We should all be rejoicing that 'incense-grade' agarwood seems to be blooming on the market like never before. Wild-harvested sinking-grade, incense-grade, and all kinds of super-duper grades are not only freely available online, but you can even go to any shopping mall in the Far or Middle East to see it for yourself!
Yet, closer to home... on the ground… in the jungles, at the distilleries, the picture's not quite as rosy. We'd love to take any of the local Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, or Indonesian oud hunters out for dinner to the big city markets and show them around the oud courts.
Our daily routine in the Thai countryside is to wake up, skip breakfast, and start meeting with agarwood hunters and brokers. Day after day, we inspect batch after batch.
We don't deal with middlemen, so there's no value added to what we pay for oud wood. The same cannot be said of other vendors who, without exception, have to deal with second, third, or fourth parties. By the time the wood (or oil extracted from it) ends up on the market, the price has gone through several mark-ups along the way.
So, with costs at a minimum, let's see how we can reproduce the likes of Chinese Exclusive or Kalbar 3000 today. Chinese Exclusive was distilled eight years ago. Kalbar 3000, five years ago. If we wanted to simulate these distillations today, we'd be faced with two obstacles: finding the same quality wood, and having enough cash to pay for the wood.
What do you think of the wood in the pictures below?
Incredible, right? If these photos were sent to you, no one could blame you for thinking just that. But what these pictures show is that since 2004, 2005, and 2007, some things have changed.
Back then, we never found wood that was painted to appear more resinated. We never found ‘stuffed’ wood, meant to add weight to a batch.
Chips weren't glued together to appear more suitable for carving purposes. Before, when you'd break open a chunk of wood, you wouldn't find metal dust implanted to give the wood that nice 'sinking' feeling. In short, wood was never manufactured to make you believe that you were getting a certain kind of quality – incense-grade, sinking-grade, or otherwise. Why now?
We’ve tried to report on what we see happening on the production front. But given all the shops filled with agarwood that we’re finding so hard to come by, and every online oud oil vendor offering the next great distillation, a bit of consumer scepticism is understandable.
So, here are the facts:
One of the batches of raw oud wood we found was of a quality worth considering for an upcoming distillation. It wasn't incense-grade, but still excellent for making oil. Only 12 kilograms were available. Price: $12,000. Expected yield: 4-5 tolas. Supposing we got the four tolas, that would mean that the minimum cost of only the wood going into the distillation would have been $750 per 3 grams of oil.
We can cite many examples like this one (and others, where higher asking prices would seem too far-fetched to even mention here). We are yet to track down wood of the same grade as what went into our other Vintage LTD oils. But, based on what we’re seeing, even once we find it, we'll most likely forfeit the opportunity to take it to the grinders. Why?
The retail price for Kalbar 3000 used to be $790 per 3 grams, making it the highest priced oil in our Vintage LTD Collection at the time. And we continue to receive complaints about it being too expensive. Yet, how can we be expected to continue to produce oils of the same standard, when just the cost of the wood alone needed to conduct the distillation already exceeds the retail price of an oil that's 'over-priced'?
Our oud oils have always been produced according to a very simple formula: find the best wood and distill it in the very best way. Today, the formula hasn't changed. But the ingredients have, in both price and quality.
Before the terms 'sinking-grade' or 'incense-grade' were even coined, nobody else ever dared to grind wood of this quality into dust and distill it into oil. But no matter how daring, today for the first time we’re forced to reconsider.