The Fruit Analogy
Just like their fruit-bearing counterparts, agarwood trees produce radically different types of resin.
To the same degree that snakefruit can be said to resemble durian, Indian oud oil resembles Cambodian, and Bornean resembles Papuan. They are all 'agarwood oils' to the same extent that papayas, dragon fruit, lychee, kiwi and oranges are all fruits; but that is where all similarity ends. All further comparisons, whether in chemical make-up, olfactory profile, method of inoculation, peak maturation, fermentability, and optimal extraction techniques hold as much water as similar comparisons would between different fruit-bearing trees. The best way to harvest mangosteen bears no relevance for watermelons and the optimal extraction method for orange juice is of little relevance to mulberries.
Big Perfume Houses
In the perfume industry, there are two types of vendors: there are vendors of perfumes – be they colognes, eau de toilettes, eau de parfums, solid perfumes, botanical perfumes, natural perfumes, 'mukhallats' – and there are vendors of perfumery ingredients – essential oils, concretes, absolutes, floral waters, CO2 extracts, etc. The first never claim to offer the wares of the second group, and seldom does the second group attempt to purvey the branded merchandise of the first.
The first group offers a box, a container, and a fashion statement. The second group offers an artisanal, crafted, natural substance which may or may not be employed in the production of the wares of the first group.
You have the 'oudh', or the 'aoud', of the perfume houses which is a branded, generic Arabian (or Middle Eastern) fashion statement that is slowly gaining popularity in the West – and you have the artisanal oud oil, or pure agarwood essential oil of Ensar Oud, which is the natural raw material to which this scent category owes its original archetype.
For Ensar Oud, agarwood oil is not only a very specific type of essential oil which is extracted from a certain species of tree possessing a necessary degree of resination triggered by particular traumas – it is a painstakingly defined grade of that essential oil.
For John Doe, 'oud' could be any ratio of that oil in combination with any other oil, be it of natural or synthetic origin. For yet a third, it might be any combination of dioctyl phthalate (DOP) in conjunction with other chemicals. And for the 'big houses', it is a scent category.
Just as musk is for the 'big houses' of French perfumery, so is 'oud' for the big Arabian houses – a type of smell – regardless of what substance is used to give off or emit that smell.
The Golden Mean
The tools and methods used in goldsmithing are many, provided it is real gold one is working with. As opposed to cheap bronze, brass, or even silver. Just as you can't get a gold coin out of brass no matter what you do to the brass, you can't get Oud Sultani out of $20 oud wood no matter how clever a distiller.
Gold secured, there are a number of things that come into play in chiseling the 'profile' of each oud oil. And here is where the real nitty-gritty of artisanal oud distillation begins. For example, the mineral content of the water you use during distillation has a spectacular effect on the oil. Distil an Indian oil in Evian drinking water and you might just end up with Oud Yusuf. We did just that. We have oils from Assam, Meghalaya, Haflong, Burma, Manipur and Bhutan which we are aging that are as floral, sumptuous and elegant as Oud Yusuf, with absolutely zero 'barn' to them.
But water is only one out of a dozen factors. The material the pot is made of plays a major role, as does the soak. What the drums you soak in are made of matters, too, as do the ducts inside the boilers. And don't forget the condenser. You might distil 100-year-old Bhutan raw materials in copper with zero soak and get a rosy Oud oil, yet if you soak them for two weeks and cook in steel the oil will smell more like champaca and tuberose.
You might soak in Evian for a week and cook in groundwater; or soak in groundwater for a month and cook in Evian. You might soak in Evian for two weeks then re-soak in groundwater for another two weeks; or soak in groundwater for a week followed by a three-week Evian soak. You might soak in plastic or in clay or in ceramic. You might cook in copper or in stainless steel or in glass. The variables are many, and the ways you can combine them virtually endless....
After producing the most unusually fruity, floral, and ethereal Assam oils I could have ever dreamt of, from the very finest raw materials possible, I had to stop and have a good sniff at my burgeoning collection of Assam ouds. Here are the Vintage LTDs of the future. Is this really the direction I would like to go with my Assams? Tuberose, champaca, orris and rose notes permeate the latest Bhutan batches, while the Burmese and Haflong oils – successors to Oud Mostafa and Oud Khidr – are permeated by a scent of clean forest, admixing characteristics of sandalwood, agarwood, cedar and other wood aromatics.
The possible tweaks which would elicit similarly unusual notes in future batches are endless. We can hypothetically distill Assam (as well as Cambodian, Thai, Bornean) oils that exhibit the most flamboyant scent profiles. – But we won't.
Here is where the unique aesthetic of the Artisan must come into the picture, take a firm grip of the reins, and direct his journey of olfactory discovery through inventiveness and creativity in the direction that he feels is right.
Just as it wouldn't seem fit for me to take a ton of Turkish rose petals and try to mimic the scent of Oud wood with them – or an incredible jasmine harvest and attempt to evoke cedarwood by manipulating the stills somehow – it would seem equally unbefitting to elicit the scent of flowers, fruits, or other edible confections out of precious oud resin which took decades to mature.
Which direction should we head then, in our Artisanal Oud journey? There is one Golden Mean which raw materials, distillation techniques, and all know-how and expertise of the Artisan can aim to attain in this craft: The scent which that same oud wood gives off when put on heated charcoal.
Any departure from this is a flunk, so far as I'm concerned. Isn't the smoke of burning oud chips the epitome of oud – Kyara and sinking-grade wood being the most sought after types of agarwood? What good is Kyara if it gives off the scent of watermelons?... or honeydew, or apricots, or mangos? It is its status as the epitome of burning oud wood that makes Kyara the most coveted incense in the world. Which is why oud oils that capture its unearthly scent command the highest prices.
A Brief History of 'Oud Cambodi'
If you're new to the world of Oud, one word you hear being chanted all over the place is 'Cambodi'. So, what is Oud Cambodi, anyway?
In the beginning, there was Oud Hindi. This was the deep, reddish-brown juice that was presented to the Sheikhs and Emirs, Sultans and dignitaries in fancy crystal flasks back in the 1970s as the ultimate olfactory wonder. Then, there came a stage when the jungles of Assam felt like they were coughing up the very last trees they had in store, so the Bengali and Indian tycoons of the Oud trade started sniffing around for a solution. Laotian Oud being too sharp when distilled the Hindi way, and Burma being impenetrably closed off for the most part, they could only turn to the 'next best' thing down the block, which was 'Oud Cambodi'.
As the sheikhs in white headscarves flew back and forth, from Delhi to Phnom Penh, from Dakka to Phnom Penh, from Dubai to Phnom Penh, from Dammam to Phnom Penh, from Doha to Phnom Penh... all the while repeating the oft-chanted mantra of 'Oudh Combodi'... the term stuck in the mind of the Oud consuming world. It gained such hold in the brains of Saudis and Emiratis that you could hear them chanting among themselves, as they ate camel mandi, 'Com-Bo-Di! Com-Bo-Di! Com-Bo-Di!' And they whispered it in the ears of their spellbound children as they put them to sleep, 'If you behave yourself, you get a bottle of Combodi.'
Now, as the Bengalis who run the Oudh conglomerates of the Emirates rapped on, something alarming started to happen in the forests of Kampung Speu. And then Pursat. And then Koh Kong... The hunters of Oudh Combodi stopped finding any trees to make their Oudh from. But it was too late. The people had been told that there is nothing as precious or as chique as Oudh Combodi. And so Oudh Combodi they had to have. What to do? It was a decisive moment in the history of Oudh, as the white head-scarfed Sequoia drivers and their Bengali tigers decided it was time to move yet further East in search of their juice. (All the while, the people kept chanting all over the streets of Riyadh, 'Com-BO-DI! Com-BO-DI!') And so they discovered Oudh Undonusi (lit. 'Indonesian Oud'). Of course, this immediately became the new 'Oudh Combodi'.
Last I witnessed (2007), 'Combodi Qadeem' was a mix of Indian, Thai and Papuan Ouds, according to a fortuitous inspiration of 'the Boss' one day.
So then, to return to our question, what on earth is 'Oud Cambodi'?
Well, a Cambodi is a Hindi is a Thai is a Maroke is a Borneo, or any combination of oils from any of these regions. In reality, a 'Cambodi' today is anything but Cambodian. And it hasn't been since 2004. Since the day I launched my first Oud oil in 2004, I have not smelled genuine Cambodian Oud except on two occasions.
But wait, what about all the 'fruitilicious' and 'jammy' and 'figgy' and ultra sticky Cambodis and Thaqeels, Koh Kongs and Kampucheas, and all the rest of them that they keep bringing from Islamabad to Vancouver to Victoria to New York City? Do I mean to say that none of these oils are 'Cambodis'? Unfortunately, that is exactly so. They are either Thai oils that have been oxidized to smell like a faint resemblance of their long gone progenitors, or Aquilaria crassna trees that are cultivated within the 'legal' boundaries of Cambodia, and which bear as much resemblance to their wild forefathers as Oud Yusha does to Qi Nam Khmer. (In case you haven't smelled both, very little resemblance.)
Stop. Hold it right there. I am not saying that they are inferior, or not noteworthy oils in their own right, each and every (other) one of them. What I am saying is, by smelling Oud Yusha, you're not smelling Oud Cambodi à la 1970s Cambodi. You're smelling a very different type of Oud Cambodi, if that's what you insist that we call it. You're smelling the 'Cambodi' of the Future. The 'Cambodi' of the Past is now... history (or better yet, archeology).
Think about this for a second. I've distilled I don't know how many Ouds from all over the agarwood producing world, and I have only smelled genuine, wild-harvested Cambodian Oud twice in my life. The first time was when my distiller, having little to show me apart from what I quickly dismissed as mixtures of either DOP or vetiver, found himself between a rock and a hard place, and finally went into his shrine to pull out oils he'd buried there for 25 and 15 years apiece as devotional items. These he wouldn't part with for love or money. I offered him $2,000 for a single bottle (slightly over 3 grams) just to have a benchmark which I show people in order to educate. He declined.
Referred to by locals as:
‘The one that goes underwater.’
Since we coined the term sinking-grade a few years ago in order to share with others just what makes this grade of agarwood so unique, the term’s been borrowed by all and tossed around loosely by many.
You’d routinely see a new batch of ‘sinking’ chips on offer, from hunters to middlemen to retailers. You’d see oud oils ‘distilled from sinking-grade agarwood’ or ‘from trees that contained sinking-grade chips’ or something like this. It seems that sinking agarwood isn’t as hard to come by as some have made it out to be... and at a third of the price that it’s supposed to be selling for!
Truth is, the wood they have might well sink in water. The oils they sell were probably distilled from trees that contained sinking chips. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find sinking chips in even a middle-aged cultivated tree.
The trick is to then leave that same piece you saw bubbling down to the bottom of the pool for a few weeks or months. In most cases, you’ll find that it sure was sinking wood, but not sinking-grade agarwood.
So, when you see the word ‘sinking’ used to promote a new oud oil or oud chips, keep the following definitions in mind:
1) Sinking agarwood:
Wood that goes underwater.
Def: The term ‘sinking’ agarwood may refer to any resinated pieces of wood from a freshly harvested tree which still retain so large a concentration of moisture that they will sink in water. But a piece of agarwood from a newly harvested tree may lose up to 50% (if not more) of its weight once the water leaves; a process that can take upwards of six months! At this point, it will just be another piece of floating wood.
2) Sinking-grade agarwood:
Agarwood that goes underwater, even once thoroughly dried.
Def: The term ‘sinking-grade’ agarwood refers to a piece of agarwood so densely resinated that it sinks in water. Not to be mistaken for ‘sinking’ agarwood where resin content is confused with moisture content. Once a piece of sinking agarwood is found, professional dealers in collectible sinking-grade wood leave it to de-moisturize for at least six months (depending on the size) before thinking of selling it as genuine sinking-grade agarwood.
So, next time you hear of a new batch of ‘sinking-grade’ wood that was found deep in the jungle... just remember that jungles get a lot of rain.
Watch this space for upcoming oud notes...