Q: “Ensar, having now the benefit of experience of several distillations from incense-grade wood, do you still think it's worth the risk and do you plan on doing any more? The cost is much higher and because the wood is so resinated, yields are modest. Of course, the resulting oils can be spectacular, but even the 'mad scientist' in you surely knows that this is not just a hobby.”
A: “You must've mistaken 'madman at the stills' for 'mad scientist'. This is not a question of risk, it is guaranteed 'kaatun!' (Th. 'lost money') as everyone here keeps shouting at me daily, in response to my requests and ideas.
Just to give you an illustration: We recently acquired some wood chips from a 100 year-old tree which are now selling (out) at $20 per gram. A good 4 kilograms of the chips we ground up for the Khao Yai oil were all but identical to these 100 year-old chips in both appearance and fragrance. From a retail perspective, 4 kg x $20K = $80,000 gross. With the 5 tolas of Khao Yai oil we've collected thus far, we're looking at $4,000 a bottle to come anywhere near the price the chips would have commanded. Now add 10 kg of organic incense grade chips that could have sold for $3 a gram, which we added to the distillation to meet the still requirement; what does that indicate for the price of the oil?
In short, this is definitely my last wild incense-grade distillation.”
Khao Yai's Beginning:
Singled out as the man who produces artisanal oud oil from incense grade, wild harvested agarwood, Ensar recently called it quits on doing any more such wild distillations after a trip to Singapore where he learnt how the last remaining oud jungles are being carelessly wiped off the map.
Instead, he started making inroads into the organic agarwood cultivation scene, with the intention to produce organic oud exclusively. His first stop was Cambodia, then Thailand. Since then, the local oud producers still don't know what hit them.
Despite the overwhelming response to Oud Yusha and Encens d'Angkor (Ensar's first releases since his shift to organic oud production), we've received many emails and phone calls with concerned voices: does the end of wild oud mean the end of quality, artisanal oud oil?
Unless you come here (the Far East) and try to find it yourself, you don't fully realize just how precious wild agarwood is.
Initially, we sourced two batches of purported wild wood. The first 4 kg batch was pure jungle wood, for sure. But the second batch gave Ensar doubts, which led him to have it evaluated and checked by several local experts. As it turned out, the second batch was indeed cultivated.
Given the 10-15 kg minimum required to fill one still, it was simply impossible to source exclusively jungle wood for this experiment. By pure jungle wood, we mean incense grade wild wood.
So this experiment ended up being a co-extraction of super fine wild incense grade Khao Yai chips & the highest grade organic chips.
Later that evening…
To the Grinder:
With exceptionally resinated incense grade chips like these, the total yield depends a lot on how fine you can grind them up…
…so we ground them twice!
To Soak or Not to Soak:
It does help, but having the finest batch of wood doesn't mean you'll get the finest oil. The distillation process is where true craft comes in.
After grinding the incense grade pieces to fine dust, it's decision time: to soak or not to soak?
Soaking (marinating the dust in mineral water) is done for two reasons. To soften the resin so as to facilitate extraction, leading to more yield; and to improve / modify / tweak the fragrance of the oil. In India, it's standard practice to soak the wood prior to distillation for at least 25 days. We've seen wood that was submerged in water for over two months.
In the Hindi tradition, not to soak is foolish and wasteful, as soaking is seen to lead to higher yield – everything else being equal, such as cooking time, labor, amount of gas / firewood expended, etc. In Cambodia, soaking is not done to facilitate yield, as the distiller will simply keep cooking each batch until every last drop of resin comes out. All soaking does is help accomplish this quicker, hence more economically.
Is it superior not to soak the wood? Depends on who you ask. Each batch of raw materials is different. Some might benefit from soaking while others might suffer from it. Careful supervision and expertise is key. One batch might acquire a complexity it would have otherwise altogether lacked if cooked unsoaked; while another might lose all vibrancy and color, top and heart notes muted to give way to a boring barny base.
We wish it were possible to 'sample' the oil obtainable from different soaking periods, as well as in combination with different stills & condensers prior to making the final call for each batch. Unfortunately, hydro-distillation pots usually require a minimum of 15-20 kg raw materials in order to do any distilling at all, so the final decision goes back to the distiller's experience with the different types of wood, soaking periods, types of still, condenser, cooking temperature, etc.
The soaking time can be decided on beforehand, but another way to go about it is to check the dust daily, monitoring the scent development. With artisanal productions like this, precision is key, since the entire process depends on making the call on when to stop soaking. Knowing when it's the right time takes a great deal of experience, and a clear vision of what you want in the oil.
Into the Still:
The soaking period for our 14-kg batch of wild Khao Yai oud wood came to thirteen days. Next came the cooking, for which we selected a copper pot that'll be boiling for ten days.
Initially, the thought crossed our minds to collect water from another farm in which to cook the dust, but with this kind of wood it would have been foolish to use anything other than the soaking water from the barrel itself.
After pouring the the dust into the still, we experienced the first drops of oil within the next few hours. Based on the scent exuded by the soaked shavings, we expected notes of dark fruits, dark woods, and incense.
Collecting the First Drops of Oil:
When we went to collect the first yield, we were astonished to find how the amount of oil, as well as its color compared to the regular distillations that were started at the exact same time.
Our first taste of Oud Khao Yai:
Once collected, some of the oil actually sank in the water in the shape of a bulb, and we couldn't get it to float to the top of the water. This made the filtering especially tricky.
I've been so busy today with separating the oil from water, and then doing lots of different things with different distillers, that I've barely had the chance to sit with the oil and introduce myself.
For now, it's the greenness of kyara transmuted to the clarity of pure mint which you inhale and keep inhaling and keep inhaling and keep inhaling without reaching the bottom of the scent; or should I say top?
It is pure sky; an opening from above that makes the head feel light. And it never turns to a 'woody' dry down, it just maintains its mint-kyara green from first note to last. That's the most amazing thing about it. Don't mistake the green of Khao Yai with any of the other oils' green you've smelled. It is an airy note that is more ethereal than air itself. It is a lightness untainted by physical traces of earth, wood, or the minerals of water. Even the color of the oil is the most translucent green. You can see through the oil as if looking through a light green-tainted glass. It is transparent.
An oud oil that smells just like the fresh blue lotus flowers! It's as if everything is interconnected in this climate, and the zest of their cuisine is also found in the agarwood oil which is produced here, which in turn is affected by the mineral content of the water the wood is soaked in prior to distillation. Either I'm going crazy, or I smell fresh blue lotus flowers in the oil...
I went to sleep with a swipe of it on the back of my hand, which at that time smelled like the blue lotus flower – soft, delicate, ethereal, with the faintest hint of buttery-earthiness permeating it; and when I woke up and revisited it, it smelled of the agarwood resin as it burns, devoid of any smoke, wood, the pure eternality of gently heated gaharu; Cambodian/Thai origin; spicy green with a subtle dark fruits undertone.
Just collected the fifth day's yield of Khao Yai, which is slowly coming to a halt. The filtering is really driving me insane. I've never experienced this much stress filtering an oil. It's so costly, which is why I need to be ultra careful about wasting any, but that also means proper filtering is really difficult to pull off. I have a bottle with dust and water drops inside which I don't know what I'm going to do with, apart from just putting it in the morning sun tomorrow, hoping everything will evaporate apart from what's supposed to be there. That'll probably end up being the bottle I set aside for personal use.
The oil is surprisingly soft and understated; the subtle delicateness of lotus, and its elusive airiness. Khao Yai is so delicate, so lithe, soft and polite it's like bottled propriety and delicateness. Blue lotus is the only thing it reminds me of; the mint I was getting before is now barely detectable. Maybe the faintest breath of white rose peering through, but you have to look for it in order to find it. It's like bottled blue air, blue waters, blue clouds, blue lotus, blue. Understated is the way to describe it. And blue.
I now have the entire yield from the first batch in front of me, which came to five full tolas; as well as the first few grams of oil from the second batch. I have a swipe from the first batch on the inside of my wrist; and one from the second batch on the back of my hand. The differences are stark, yet the 'familial tie' between the two oils is obvious, unlike the two batches of Thai Encens, which were complete strangers, and will not settle their differences to this day...
This is a lithe, bluish substance that is very bright and energetic. Top notes of guava, subtle pear and the tart fruitiness of blueberries complement each other atop the buttery ether that is the heart of the blue lotus flower. If mint was colored blue, it would smell like this. No kyara green notes, no incense notes; just an uncanny spirited substance that is so delicate yet so alive and ethereal I cannot call it an oud oil in the 'vulgar' sense of the term (thick opaque liquid that stays close to the skin and smells like wood or leather or animal). It is a pea-green liquid as transparent as glass. This is what one of my colleagues would call 'one of the precious extracts'. I see this oil in the collections of high class perfumery aficionados who adore any and all precious aromatics rather than the 'stashes' of agarwood oil bottled up for daily application by wearers of oud.
One month later:
This oud is in a class all its own as an uncanny aromatic comparable to the rarest floral extracts used in high class perfumery. Yet it's so complex and layered it's a complete 'perfume' by itself. It's a maze of aromatic chords and notes all in harmony with each-other that keeps you guessing what the note you just sniffed out was, only to be dazzled by a new note that appears. To my astonishment, the depth and pitch and overall quality far outstrip even the original Oud Royale. (Not an overstatement.) Notes of guava and blue lotus are pronounced throughout the scent's life, with a spicy top note and a heart that is redolent of the gentlest white rose. That oud could smell like this hadn't even occurred to me in my wildest dreams...
It's beyond oud. Smelling it fills one with wonder and regret about all the other ouds that could've been done this way and just weren't, out of sheer carelessness, or ignorance, or lack of inquisitiveness on the distillers' part.
Khao Yai marks a new beginning for oud. An end. And a beginning...
A Final Word: