When distillers give Ensar a swipe of oud oil to find out what he thinks of it, his habitual reply is: 'I don't know, we'll see. I'd have to study the oil first. Sometimes it takes weeks, even months for me to really get to know an oud'. But there are always tell-tale signs of what's to come.
We'd be riding on a bus for hours on end, hitching rides from farm to farm, town to town, in hotel rooms, at dinner tables, at breakfast even… and I'd always see him with his fist to his nose. So when he told me that 'This is really going to turn out something special, you just wait and see,' some days after we'd collected our first drops of Oud Yaqoub, I knew he wasn't just mumbling empty impressions.
The Oud Scene of Today
Interest in oud is taking off around the world at an interesting point in its history. We're living through both the twilight years of wild agarwood, as well as the dawn of a new industry of cultivation. Most people are picking up the oud book half open, having already missed a remarkable chapter in its story so far. Yet, the coming pages might still be well worth the read.
We've travelled to agarwood plantations across the Far East and seen plenty of start-ups emerge all over. How many of these new initiatives are aimed at genuine preservation, is a different matter. Increased awareness about oud means a good business opportunity, which is all that most of these cultivation operations seem to be.
Oud retailers all over the world stock oud oils which came from trees between five to ten years old. Up to fifteen, if you're lucky. Even then, leaving the tree to grow that old probably wasn't intentional. Five, ten, or fifteen… it's all the same to them.
Below: Many of the trees in this picture are on the verge of being (prematurely) harvested.
Large plantation owners, each with tens of thousands of trees on their land, frequently work together to supply a single market. It's nothing funny to visit a distiller only to be shown his neighbour's oil, or his cousin's. Sometimes they'd even call other farmers over to meet with us. They're all offering basically the same oud, produced the same way, according to the same standards.
The Oud Province of the World
Thailand has emerged as the hotspot for all things oud. One reason is that the region was one of the first to see the disappearance of wild oud trees, which lead to the birth of plantations. A drive from Cambodia into Thailand's oud district is lush with little development, with jungles and greenery aplenty. At first glance, your hopes rise with the thought that the rural setting must mean that tradition is still alive ‒ tradition usually accompanies a sense of the sacred, especially when it comes to nature.
Although the local lifestyle might still be rather traditional, many of those in the agarwood business are forced to comply with external pressures from more modern, untraditional cultures. 'Distill this much oil, this way,' the market says. Few can afford not to obey.
What this means is that the bottle of oud you get from the majority of distillers in the oud hub of the world smells about the same, regardless of who gave it to you. An annual output of thousands of tolas pays the wages, and keeps the distillers happy. Whether they're producing quality oil or not doesn't matter.
But what does it take to dish out hundreds of tolas each month? If a farmer wants to do something really great with his oils, he'd at least let his trees mature to an acceptable age ‒ at least fifteen years old. Yet, when the quality doesn't mean much, why wait that long? To his mind, by the time the farmer waited for a tree to grow twenty years old, he could have harvested it up to four times already. He'd get the same price for oil from a five year old tree as he would for a twenty year old. So, I have to agree, it makes little sense… financially.
Art and Money
Magic potions able to trigger resin (oud) formation in the trees in no time means that nowadays we don't have to leave the trees for even five years. Fortunately, most still do. But we're also seeing inoculation methods that will trigger much faster growth rates in the trees themselves. Soon you'll have a two year old tree the size of what was previously a six year old, with resin to match. In fact, we've even tried ouds distilled from one-year old trees 'grown' this way.
Below: Although each of the trees is the picture above has the potential to grow up and become another Oud Yaqoub, probably not a single one will.
Fertilizers, pesticides, and whatever else helps to keep the flood of oud gushing forth each month is an irrelevant concern for most farmers. So too is the idea of advanced growth chemicals. Along with premature harvesting, this practice might make or break the future of oud. Whether or not harvesting young saplings is sustainable for the future of oud is already questionable. The alternative is a future of agarwood trees subject to an ever-changing barrage of chemical trials. When it comes to artisanal oud oil, neither prospect is viable.
The Vision of Oud Yaqoub
Oils like Oud Yaqoub are cause for optimism. Our aim, while tracking down the tree that would go on to become Oud Yaqoub was to break the norm of using five, ten, fifteen year old trees for distillation. We had the option to harvest a forty year old crassna, but we requested it be kept for a later harvest as the tree still seemed in good health, and we estimated that it could certainly be left to mature for a number of years to come. Good thing we didn't end our search there, as we were lead to one of the most incredible sights an oud lover could ever hope to lay his eyes on: an enormous, fully mature, resin-loaded oud tree of at least sixty years old.
Tucked away in a remote part of a farmer's grove, our good fortune wasn't limited to a single discovery:
Traditional cultures sanctify the animal kingdom, as they do the trees and plants around them. The mechanical, factory-like harvesting of trees by the hundreds, leaving only barren land to tend to is something alien to this mentality. I suspected that we, too, had been severed from our bond with our planet. So, it was with an unexpected sense of awe that we looked at the tree we were about to harvest.
Nearing the end of a very lengthy process to bring down this majestic giant, I saw how Ensar's initial excitement turned into what seemed like wistful melancholy. I even noticed his watery eyes as he came to inspect the fallen trunk. It was a long day, with a lot that lay ahead.
The Challenge of Cultivation
Compared to Oud Yaqoub...
At an age of at least sixty years, with evident signs of the tree being fully permeated by the fungal infection that causes the tree to produce a self-generated cure (which we will later extract in the form of oud oil), this one has reached the limits of its life. Below you can see that the branch is no longer regenerating, and is starting to decay. Now is the time to make oud.
Good Coffee = Good Oud
After treating our finely ground dust to an outlandish soak style, it all went into the boilers. For both the soak and the cooking, we employed a simple trick we knew would be the secret behind the eccentric aroma you now find in Oud Yaqoub: the local well water of a particular farmer.
Dinner at the distillery was always an experience, as we were introduced to flavors I could never have imagined. But it was the coffee we were served during the days that really made an impression. It's a brew that deserves its own franchise. I wondered what made it so special, but now I'm convinced that, from the food to the oud, it all had to do with this farmer's groundwater.
The water imbued the oud with an airy floral tenor that sounds above the typical fruity accords most recognize as 'Cambodi'. It's like the surface of a shallow, crystal clear lake. You can see the vibrating pebbles and little fish, viewed through a wonderfully chaotic lens of sparkling water. With Oud Yaqoub, it's like you get a glimpse of Oud Yusha through the early morning mist on a spring day. Ethereal without being light, an uplifting jasmine note fuses into a spicy incense chord that accompanies you to the drydown.
There's a Cambodian fruit stand in the distance, veiled by an incense-y heart note whose sweetness reaches you on the wings of a breeze from afar that leaves you wondering if it's really only an olfactory mirage. I found this strangely reminiscent of a quality I picked up only once before in a high grade Vietnamese oud. The incense note is different to that of local Chanthaburi wood when smoked up on a burner, more sombre and intense – oddly enough also a quality you'd assocaite with fine Vietnamese burning chips.
Narcotic à la the finest jasmine, Oud Yaqoub is already the finest Cambodi you'll ever lay nostrils on. Age it a year or two, and you'll be in possession of one of the Greats of all time.
A Final Word
Oud Yaqoub: 3 grams, artisanally crafted from a natural process started more than sixty years ago.
What an amazing oil. I think this is another oud I can wear in public without offending anyone. To me, it smells like caramelized oud oil with some chocolate notes. It has a little bit of Oud Sultani’s DNA in the drydown. I think this oil is gonna smell even better if I can age it a little bit. Not to mention that it already smells amazing. I would put Yaqoub’s quality right up there with the vintage oils. It is far better than anything on the market with the same price point. – Inder, CA
Yaquob is to me the scent of an evening in summer: The earth still heated up from the day, and the sun just setting behind some distant mountains in a desert. The sky a golden fire with some rosy-coppery clouds placed here and there… The night’s royal blue cape slowly beginning to drape itself high above you, you raise your eyes in search of the first twinkling of stars… and then you smell burning oud chips – really nice Thai chips; with their little dose of pepper, of lemon, and chili, and of galangal. All atop a ‘sweet like molasses’ resinous core… Jasmine, orange peel, berries, and more berries… guava, perhaps. The different notes of wood, florals and berries ride over a softly glowing note of golden Hougari frankincense melting slowly, and freshly sliced pineapple – and halves of freshly cut oranges arranged around it. – Thomas, Germany
I am very impressed and happy with this oud. A first whiff evoked the Kyara LTD's airy wood-chip incense aroma, which automatically filled me with delight. But the subsequent earthy fruitiness which unfolded was a new treat for me, like ripe plums and dark cherries. But just as important is how this layer of sweetness never compromises the drier, cleaner, woodier, more masculine aspects of the oil. Loving it. – Rodrigo, Egypt
Received my bottle of Oud Yaqoob and I'm loving it. This is easily the best oud I've smelt so far. A great choice for my first full bottle of oud. – EY, UK
I'm still lovingly faithful to my Oud Yaqoub, powerful, daring, bold, sweet, smoky, woody, with incredible longevity. – Pedro, FL
It reminds me a lot of the Khao Yai Experiment! It is as if Khao Yai was veiled in Yusuf and / or Yusha! I had a hard time deciphering it, as it kept going back and forth between different notes, but eventually I realized how close it is to Khao Yai. Definitely another must-have! – Thomas, Germany
At first, I was thinking how similar it was to Crassna Cha. I don't know how you did it, but after that first Crassna note it changes completely. This is an awesome, addicting oud. I'm having a hard time saving it. I usually save your oils for a while. When I ordered Yaqoub I was hoping for a similar oil to Cambodi Cacao, but like you said, 'Yaqoub is a much better oil'. It changes so much. First you get a slight Crassna, then you get an incense minty green, then some fruit & incense in with it, then the mint with a fruity incense. I'm finding this oil to be as addictive as your Oud Ishaq. It is the best organic so far. I think it passes Yusuf. I'll probably buy another ASAP. I can't leave this one alone. ‒ Kevin, MA
Once again, Ensar surprises us with a fresh addition to his organic oud collection. I still haven't solved the secret of Yaqoub. It smells deep, powdery, light sweet, and has a velvety intoxicating floral fruity aroma.
Yaqoub opens with a whiff of coffee and cacao. Then, the fruits appear: the delicious blackest cherries with their spicy dark purple juice, the other dark fruits are more subdued building background: wild blueberries, sour cherries, plum marmalade and freshly squeezed red grape must. The notes differ from the usual Cambodi fruitiness.
The most interesting aspect of this oil are the intoxicating flowers: jasmine sambac, ylang ylang, sweet violet and roses permeate the whole journey.
There is soft incense and resinated wood, a touch of rosewood. Everything set on a powdery cushion. Deep violet colour comes to my mind. Petunia, iris, violets. Or, even better, the botanical garden in Udaipur with bushes of the most intensely violet coloured flowers I have ever seen, vibrating under the sun rays with bees feasting on their nectar. Or, famed samite Byzantine silk with its iridescence.
Heart phase and drydown manifest a lightness of aroma. Resin and incense tie in with florals and fruitiness which becomes subdued.
Very perfume-like composition and an air of chic elegance. I don't know if the distillation technique has been somehow altered, considering the character and maturity of this oil. It is amazing to consider that one single tree could produce such an interesting aroma.
This is a Cambodi oil with more depth than usual, full of luscious flowers and fruits, but very easy to wear. The florals and fruits are balanced and beautifully united through resinous notes. For me, this bouquet of flowers and black cherries is the main attraction of Oud Yaqoub. The experience this oil offers pushes the boundaries of what organic oils usually offer. – Andrej, Croatia