Where the madness began
No one can blame him for the initial suspicion he showed towards me - this stranger from the West who seemed to challenge him on every point he brought up. The oud business is rough and dirty, and he’d been in the thick of it for decades.
He used to be the main oud supplier to Ajmal back in the 1990s and had been distilling oud oil and collecting agarwood for close to thirty years when we first met. Slow to divulge his knowledge and even more reluctant to let you in on what he hides in his personal collection, you’d be fooled into thinking he’s just another distiller on the block.
Together with his wife and a couple of poodles, he lives in a duplex farmhouse. Whenever he’s about to let you sample his oud or show you his wood he first excuses himself and heads upstairs. A long time friend once told me: ‘I’ve known him for years and even I don’t know what he keeps up there!’
Over the years suspicion turned into friendship, as these days we literally sit for hours on end talking about nothing but agarwood. As I’ve come to realize, it’s simply because he’s madly in love with everything oud and cares for little besides. Other distillers have told me the same about him: ‘it’s all he cares for, and all he wants to talk about. Don’t even try to bring up another topic.’
I make it a point to visit him every time I’m in Thailand. His wife brews a peculiar cup of coffee and I always drive off having learned something new about the craft of distillation.
Apart from now freely sharing secrets of the trade with me, he also gave me a backstage pass to the treasures he had stowed away upstairs.
One day, when I went through his private stash of collectable wood pieces, I was left dumbstruck when I saw a bundle of wild agarwood logs he kept aside separately. The logs had yet to be hollowed out and processed, with the densely resinated shell still completely intact. The fact that the tree was over one hundred years old when harvested made it even more wondrous.
I achingly wanted to get every piece he had. With might and main I tried to convince him that my life would be incomplete without them (I wasn’t joking.) Although he didn’t budge, he let me buy the smallest piece (1.5kg) in the bundle merely as a token of our friendship. To this day, this piece is still on display at my home and hopefully one I’ll be able to pass down to my kids.
To be fair, If I were him, I wouldn’t have even given up the small one. Having stood in front of, and stared up at the majesty of an ancient agarwood tree, you get goosebumps to know you own oud wood that dates back to the 1800s.
Like his wife who keeps asking us if we’d like more of her coffee, it’d become a routine bout between us where I'd beg him for the wood and he'd sympathetically say, ‘Better luck next time!’
Late last year (2012), three years after I first started harassing him for the 100 year-old wood, I paid him another visit and again tried my luck to get them.
"Say that again... you want to do what?"
If you’ve tried high-grade agarwood from the Japanese houses, you’d be familiar with their packets of chips which normally come as square, nail-size pellets:
Top shelf agarwood from these houses used to go for about $200 per 10 grams. I say ‘used to’ because they, too, have not been left unaffected by the rapid disappearance of wild agarwood. A few months ago, I received a packet of what looked like the same chips I used to burn, except the wood didn't compare to what I used to get in the early 2000s. I wasn’t surprised. Instead of premium jinkoh wood, the square pellets were now kien.
Look closely and you’ll see where those square bits of Japanese agarwood chips come from:
If you take the shell from all these trunks you’ve got yourself a lifetime supply of ancient agarwood chips - hard premium resin you burn directly as incense. And that's the only thing that anybody would ever do with this grade wood. The outer shell is used for burning, while the inner wood is used to make oud oil. But... not this time!
Like a kid who can’t wait for Christmas eve, I wanted this wood so badly. Now, three years later and thousands of dollars poorer, it was mine.... to chop up and never see again!
Any connoisseur of Japanese incense, when they see such chips going into a grinder is going to think something is wrong. Today, this wood commands anything between $350 - $500 per ten-gram packet in the agarwood connoisseur’s market. Calculate, and you’ll see that there's no way you can hope to acquire anywhere near a single gram of oil per ten grams of wood. In fact, you might not even get a single bottle of oil per kilogram of wood!
In effect, what you’re doing is to buy 2000 ten-gram packets from Baiedo’s premium agarwood incense range and then instead of pulling out the burner, you head off to the distillery. This is, according to everybody in the oud producing world you’ll ever meet, pure insanity.
So, why are we doing this? Why not use the wood as incense and try to attain the same effect we do with oud oil? We could. But then we wouldn't be doing anything different from Baieido. Or Shoyeido. Or every other respectable Japanese incense company. And we're not Baieido... If nobody ever did this, ouds like Kyara LTD, Oud Sultani, Kyara de Kalbar, Oud Nuh, and Borneo 50K would not exist. We'd all have missed out on the magic. These days, every Jack and Joe can set up shop selling oud oil. But oud of this calibre, produced from pure incense-grade agarwood... nobody does this.
The smell of incense... without the smoke
The smell of pineapple and pears have their place in oud. But if you meditate; if you need a fragrance that’ll have a medicinal - a healing - effect on your soul, then ouds like that just won’t do. If you aspire to recollect a taste of the ethereal and otherworldly then you need oud oil that smells like... oud oil. You need oud oil that smells like... incense. And the note that accentuates this experience to the fullest is one known by many names...
A warm syrupy-cinnamony top, draped in a vanilla-honeyed sweetness hidden beneath a duvet of tantalizing spices. Suddenly a raspberry breeze sweeps in and blows everything into a green minty-herb mix before you even had a chance to blink... it’s one of the most sought after notes in all of perfumery - one you only get to smell for a few seconds, when you had just put a sliver of green kyara on the burner. A sigh of contentment, followed by a quiet ‘hmmm’ is usually all anybody can muster in reply.
Imagine you could take this smell, and instead of it lasting for scarcely a few seconds, you got to savor the magic for a few hours! A handful of oud oils almost made it happen - Kyara LTD and Kyara Koutan came close; Qi Nam Khmer, the closest. But in Kyara LTD Centennial you cannot tell the difference - you’ll wholeheartedly believe that what you’re smelling is the scent of green kyara incense alit... except that a second turns into a minute, into an hour, into three hours...
This is the most expensive oud in the world. And yes, you can find others being distilled and sold for one tenth the price. It’s also not the kind of oud you’ll find in the line-up of even the wealthiest connoisseurs, East or West. To this day, Kyara LTD is celebrated by many as the oud of all ouds; the very heart of the kyara smell, bottled. I did not name oud ‘Kyara LTD Centennial’ except that it takes that soul-stirring scent to another level completely - something that seemed unfathomable until now.
The craziest quality raw agarwood (and the most expensive) ever distilled makes this bottle of oud the only one of its kind that I believe will ever be distilled. Too costly to replicate, with wood too rare even if you had the cash for it, in Kyara LTD Centennial the ethereal scent of green kinam comes full-circle.