Browsing Tag

oudy mukhallats

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Oud Oudy mukhallats Review The Attar Guide

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)

 

 

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

Oudy Mukhallat Reviews: A-C

19th May 2022

 

 

 

The oud reviews continue!  We are now moving away from reviews of pure oud oils (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-C, D-K, L-O, and P-Y) to reviews of oudy mukhallats.  As a quick reminder, 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).  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.

 

 

Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash

 

Abdul Azeez Blend (Arabian Oud)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Abdul Azeez Blend is an extremely potent, masculine-leaning rose, oud, and musk mukhallat.  The quality of the rose is excellent but tainted somewhat by a fuzzy ‘steel wire’ synthetic that I suspect belongs to the oud component.  This twang of oud synthetics – dry and rubbery – will familiar to anyone who’s ever tried a Montale or a Mancera.

 

Thankfully, this glancing chemical taste seems to affect only the opening, quickly disappearing into the velvety folds of the rich rose and amber that swells up behind it.  The amber is confidently spiced, the rose exuberantly jammy, and there’s a liquid smoothness to the texture that reads like a Mexican dessert liquor – one of those that are golden in appearance but plummy-brown in the mouth.

 

The scent grows ever richer and more caramelized as it develops.  However, for the first hour, this oudy mukhallat reminds me uncomfortably of lower-priced Arabian blends that rely too heavily on woody ambers or synthetic oud to carry the weight of the fragrance.  For a premium-priced attar, this is not ideal.  To be fair, the sensitivity to this raw, dry oud note is possibly mine alone, and if you can take the band-aidy notes at the top of, say, Montale’s White Aoud, then you can take them here too.  Once Abdul Azeez Blend sheds its rather synthetic topnotes, it becomes a truly excellent rose oud with potency and charm in spades. 

 

 

Photo by Ömer F. Arslan on Unsplash

 

Al Bayt Al A’teeq (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Bayt Al A’teeq (meaning ‘the ancient house’ in Arabic) is a limited edition oil blend made by Al Shareef Oudh in close cooperation with a leading perfumery family in Mecca.  The aim here was to recreate the exact aroma profile of the oil used to scent the cloth covering the Ka’aba and the Black Stone.  Although I’ve never had the privilege and never will (being a non-Muslim), people who have been inside the Ka’aba itself have recounted the divine smell of the special oils mixed and rubbed onto the black cloth and onto the red bricks inside the structure.  Al Bayt Al A’teeq is a mukhallat that apparently recreates this special scent.

 

Al Bayt Al A’teeq is a great example of what Al Shareef Al Oudh does so well, which is taking a theme and interpreting it in the most authentic way possible, with little care given to appeasing Western palates.  The mukhallats and attars from this house all communicate a clear message of earnestness and sincerity.  In other words, blends and oils for the purists and the mystics among us, and not necessarily for the beginner or for the casual buyer looking for something sweetly, vaguely exotic.  These blends mean business – so you too had better mean business.

 

In Al Bayt Al A’teeq, authenticity has been placed high above smoothness, sweetness, and affability.  It is a ferocious blend of aged oud, musk, and ambergris, with no florals or amber at all to soften the blunt force of the animalics.  The result is a sepulchral, gloomy, but velvety blend that achieves the blackness of a starless sky.  It smells ancient, dusty, and a bit stale, like the exhalation of a tomb newly excavated.  Personally, I find it a bit suffocating, but it will appeal to people (especially men) who like their mukhallats authentically dark and serious.

 

 

 

Al Hareem (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Hareem showcases a particularly rare Bengali oud.  Bengali ouds are Hindi ouds, famous for being fiercely animalic, and indeed, the opening fizzes with a pissy, hay-like oud aroma that at first shocks and then beguiles.  A good Hindi oud reels you in on an attraction-repulsion mechanism – the hot sourness, the rotting wood, that stinking underbelly of a goat.  How can those aromas be so simultaneously repugnant and alluring?  That’s the mystery of pure oud.

 

Al Hareem follows this brutalizing but gorgeous oud opening with a mellow tandem of Turkish rose and Mysore sandalwood, the effect of which is the formation of a very traditional-smelling Indian attar cushion for that sour, animalic Bengali oud.  Al Hareem takes an age-old template – the traditional rose-oud-sandal mukhallat – and improves upon it by shoehorning the best, most luxurious materials into it.

 

In time, the soft red rose note is bolstered by other florals, particularly tuberose and gardenia, but the white florals never overwhelm or dominate the rose.  They are there simply to add to the creamy effect created by the musk and butter notes.  It is worth mentioning that there is a beautifully fragrant, nutty quality to the sandalwood in the base of this attar that’s particularly toothsome.  The final act is a sweet mélange of buttery woods, silky musks, cream, and roses, with only a trace of the woody sourness of the Bengali oud remaining.

 

I cannot recommend Al Hareem highly enough to people who are looking for a slightly traditional, but very soft and friendly Indian-inspired rose-oud-sandalwood attar to start out with, and who don’t mind spending a bit extra to get something that is made with high quality natural oils and absolutes.

 

 

Photo by Ren Ran on Unsplash

 

Al Khidr (Mellifluence)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Khidr uses a very unusual oud oil called Green Sarawak oud, which comes from oud trees grown in the Malaysian-owned part of Western Borneo.  All oud oil from trees grown on the island of Borneo, no matter their species or the region of Borneo where the trees grew, features notes that mark them out as Borneo oud.  They are all bright and vaporous in a freshly-cut-log kind of way.

 

In temperament, Borneo oud oils are eons away from the aroma profile of classic Hindi or Cambodi-style oud oils.  In fact, many Arabs find it difficult to accept Borneo oud as oud because it does not conform to their cultural expectations of how oud oil should smell, which for them is an aroma encompassing fermentation, leather, barnyard, hay, smoke, and spice

 

True to form, the Borneo oud oil used in Al Khidr is very green, clean, and tartly fresh.  There are hints of freshly-cut pears, apples, and herbs – notes also associated with Borneo ouds – as well as a sparkling solvent or glue-like high note.  (As it turns out, the scent of turps and nail polish remover is also a feature of Borneo ouds).

 

Al Khidr has a very pleasant flavor profile, balancing its silvery freshness with the murky, velvety depths one associates with oud oils in general.  This is the kind of oud that even beginners and those wary of ouds in general can immediately appreciate.  The oud is bracketed on either end by a grassy vetiver, smoky cade oil, lemon balm, and a whole host of fresh, crisp notes such as apple and cucumber, all carefully chosen to accentuate the rubbery cleanliness of the oud.

 

Al Khidr occupies a very earthy, balsamic tone from top to tow, sliding in minute increments from bright green at the start to dark green in the base.  There are other oud oils and Mysore sandalwood here too, but they are only there to deepen the emerald green brightness of the Green Sarawak.  For those looking for a balsamic oud mukhallat with clean green smoke or rubber notes, Al Khidr may prove to be worth your time.  It wears more like a hike through a pine forest than a trip to the Mosque.

 

 

Al Molouk Cambodi (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Al Molouk, meaning ‘the King’, is the name of one of Abdul Samad al Qurashi’s most revered blends, which in its original guise featured a blend of dark aged oud, Ta’if rose, amber resin, and wildflowers.  Unfortunately, in or around 2014, all the ASAQ mukhallats and attars were reformulated, and Al Molouk was badly affected.  Experts noticed that Al Molouk was no longer as natural-smelling as it once had been, and that the richness of the various components had been whittled down.  The composition had also been cheapened with a dose of woody aromachemicals to boost projection, a peculiarly modern obsession in today’s market.

 

But out of the misery of reformulation came a most interesting assignment.  The owner of The World in Scents, a Princeton-based seller of very high-end oud oils and attars, including those of ASAQ itself, asked JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery to create a mukhallat that recreated the former splendor of ASAQ’s Al Molouk using only natural raw materials.  The project proved a resounding success, with many fans claiming it was equal to, if not better, than the original Al Molouk.  Based on the success of the first Rising Phoenix Perfumery Al Molouk, JK DeLapp created a series of variations on the central theme, starting with Al Molouk Cambodi, which adds a very fruity, sweet Cambodi oud oil to the basic template.

 

The result is almost incandescently good.  Opening with the juicy, sweet red berries and raw honey of a Cambodi-style oud oil, Al Molouk Cambodi smells immediately like real oud oil but without the funky sourness that sometimes gives pause to the beginner’s nose.  In the place of sour rot and fermented woods, there is a calm wave of sweet incense powder that acts upon the oud to render it as fizzy as a just-opened can of Coca Cola.  Behind this comes riding up a big Ta’if rose, sweeter and fuller than normal thanks to the dollop of a vanillic resin – probably benzoin – that burnishes everything in a caramelized glaze.  It smells as sweet, full-bodied, and generous as one might hope for in any exotic, vaguely oudified perfume.

 

This is one mukhallat with child-bearing hips.  It finishes up in the embrace of a rosy amber accord that smells like a crème brulée sprinkled with candied rose petals, red berries, powdered sugar, and rose syrup.  Indeed, fans of modern niche, gourmandy ouds like Oud Satin Mood (Maison Francis Kurkdijan) or Oud for Love (The Different Company) will find this to be firmly in their wheelhouse.  Al Molouk is both a surprise and a welcome evolution of the basic model.  It is particularly well-suited to those who want a natural rose-oud mukhallat but don’t quite get along with the leathery austerity of more traditional oud blends.  It will press all the right buttons for lovers of creamy, opulent rose-oud ambers.

 

 

Photo by Markus Avila on Unsplash

 

Al Molouk Trat (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Trat is a border region of Thailand that produces a very specific kind of oud oil.  Trat oils traditionally have a syrupy, candy-sweet character that tends to disguise a piercingly animalic basenote.  Picture, if you will, a piece of wet, rotting wood covered in strawberry jam.  That is the Trat aroma profile.

 

Al Molouk Trat is true to the character of a Trat oil, in that it initially smells like a vat of sugar syrup smeared all over a raunchy leather jacket that’s been dragged through a barnyard.  And it is exactly this dichotomy between tutti-frutti sweetness and grubby smut that gets the brain’s pleasure synapses firing on all cylinders.

 

Compared to the other Al Molouk versions, the oudiness here is both darker and more assertive in its presentation, taking longer than usual to fade away into the softer rose and amber notes.  The sweet-and-sour syrup aspect of Trat oud is the main feature, and despite the initial hit of sweetness, this is a more traditionally masculine affair than Al Molouk Cambodi (which is a fluffy Middle Eastern dessert in comparison).  For all its jammy, treacly richness upfront, Al Molouk Trat showcases a far more animalistic oud than the other versions.  It is rugged, fermented, and a bit sour – more traditionally oudy in profile.  In some parts, it is reminiscent of a Hindi-style oil.

 

In the drydown, the rose and caramelized amber accords common to the other Al Molouk iterations arrives to take control.  If your teeth were clenched through the more animalistic portions of this mukhallat, this will be where you let your breath out and begin to enjoy the ride.  Conversely, if you prefer the rugged, leathery oud that hogs the heart of this mukhallat, then its sweet, creamy drydown might strike you as a cop-out.

 

 

 

Al Noukhba Elite Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

In terms of complexity, Al Noukhba represents a step up from the fabulous Jewel Blend.  But alas, it has a price tag to match, costing on average $1,300 per tola.  Still, Al Noukhba is very special indeed. 

 

The opening is almost shockingly animalic, with a blast of hot-sour-fetid woodiness that comes close to smelling like the bile that rises in your throat before you vomit.  To say that this could be challenging to newcomers to oud is an understatement.  In fact, I would recommend this blend only to people who have a bit of experience under their belts.  The opening lasts a fair bit on skin, but lean into it, and I’ll wager you’ll find Al Noukhba to be a deeply rewarding experience.

 

After the initial onslaught, the dark, hot-sour aroma of aged oud banks down, spreading out to allow the other notes to come to the fore.  However, the oud retains an assertive presence in the scent from beginning to end.  The extended run of the oud marks it out as quite different from Jewel Blend, where the aged oud lasts only for a couple of hours before giving way almost completely to the amber and ambergris beneath.  That in and of itself (somewhat) justifies the higher price of Al Noukhba.  When tested side by side, Al Noukhba emerges as a far deeper, drier, and darker scent.

 

Bubbling underneath the aged oud is something floral, a collection of notes which feel ‘pressed together’, a tarry brick of floral absolutes rather than fresh rose petals.  Al Noukhba is technically a rose-oud fragrance, but its oud is so dark and its rose so desiccated that it may puzzle anyone used to commercial or niche interpretations of the rose-oud theme.  Backing the floral ‘absolute’ is quite a lot of sweet amber and musk.  These accords add a nutty roundness to the scent that goes some way towards softening the darker floral and oud notes.  I’ve been informed that one female ASAQ customer buys ten bottles of this a year to smell as seductive as possible for her husband. Lucky man.

 

 

 

Al Shomukh (Amouage)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Discontinued, rare, and ruinously expensive when you do find it, Al Shomukh is a creamy but pungent rose-oud whose animalic bite certainly has not been dumbed down for a Western audience.  The opening of Al Shomukh features all the bile-duct sturm und drang for which Hindi oud is known.  However, the rich, smoky leather-like facets of the oud oil add depth and shading to the acid, thus giving it a supple roundness that takes the sting out of the experience.

 

For a beginner, Al Shomukh is challenging but not entirely off-putting.  Its funkiness is haughty, regal even.  The bleu cheese and truffles aspect of the oud oil may cause a momentary shiver of revulsion – the body saying no, most emphatically – but then, the nose finds itself wandering back to the same spot, hunting the scent like a truffle pig.  Al Shomukh is therefore a fine example of how pure oud can trigger the attraction and the repulsion reflexes simultaneously, creating an obsessive desire to smell it over and over again.

 

Touches of rose and a rather synthetic-feeling white musk bleed into the stark oud, feathering it out at the edges and helping to settle into the aroma of stale, ancient wood and long-cleared-out horse barns.  It is the smell of ruined libraries in the jungles, the yellowing pages of abandoned books curling in the moist brown fug of decaying wood spores.  There are hints here also of damp hay, barn animals, smoke, grass, and later – much later – a hint of fruit from davana, an Indian herb that smells like two-day-old booze, mint, and old leather Chesterfields.

 

I am impressed.  I am intoxicated.  It is impossible to guess from its stark, austere beginnings, but somehow Al Shomukh manages to work itself up into a rich, complex floral oud that smells more like an entire landscape than a mashing together of two or three raw materials.  It transcends its individual components, therefore, driving an arrow straight into one’s emotional solar plexus rather than allowing you to loll about in polite admiration mode.  Al Shomukh leans masculine because of the blunt focus on the oud and musk, but it is completely wearable by a woman.  It is not as heavy or as opulent as Tribute or Badr al Badour, but its sillage is still significant.

 

 

Photo by Alexander Kirov on Unsplash

 

Arabesque Noir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Arabesque Noir is a dark rose-oud blend with a significant saffron note that lends it the ‘aged’ leather mien of an old briefcase or piece of wooden furniture left to molder in a closed-up room.  Medicinal, woody and heavy, the oud anchors the base, giving it the same decrepit glamor as the facades of storefronts in Havana.

 

The woody sourness of the rose-oud combination makes it a perfect choice for men who are looking for a masculine take on the rose-oud theme, or even just for people who like the acrid but exciting ‘freshly tanned leather’ aroma of saffron.  Leathery and battered, Arabesque Noir would also be ideal for people who spend lots of time in old second-hand bookstores, thumbing through books so old their yellowed pages threaten to crumble in their fingers. 

 

Arabesque Noir is ultimately reminiscent of Swiss Arabian Mukhallat Malaki, another dusty saffron-rose-oud mukhallat, but far better quality.   In the far dry down, a pleasant surprise lurks – an animalic, dark musk teeming with all sorts of skanky secretions such as hyraceum, castoreum, and civet.

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Attar al Kaaba is the base attar embroidered upon in Ghilaf-e-Kaaba, which will be reviewed in the next chapter, but it is distinctive in and of itself.  The oud and rose elements of the blend play out very differently in Attar al Kaaba than in its big brother.  For one, the oud in Attar al Kaaba is darker, more shadowy, and perhaps even a little sinister, while the rose is both sweeter and more winey.  It is a great example of how the essential elements in a blend can be altered or substituted with a different quality of material, creating a completely different effect.

 

Attar al Kaaba also differs from Ghilaf-e-Kaaba by being sweeter and plusher.  It is a very straight-forward rendition of the rose-oud theme, but done so well and with such high quality, natural-smelling materials that the result is a pleasure to wear.  While I admire the artistry and perhaps greater evolution in Ghilaf, I find Attar al Kaaba to be friendlier.  It would make for an excellent starter rose-oud attar for the beginner, provided that the beginner is interested in naturalness over effect and is willing to pay a higher-than-average price.

 

 

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

 

Attar AT (Tauer Perfumes)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

I hadn’t understood how big a role that cultural misappropriation, or rather the perception of cultural misappropriation, played in the evaluation of attars until I read a comment on a Basenotes interview I did with JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, which read as follows: ‘Looking forward to trying it and appreciate the perspective on Attars, but also giving the side-eye to another American appropriating an other’s work and culture and claiming he knows better and can do better.’

 

The commenter is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.

 

This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West.  I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the East simply because they originated there.  This is rubbish, of course.

 

First, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West.  I would estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about five to ten percent of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery.  Unfortunately, however, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is always going to be tempted to find them amazing even if they are not.  Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.

 

Second, it is not the where (the East) that counts, it is the who.  In my experience, the best quality mukhallats out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing.  Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.

 

I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is quite often Westerners, and specifically Western artisans, that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials.  They are taking the Western propensity for precision to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.

 

And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group.  In a way, it is a natural fit – Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending a mukhallat) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.

 

Attar AT is excellent work.  It succeeds both as a mukhallat and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner.  It contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East.  Attar AT opens up as pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.  But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes.  The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus.  There is no Tauerade.  It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear.  A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.

 

As an aside, it is funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud.  I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather.  However, at a distance and at certain points of the mukhallat’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil.  In general, I think it is fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.

 

Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour.  It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note.  If you know the sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose.  The dusty woods in the base only confirm this impression.  There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.

 

As a mukhallat, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter.  It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much.  However, longevity is excellent.  So far, so standard for an attar.  People will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT – my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic.  The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.

 

Masculine?  Yes.  I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky.  Attar AT is more evocative of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone.  This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.

 

Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them.  Overall, this is a great masculine attar (well, mukhallat) for a very reasonable price, and another entry to the genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentic or authentically good.

 

 

 

Aurum D’Angkhor (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Aurum D’Angkhor is special.  Every time I wear it, I marvel anew at its depth, complexity, and beauty.  It contains a small amount of the famous Ensar Oud Encens D’Angkhor in the basenotes, a fruity Cambodi oud oil with cozy wood nuances.  But the ‘Aurum’ in Sultan Pasha’s remix means ‘Golden’ and indeed, that’s the color that comes across in this blend.  Aurum is a love poem to the golden dust of saffron, polished oak floors, smoke, honey, and henna, a shady haze backed by a velvety floral richness.

 

The topnote of Aurum D’Angkhor showcases the oud, and for a few minutes, it has a dark barnyard character that some might find startling.  This accord is not, to my nose, unpleasantly animalic.  It never approaches, for example, the sour, bilious honk of a raw Hindi oud.  However, there is definitely something there that recalls the aroma of cow slurry, a smell so hotly liquid that it seems to ooze across the room like ripe Brie.  One’s reaction to this type of aroma depends on one’s level of exposure to farmyard smells during childhood.  I grew up around cows and now live next door to a dairy farm, so for me, the smell of cow shit is literally part of the air I breathe.  In other words, I’m fine with it.  You very well may not be.

 

The cow pat note dissipates quickly, however, allowing a soft, spicy brown leather to take shape, threaded with drifts of faintly indolic jasmine.  Saffron plays a pivotal role, called upon to bring out all its strange facets at once – the leather, the exotic dust, the sweetness, the faintly floral mouth-feel, fiery red spice, and a certain medicinal, iodine-like twang.  The oud and the saffron create a deep multi-levered scent profile suggestive of old oak floors, spicy brown leather, and dusty plum skin.  In short, Aurum showcases the depth of real oud, but past the fecal twang of the opening, none of its more challenging aspects.

 

The smoke in Aurum is chimerical, sometimes manifesting as little more than a faint tingle of far-off woodsmoke akin to a needle prick’s worth of birch tar or cade oil, and sometimes appearing as full-on smoke from a censer full of resins.  The smoke component is similar to that of Balsamo della Mecca (La Via de Profumo), which is primarily a labdanum-focused scent dusted with the clovey, balsamic bitterness of Siam benzoin and frankincense.  Backing the smoke is always a layer of dusty, medicinal henna powder and the golden sheen of honey-glazed woods.  Nothing, therefore, feels out of balance, not even when the smoke is rolling in.

 

Aurum dries down to a dark, treacly resin that smells predominantly nutty, but also kind of gritty, like coffee grounds sprinkled with sugar – probably a side effect of benzoin mixing with the cedar and ambrette musk.  There’s a moment in the drydown that reminds me of the sawdusty, almost granular sweetness of wood pulp and suede that is the primary feature of Tuscan Leather-style fragrances.  Many soft leather scents, like Tom Ford Tuscan Leather itself, Oud Saphir (Atelier Cologne), and Tajibni (Al Haramain), use a combination of a vegetal musk like ambrette, saffron, and cedar to create a musky, resinous suede effect, and that might be what’s happening here in Aurum.  However, Aurum is far more complex than these soli-suedes, deploying as it does a layer of resins, oud, and henna to jostle and thicken the sueded musk.

 

 

 

Ayuthia (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Is there such thing as an oud chypre?  This may well be the first.  The first note out of the bottle is most definitely oud – a wave of wet, rotting wood, mixed with woodsmoke, camphor, and sharp fruit.  However, this settles quickly, segueing into a dry, woody heart with lots of grounding patchouli, green leaves, and bitter oakmoss.

 

Although never sweet, the earth and wood notes are made rounder with a hint of something soft and giving, like vanilla.  Not enough to make it sweet, just to sand off the edges.  The other notes pay homage to the oud, which is clearly the star note in the blend.  The Chanthaburi oud oil vibrates thickly in every fiber of this mukhallat.  Lightly smoky, it sews a thread of fermentation through the fabric of the blend.

 

Though oud is the main driver, the base develops a velvety green dampness that is very forest floor-ish.  The inky oakmoss note expands to meet the mossy mintiness of a Borneo-style oud, completing the picture.  Hours later, the mineral salt of the oakmoss and the smoky woodiness of the oud melt away, leaving only the lively bitterness of camphor on the tongue.

 

Who could wear this?  Honestly, anyone with a pulse.  More subtle and subdued than pure oud oil, Ayuthia’s supporting cast of notes has a tenderizing, civilizing effect, smoothing away any rough or animalistic edges.  It is fresh, green, and woody, with a friendly touch of smoke and camphor – wearable in almost all situations.  In short, Ayuthia is superb blend for oud fans who want a break from the unrelenting intensity of the pure oud experience, as well as anyone who respects oud but can’t see themselves ever wearing it neat.

 

 

Photo by Thoa Ngo on Unsplash

 

Badr al Badour (Amouage)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

Badr al Badour is an opulent mukhallat based on a mixture of real oud oils (one from Cambodia, the other from Myanmar), rosa damascena oil, ambergris, and a touch of sandalwood.  It sounds like a simple affair, but it goes to prove that a sort of alchemic magic occurs when raw materials with flawless bone structure meet, fall in love with each other’s exquisiteness, and decide to procreate.

 

The opening features a classic rose-oud combination, drawn up using a rather dark, medicinal oud note and a citrusy, geranium-tinted rose.  So far, so traditional.  But slowly, as the oil warms up on the skin, the Burmese oud oil comes to the fore and it is then that you notice the lightly sour, almost fetid breath of real oud wood.  Peppery and dry, with nary a hint of sweetness to soften it, it is the pleasantly stale woodiness that escapes from old wooden trunks when you open them after years of neglect.  The scent is a reminder that oud is wood that’s fighting to live through an infection and only partially succeeding.  A smell half dead and half alive.

 

There is, for the average Westerner, a moment of repulsion, but fight it.  After the repulsion comes fascination.  There is a reason aficionados describe the smell of real oud as a compelling type of smell.  The salty funk of ambergris breathes life into the sour, dry oud mélange from beneath, bequeathing a round warmth that has nothing to do with sweetness.  I would describe this mukhallat synesthesically as pink gold with a silvery-gray oud heart, a clump of ashes nestling in the folds of a tightly-furled rosebud.

 

The citrusy rose of the start gathers in richness as the day wears on, perhaps due to the ‘creaming’ effect of the sandalwood.  I have seen the rose in this described variously as a Bulgarian rose and a Taifi rose, but its sharp, peppery quality leads me to believe that it is definitely Taifi.  The rose, in fact, strikes me as being somewhat similar in tone to that of Abdul Samad Al Qurashi’s Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous.  The rose softens as the day goes on, becoming sweeter and fuller in body.

 

Overall, this is an unusually prismatic scent for an oil – different notes seem to come forward and then recede over the course of a wearing, allowing others to take their place.  At times, the scent seems to focus almost exclusively on the dry oud, at others the rose nudges forward to cast a sweet, rosy netting over the oud, and occasionally, everything but the salty warmth of the ambergris drops back.  This makes for an endlessly rich and varied wearing experience throughout the day.  Badr al Badour is a mukhallat to be savored for every minute it is on the skin.

 

 

 

Baghdad (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

If you are looking for an excellent rose-oud mukhallat for a price that won’t hurt your wallet too much, then look no further than Al Faransi’s Baghdad.  On my skin, the note pyramid is slightly inverted, with the sour, leathery Hindi oud striking my nose first, even though it is a heavy basenote.  The oud smells authentic, but not so animalic as to cause concern for more timid noses.  It is a battered, worn leather case set upon gently smoking woods – exotic and alluring, but not particularly challenging.

 

The rose, which emerges right on the heels of the oud, feels complex and ‘worked out’.  Heavily peppered and saffron-ed at first, it fleshes itself out into a huge, purplish explosion of jamminess, spice, and smoke, underscored with an emphatic flourish of fruit rot.  The rosy sturm und drang splutters out in a bath of sandalwood for a finish not a hundred miles away from the cream soda-ish last moments of Amouage’s Rose TRO.

 

Sounds amazing, right?  It is.  But – and this is a big but (and I cannot lie) – Baghdad exhausts all its resources within the space of a few hours, plunging from an amphitheater-sized presence in the first hour to a mere whisper of smoke and roses by the third.  This shouldn’t necessarily bother people looking for a quality rose-oud option on the cheap, as its reasonable price means that one can simply reapply throughout the day.  But it is a factor to consider.

 

If pressed, I would say that Baghdad is my very favorite from the Al Faransi brand, with Hind running a close second.  Baghdad leans masculine, but the classic smoky rose and oud pairing is so universal that I cannot imagine women not wanting to wear this one too.

 

 

 

Cambodi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: oudy mukhallat

 

 

A simple but highly satisfying affair, Cambodi Attar combines an affable Cambodi oud oil with excellent Indian sandalwood for a result that showcases the best in each.  The Cambodi oud oil dominates the first half, rich in a berry-caramel stickiness that suggests leather without featuring any of the stale off-notes associated with modern Cambodi-style distillations.  It is an approachable oud oil note, one that even beginners will find accessible.

 

The drydown is pure Indian santalum album, in that it is aromatic, buttery, and treading that fine line between sweet and savory.  Rising Phoenix Perfumery’s sandalwood is truly beautiful, and it is worth getting a couple of their attars purely in order to experience its handsome, rugged warmth in the tail. 

 

 

 

 

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, Arabian Oud, Maison Anthony Marmin, Mellifluence, and Tauer Perfumes. 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)

 

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/