by Pablo Avion
How long have you been in the oud 'business' (or maybe it's more of a calling)? How did you get started in scent in general, and oud in particular? How has it been catching on in the West?
I contracted my oud crave back in 2004, when I started attending the mystical gatherings of the Sufis. They'd always have these little stalls at the 'bazaar' section, where all sorts of Sufi goods would be on offer, among them little greasy vials of oil called 'oud'. Most of them nameless oils obtained from nameless sources. But the scent had its mysterious appeal.
Being somewhat of a snob by nature, I could never be pleased with anything but the finest quality in things, and I started looking for higher and higher quality oils. The quest, needless to say, was extremely difficult.
Believe it or not, as recently as 2004 there was almost no awareness of oud in the West. Far from the fad it has now become, most folks did not even know oud existed. I packed my bags and started looking around the Gulf, initially, for the 'perfume of the sultans and rulers of Eastern lands.'
This led nowhere, and all I ended up with was a collection of DOP-laced oils similar to the offerings of the major oud companies from the Gulf: Arabian oud, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Al Haramain, etc. These companies openly mix their oils. I've visited their factories in the UAE, met the staff, the chemists, and the 'artisans' as some rookie internet entrepreneurs like to call them. There was nothing artisanal about it is all I can say, and I was grossly disappointed.
Heading to Amman to live by my Sheikh in early 2005, the Sheikh ordered me to travel to the Far East in quest of oud. 'I want you to bring me back the finest oud oils in the world,' the Sheikh said to me. He even paid for my plane ticket, may Allah reward him. The story is re-told in my blog.
With his blessing, and by the grace of God, we were able to fool certain Quixotic souls into the profitless venture of distilling Artisanal Oud oil for us. Not caring about the costs, the potential major losses if the distillations went bad, we soon ended up with oils that are to this date referred to as Oud Legends by fellow distillers, collectors, entrepreneurs, what have you: Kyara LTD, Borneo 3000, Royal Kinam, Borneo 4000.
And the list went on. How has it been catching on in the West?... That is a funny question. And I crack up as I say this, because now everyone, including previous customers of Ensar Oud has launched their own website, with their own 'Beginner's Guide,' 'Starter's Guide,' 'Oud Guide'; Oud Regions, Origins, what have you; and everything else as we had it arranged on our old site.
Everyone now distills oils worthy of the title 'Oud Royale' (an extremely famous Ensar Oud Legend); and recently someone even juiced an 'LTD' oil. No doubt, everyone is now a purveyor of 'the highest quality oud oils in the world' in his own right.
I recall a poem by W.B. Yeats titled 'To A Poet, Who Would Have Me Praise Certain Bad Poets, Imitators Of His And Mine'. It goes something like this:
You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another's said or sung,
'Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?
So in short, oud's caught on, that's for sure. If that is a good or a bad thing for the preservation of this sacred oil, that I'm not so sure of. I hear Creed is even launching a 'Royal' oud this summer containing, amongst other things: 'spicy fresh top notes of lemon, pink pepper and bergamot, a dark deep heart of angelica, bitter green galbanum and Lebanese cedar'.
Needless to say, what money-driven exploits like this do is water down the meaning of the word 'oud' in the West as it was watered down long ago in the East, where it no longer stands for the pure essential oil of the Aquilaria tree but for a mere scent family. 'oud' scented tissue papers are readily available in the supermarkets of Amman.
Ever smelled 'musk' handlotion at your local pharmacy? How much genuine deer musk would you guess is in there? Well.... that's how much oud is in most 'oud' fragrances being mass-marketed at present.
You've been all over the world in search of oud. What drives you? And where would you like to go next?
Most people are driven by any of a few basic drives: hunger; health; financial security; sex; prestige.... You can interpret it in many ways. In a way, I believe saving money is a waste of time; so I save oud instead, and have got quite a few kilograms of the finest quality wild-harvested Artisanal oud oils stashed away as my retirement plan.
I'm sure oud will soon be extinct, at least the wild varieties; and the value will go up. A bottle of oud Royale sold for $390 back in 2005. The last bottle sold for $7,000 in 2011. Kyara LTD used to sell for $550 back in 2007. The last bottles were on offer for $10,000 each at the beginning of this year.
Kyara Koutan currently sells for $790 a bottle. Can you guess what it'll be worth in 2015?
But apart from merely financial considerations, this oil has a soul. It has the power to transcend the senses and put you in touch with a higher reality most people seldom get to experience, entrapped as they are in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Some meditate. Others do yoga. Others do drugs. Others dance. Yet others wear Oud Nuh. The spiritual pull is something very palpable and unmistakable in our oils.
I've always wanted to go to Laos, and produce the foulest, most fecal specimens of oud the world has ever smelled. For some reason, I've never made it. While the appeal of 'oud' has caught on in the West, the appeal of the 'fecal' varieties of Assam and other types of Indo-Chinese oils has yet to develop.
The search of oud seems like a developed intuition. What kind of climate is ideal? How do you know when you're on the right track?
The extremely moist, tropical climates of Assam, Indochina and Indonesia are ideal for producing oud. While almost all over Indochina wild oud has been harvested to extinction, there are certain areas of Assam, Borneo and Papua that still produce wild agarwood. I have absolutely no interest in the cultivated varieties of agarwood. I've always meant to write an article to explain the differences, just never got to it.
Very generally speaking, how do ouds differ from region to region?
The same way teas differ from climate to climate, so do ouds. Each climate is unique, each soil has a different mineral content, the water used to treat the wood differs in each jungle; these are all factors that contribute to the different aromas of oud oils. Most importantly though, different species of oud trees grow in different jungles. This is the most significant factor that dictates the differences between each region's juice.
You work hands-on with numerous distillers, and you have a reputation for being stringent and exacting. What sorts of things do you require from your distillers that are usually neglected?
For one, I demand that incense quality oud be used in the distillation of the oils. This will automatically disqualify most distillers. Many have even thought I was playing a practical joke when I presented this demand to them. Secondly, I don't want the oil to be 'pasteurized and homogenized' as it is for distribution to the Gulf market and other internet retailers. I want each batch to be carefully separated so I can study the different factors that went into the distillation and see the impact they carry on the oil. Another distiller got into a mix-up with his brother when he tried to implement this for my sake. Now, thankfully, we have our own still in each distillery, and our oils are distilled separately from other suppliers'.
It's been said that one way to get in touch with the spiritual is through the senses. Although the senses are usually thought of as a 'lower' faculty, in a way they can be said to be closer to the holy or spiritual because they are untainted by the vagaries of our mind, and a direct connection to the world as created by the Creator. Perhaps, as a sincere appreciation of the world as it is, they can be said to be an expression of gratitude, and thus a kind of prayer. Do you believe this? Or perhaps, what do you see as the connection between the olfactory and the spiritual?
With heart and soul, yes, that is exactly what I believe! You have summarized the spiritual journey most eloquently in your question, my friend. In our spiritual tradition, fragrance is perhaps the only material thing that carries a significance so great wearing it is considered an act of worship.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) used to say, 'Beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.' If you study that statement closely, you'll quickly realize the only material 'thing' he really loved from the world was perfume. Women are people, one's spiritual as well as physical partners and companions. And the prayer is an action, not a material 'thing'. So perfume was the only worldly possession that the most spiritual of men was fond of. That says a lot.
Any new trips coming up? Or anything else you'd like to tell us?
I'm in Istanbul as I write this (obviously not for any oud-related matters), so I'm already on a trip. But seriously speaking, we plan to visit Indochina (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and perhaps Vietnam) very very soon. As soon as Oud Idrees, Ensar's Elixir, and certain other LTD Collection oils go live.
Fragrant greetings to you Pablo. Please do keep in touch (and wear Oud Mostafa). It's been a pleasure corresponding with you.