Following Trygve Harris’ latest escapades through Laos, some confusion has come up about the real state of agarwood. From some corners you’re being told agarwood is all but extinct, only to then hear that there’s in reality a surplus supply. So, what’s the deal?
As I’m writing this, looking out at the distillery, a tractor offloads a freshly harvested agarwood tree. In a couple of hours there’ll be another. And another. The workers are at it seven days a week, the pots keep cooking and the oud oil dripping. I certainly don’t see any shortage of agarwood ‒ not in Laos, nor in Thailand.
It’s a matter of differentiation. You find salmon all over the place, yet why are activists fighting for its survival? Cattle are lined up by the thousands, the meat counters at a thousand shops never empty, so why do you have to go out of your way to track down a healthy steak? If agarwood is overabundant, why leave your family at home, spend your days and nights surrounded by a foreign tongue searching for oud wood, supervising distillations, spend $50 per gram instead of $50 per kilogram of agarwood?
“Sure, they have tons of agarwood… but no resin,” a local distiller answered when I asked him about all the wood in Laos. His answer says it all, really. When you make oud oil, the amount of trees doesn’t matter; the health of the agarwood tree does. But, like with salmon and beef, we’ve got everything the wrong side up. The picture below shows your all-too-prevalent agarwood. Call up any distiller and ask about agarwood oil, this is where it comes from:
When you smell oud oil made from this grade of agarwood, you get a soft fruity aroma, usually light and sweet on top, and may even last a few hours on your skin. You try it, and… it’s nice. But there’s also a different kind of oud. The kind that makes your heart jump when you smell it. ‘This will remain engraved in my brain until they put me into the ground,’ someone said to me yesterday, upon giving him a swipe of Qi Nam Khmer. To make oils of this calibre, the agarwood needs to look more like this:
The bags you see below contain nothing but incense-grade agarwood chips and chunks (several very large chunks, if you look closely). Regular distillation pots require about 20 kg of wood in order to maximize oil yield. We’d been collecting these batches over many months and still fell short. In the end, we rounded off filling the boiler with some of the best pieces from our 80 year-old Khao Yai tree.
How much do you expect to pay for a normal 10-gram packet of agarwood incense, even if it’s of average quality? A few years ago, around $100. Today, easily a couple of hundred more. Now, take a minute. Carefully look at pictures below; the lifetimes upon lifetimes’ worth of premium grade agarwood chips you could be burning. Crazy, right?
We could have put these bags aside to use as incense. This is what everybody else would have done. Instead, we made an Oud Legend. Instead of a soft fruity fragrance, you get an oud oil that ‘possesses that peculiar smoky velvety haze of narcotic kinam incense’ that smells ‘truly incredible… as if the wood chips were being burnt right there on the spot.’
Unless you have a bottle of oud from thirty years ago that you got from the private collection of a distiller or collector, don’t imagine that you’ve ever smelled anything like our Oud Legends.