious oleoresin inside its trunk.  Once a wild tree is gone, it is gone for good.  Wild agarwood trees are listed as Appendix II in CITES.  But as with all Appendix II classifications (including, for example, deer musk), this does not mean that there is a ban on the material itself.  It simply means that strict measures are in place to control its trade.  James Compton, the South East Asian director for TRAFFIC, clarified this in a press release, by saying: ‘It is important to remember that CITES Appendix II is not a trade ban, but a management intervention that will help ensure legality, promote sustainability and enable more accurate monitoring of the agarwood trade.’[i]

 

For many, the best ‘management intervention’ to address the scarcity of wild-crafted oud is plantation cultivation.  Plantations are farms that grow Aquilaria species under controlled conditions, with farmers artificially inoculating the tree trunks with fungus to spark them into producing the valuable oud oleoresin.  Plantations enable sustainability, continuation of supply, and consistency of product quality – a good thing from the point of view of commercial perfumery.

 

There is no global shortage of plantation-grown agarwood.  Trygve Harris, in her wonderful article, entitled ‘Agarwood – Is It Endangered?’, states that people in Asia are investing in agarwood farming to supply the market and that there is subsequently a healthy number of plantation-grown agarwood trees in Asia[ii]:

 

‘Ajmal perfumes estimates that there are 55 million trees planted in Assam, in anticipation of the worldwide shortage.  Many of these were planted over 20 years ago.  There is a nice plantation of 1.5 million on the Lao plain north of Vietnam, planted in 2000/2001 and now set to become a fishing resort for secondary income.  These are mostly, if not all, Aquilaria Crassna.  There are 2 million Aquilaria trees planted near Bangkok, and more all over Thailand.  One can also find in plenty of trees in Vietnam at the fragrant mountain experimental station in An Giang, not to mention other plantations.  Those trees are Aquilaria Crassna.  And it seems everyone’s planting them at home, in their yard.  All over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam at least, these trees grow.  The world of agarwood does not exist in a separate universe where people have no concept of nature’s limits.  In fact, many people have noticed the incredibly high prices agarwood commands and are taking steps to integrate themselves in the future market.’ 

 

The CITES effort to regulate and control trade of agarwood has had a big impact in signatory countries where agarwood naturally grows, and some say not for the better.  Agarwood grows naturally in Northern India, for example, but strict CITES certification procedures have cut smallholders out of the picture and accidentally allowed corruption to flourish.

 

Trygve Harris explained the effect of CITES on agarwood production in an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018 as follows: ‘Basically, it was illegal to harvest an agarwood tree, even from your own property, unless certain steps were taken and rules followed, and the designated places to distill for oil were in cities far away from the towns and villages in NE India where Agarwood happily grows.  Agarwood naturally and traditionally grows all over those states, in people’s yards.  Trees were harvested for important events, weddings, college, etc.  But, with the 2000 regulations, people couldn’t legally sell their own agarwood, unless it had a CITES certificate, which were only obtainable though the official channels at Guwahati and Kanpur.  So, a big gap was left, and who better to step in than the mafia?  They did, and that’s all I want to say about that.’’”[iii]

 

The current production landscape is made up of large-scale plantation farmers who grow agarwood under contract for the big Emirati houses and Western commercial perfume houses, and a second, much smaller group of mostly foreign artisan distillers who run small-batch, custom distillations of oud for their customer base.  These two groups of people have very different goals for the oud oil they produce, so it stands to reason that their ways of managing the trees are also different. 

 

Indigenous plantation owners and farmers are under contract to produce the oud oil needed in large-scale perfumery, which includes the big Emirati and Indian brands, as well as Western commercial perfumery[iv].  For these plantation owners, oud is a cash crop like any other.  They do not have the financial wherewithal to wait between twenty and forty years for the trees to mature, and many begin harvesting at between six months and three years old.  Plantation-grown oleoresin therefore often lacks maturity.

 

In some regions of SE Asia, but particularly in Laos, farmers use chemical inoculants to stimulate oleoresin production, to speed up the process.  Many say that the chemicals leave a metallic dirtiness in the resulting oil.  These factors contribute to an oud oil product that is certainly cheap and plentiful, but also inferior-smelling.  In contrast, farmers in Assam, in Northern India, rarely use chemical inoculants and allow the trees to be naturally infected by bugs or wounding the trees with knives.  Therefore, different countries, different production cultures.  Laos produces trees hard and fast, while Assam takes a slower, more rural approach.

 

Through experimenting with a combination of blending with other oud oils for consistency of smell and force-aging the oils by exposing them to the air to get those traditional barnyardy flavors, the plantations have come up with an oil that can be used in commercial and niche perfumery.  The advantages to plantation agarwood are clear – it is cheap, plentiful, and of consistent quality.  Depending on the manner of inoculation (chemical versus natural), the age of the wood when harvested, and the quality of the distillation process, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is not always pleasant or suitable for wearing neat on the skin.  But blended with other natural ingredients and lifted by synthetics, the effect in a commercial perfume is usually excellent.  It also allows for Western perfume houses to make a claim of authenticity for their oud perfumes.

 

Artisan distillers, in contrast, just want the best-smelling oil possible.  They do not care about selling large volumes of oil and intend for the oil to be worn neat on the skin, not mixed into a larger perfume formula.  Therefore, they are inclined to buy small quantities of high quality plantation wood whose quality they can control.  Artisans usually select only farmed trees that have been growing for between twenty and forty years and buy from farmers who use organic inoculation methods to infect the trees, namely drilling holes in the wood and allowing natural air-borne fungus spores and bugs to enter the wood on their own.

 

Careful management, selection, and inoculation can yield very good quality plantation oud wood for distilling.  The resulting oil can be of a quality that approaches or even matches that of wild oud.  In oud terminology, oil distilled from plantation agarwood is called ‘organic oud’, a term that, as in food, is supposed to convey to the customer qualities of purity, cleanliness, naturalness, and the level of care taken during its production.

 

 

 

The Market for Oud

 

The culture of a country or ethnic group is the strongest influence on how oud is consumed, valued, packaged, used, and sold.  Arabs consume the great majority of the Hindi-style oils and wood, for example, while the Chinese consume most wild Cambodi incense-grade wood for carving ceremonial beads and ornaments.  The Japanese consume most, if not all, of the incense-grade wood that comes out of the Vietnamese jungles for milling into incense powder for sticks and cones.

 

In terms of sheer volume, the Arab market is by far the most important consumer of oud.  Arabs have used oud oil and oud wood for burning for almost five centuries, an appetite that accelerated sharply with the discovery and exploitation of crude oil in the Emirates region.  Oil made many Arabs rich, and this wealth meant that they could now indulge their appetite for a material – oud – that had once been reserved for the Royal families.  It is the Arab preference for the smoky, austere, leathery oud oils, i.e., Hindi-type oils, that set the tone for most oud oil production in the Far East.

 

Hindi-style oud oils were traditionally consumed exclusively by the royal families of the Middle East and the Emirates.  Since Hindi oud was so highly valued by the elite, the taste for this style became pervasive in Arab culture.  The preference for this style of oud runs so deep, in fact, that if an oil does not possess the traditional Hindi aroma profile, many Arab consumers have trouble recognizing the oil as genuine oud.  Clean, green, woody oud oils such as a Borneo or Papuan oil, for example, do not sell well in this market.

 

The cultural expectation of what oud must smell like plays a huge role in how oud oil is distilled, soaked, mixed, and aged for the Arab market.  To cater to the Arab taste, many large companies require that their distillers soak the wood for a longer time before distilling it or expose the oud oil to the air in order to oxidize it and produce an aged, leathery result (called ‘force-aging’).  These processes produce a more pronounced, fermented ‘Hindi’ flavor in the oil.

 

Above all, the enormous Arab appetite for oud oil has had an impact on purity.  Yields of pure oud oil are low, averaging at about twenty grams per seventy kilo distillation, which begs the thorny question of how to satisfy huge demand with such tiny amounts of oud.  Realistically, something has got to give.  And in the case of oud oil, that something is purity.  Put bluntly, every single quantity of pure oud oil brought out of the jungles of India and the Far East and into the Emirates is adjusted, stretched out, and diluted with other oud oils, essential oils, and fillers in order to make a quantity large enough to satisfy Arab demand.

 

And the Arab demand for oud is inexhaustible.  The Arab market consumes oud oil and wood not only in their pure form, but also mixed into soaps, detergents, and toothpaste.  Therefore, oud is as much a flavoring product to be used in functional cleaning products as lily of the valley or rose is in the West.  Oud oil is an essential oil, but its purity is of a lesser concern to Arabs than its essential oudiness.  The Arabs prize purity in most all other essential oils such as rose ottos, sandalwood, or Sambac jasmine oil, but regard oud more as a general scent category than as an essential oil. 

 

The Chinese market absorbs almost all the wild, incense grade agarwood from the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam.  Ensar of Ensar Oud reports that it is practically impossible to procure Cambodi oud wood now[v], since every single log carried out of the jungles have already been bought by the Chinese and at a far higher price that other buyers can afford to pay.  The Chinese use some of the oud wood they buy for burning in their temples, but the majority is used to carve beads, ornaments, and necklaces, all of which are assumed to have ceremonial or religious importance.

 

The Japanese market consumes incense-grade oud wood for use in Japanese incense cones and sticks.  The market for oud oil itself is not significant.  The huge Japanese incense companies of Baieido, Shoyeido, and Nippon Kodo, among others, consume such large quantities of the highest grades of oud wood (termed incense-grade, Kyara, or Kinam) that they often station representatives outside the edges of jungles to make sure they get first pick from the loads the hunters carry out.  In Japan, oud wood is known as jinko or aloeswood.

 

Once back in Japan, the aloeswood is sorted further into grades, milled to fine powders, and mixed with other powdered woods such as sandalwood and cedar, spices such as clove and cinnamon, and gums and resins (most particularly benzoin).  These mixtures are destined for use as molded incense cones or incense sticks, the highest quality of which does not possess a wooden core but burn straight through.  Aloeswood is prized in Japanese culture almost uniquely for its role in incense ceremonies, known as Kōdō (香道, or the “Way of Fragrance”).  Kōdō involves ‘listening’ to Japanese incense and understanding its spiritual message.  The ceremony includes games, a code of conduct, and rituals.

 

The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates to the 6th century AD, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes.  Some warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.  The best pieces (Kyara) were reserved for royal use, and some pieces of Kyara from this period have been preserved in vaults by the government.  The price and scarcity of Kyara means that the ceremony of Kōboku is rarely performed today.  However, the art of Kōdō continues, with the more expensive aloeswood being mixed with sandalwood, clove, spikenard, and other aromatic spices to produce a wonderfully fragrant incense for burning during the ceremony.

 

 

Waiter! Is that an oud in my perfume?

 

When buying a perfume or oil that has oud in the name, the buyer usually wants to know: is there any real oud in this?  It is a reasonable question, especially since any scent or oil marketed as containing oud will likely be more expensive than other, non-oudy options (regardless of whether there is any oud in it).  In general, if you are buying a commercial (spray-based perfume), then the likelihood is that the oud will be synthetic.  A small number of commercial niche oud perfumes contain real oud oil, but the vast majority does not.

 

There are two reasons why not.  First, there is the problem of replicability.  Pure oud oil is one of the most inconsistent materials in the world.  Oil batches can smell different from each other even if the same type of wood is used, because of variations in the mineral content of the water used to distill, as well as differing soak times, microclimate, etc.  The problem of replicability is not a factor for small-batch artisans such as Ensar Oud, Imperial Oud, and AgarAura, because their unique selling point lies in the interesting variations from oil to the next.  But this type of batch inconsistency is a logistical nightmare for commercial perfumery.  In commercial perfumery, it is vital to be able to replicate an accord with a hundred percent consistency from one batch to the next.

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fulvio-ciccolo-Pmkq0yZ80-4-unsplash-683x1024.jpg

Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash  

 

Second, there is the problem of scaling up.  Real oud oil yields are too small and expensive to make sense in perfume formulas that require greater quantities of each raw material or aromachemical to scale up for production.  One twenty gram batch might stretch to fill a formula for two hundred bottles, but it will not be enough to make the ten thousand bottles required to stock the shelves at Sephora or Douglas.  In general, small-batch raw materials with huge variances in quality or aroma rarely translate well to large-batch commercial perfumery.

 

The great issue of oud in commercial perfumery is therefore not that of sustainability but of transparency.  If few commercial perfumes contain real oud oil, then why do companies charge more for perfumes with the word oud in them?  The simple answer is that oud is an exotic note to which ideas of rarity and expense has been attached.  Customers are demonstrably happy to buy into its mystique.  It is likely that many consumers believe that the higher prices for scents with an oud note are to cover the cost of obtaining and using real oud in the perfume, although this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Many reputable companies obfuscate on this matter and charge much higher prices for the perfumes in their lines that supposedly contain oud.

 

As mentioned, however, a small number of niche perfume houses do use real oud oil in their formulae, sourced from the plantations of Laos and Thailand.  The advantage to Western perfume houses of using plantation oud oil is that it is cheap, pre-blended with other oils to achieve a replicable consistency, and, crucially, available in the quantities needed for commercial perfumery.  Brands reputed to use real Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai farmed oud include Mona di Orio (Oudh Osmanthus), Fragrance du Bois (e.g., Oud Violet Intense), Dusita (Oudh Infini), Maison Francis Kurkdijan (Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Silk Mood, Oud Velvet Mood), and The Different Company (Oud for Love, Oud Shamash).  Ex Idolo 33 is a niche perfume that used a stock of 33-year-old Chinese oud oil and might be said to be the only commercially produced perfume to contain an amount of high-quality, vintage wild oil rather than plantation oil.

 

Higher-end oudy mukhallat sprays produced by the big Emirati and Indian brands such as Ajmal (Shams Oud) and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi (Dahn al Oudh Anteeq) also contain a quantity of real oud, diluted with other oils and perfumer’s alcohol to scale the formula up into a spray-based perfume.   In contrast, oudy mukhallats on the lower end of the price scale use the same oud synthetics as everyone else.  For a detailed breakdown of what types of perfumes are likely to contain real oud and which are not, please refer to the section in the upcoming Oud chapter titled Challenge 1: Where to Start?  This section runs you through all the available options (artisanal oils, big brand oils, oudy mukhallats, Western niche, etc.) and explains the extent to which each option is likely to contain real oud and in what proportions.

 

 

 

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.

 

[i] http://www.fao.org/forestry/50057/en/

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

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

[iv] Fragrance du Bois, for example, is a brand that either owns or contracts exclusively with an agarwood plantation in Malaysia to supply them with oud oil for their line of fragrances.

[v] http://agarwood.ensaroud.com/the-great-cambodian-experiment-3/