One point of interest which I’d like to share with you is the fact of agarwood’s fermentability. Meaning that agarwood, just like certain other things (vegetables, for example) can be fermented. In Malaysia, they ferment even fruits.
Whether you like your cabbage raw or prefer sauerkraut is a question that goes back to personal taste. But all fermented vegetables share a certain note – a certain taste note – which is identical whether you eat fermented cabbage, or spinach, or cucumbers.
There’s a new trend in agarwood use in the West, and it’s to skip or tone down the fermentation. The fermented note is the one that’s termed ‘barnyard’ or ‘animalic’ or, to get a bit more scientific, ‘indoly’ (as in the indol that’s found in other aromatics such as jasmine).
Agarwood distillation is a craft that dates back centuries. To us, the traditional facets of this art are sacrosanct. We are not keen on modernizing agarwood distillation. To tamper with it would be like tampering with traditional attar distillation. For which reason, whenever possible we avoid steam distillation entirely.
Even though it would save us a lot of time and toil, to tone down oud by skipping the soak – to take the oomph out of oud, so to speak – is to... not produce oud.
The chief scent note oud is characterized and identified by is precisely that pungent, powerful, sometimes overwhelming, and to newcomers even repulsive... fermented woods note. It’s exactly that note which is given off by fermented agarwood, specifically of Indian origin, which is what oud has meant to the Muslims for ages. To Muslims, oud was never Bornean, or Papuan, cool or leafy, or ‘fruity’. Instead, they sought out that mighty fermented wood note.
Interestingly enough, when perfumers in the West want to create an oud fragrance, they don’t replicate the scent of floral Papuan oils, or the scent of fruity Malinaus, or the scent of airy, sweet Kalbars. What they replicate is the fermentation note which is found in traditionally distilled Indian and South East Asian ouds – such as Laotian, Cambodian, Burmese, Chinese and Thai. In short, the likes of Oud Mostafa.
This is why, if you take the very finest raw materials from this region and process them the classic way of full-on fermentation, and then cook them as they’ve been cooked for millennia, you get an oud that is voted almost unanimously by oud lovers as their all-time favorite. How come no one votes Borneo Kinam or Green Papua, both very unusual ouds? Because oud is fermented.
It’s the fermentation note which often misleads amateurs into comparing the likes of Oud Mostafa to Assam Organic. This tells you how oud is identified and perceived by the mind, and which note is the one that predominates in its classification, be it Chinese or Cambodian or Burmese. It’s perceived as something fermented.
One Tree, Four Oils
For this experiment, we inspected several trees to find out which ones were fit for harvest. One tree stood out. We were told we only had two weeks to harvest it. The tree had reached a point where it was no longer able to heal itself, and had, at 40 years-old, effectively stopped growing. From this point onwards we could only expect the wood to decay, and risk losing out on extracting its fragrant resin.
Growing to be this mature, given today’s farming practices, is actually a big deal, where the average age at which most trees are harvested is 5 to 15 years. The tree was processed without any intervention, artificial or otherwise, to induce the resin formation.
So we took this wood, which could otherwise yield a very floral, fruity, almost Borneo-like character if it were steam distilled without a soaking period prior to the distillation, and we distilled from it... Oud Mostafa… or at least we tried to.
Those of you who like the powerful, incredibly robust note in this legendary oil, will find in the Oud Mostafa Experiment something of a paradox. You find a young tree (relative to Oud Mostafa, 40 years is still young) in which the animalic note is taken to the extreme.
In order to give you a further insight into the nature of agarwood production and something of a crash course in the fermentation and distillation of agarwood, we used two different cooking methods with three different types of soak, and distilled four separate batches from the same tree.
For the soak (a.k.a. fermentation period) distillers the world over use plastic barrels. We asked several artisans why they don’t alternate between different materials, and they explained that they don’t like how other materials interfere with the scent profile of their oils. I suspect, though, that most of them simply haven’t tried anything other than plain plastic. Plus, some ‘inteference’ might be exactly what we’re looking for!
In addition to the standard plastic, we were keen to get barrels made from clay and ceramic for our study. Tracking down these kind of materials was easier said than done, since the small towns along the Thai countryside aren’t exactly overflowing with pottery stalls. But eventually we found a roadside pottery from which we got both our ceramic and clay barrels. Driving back to the distillery, we realized that plastic barrels are simply a far more convenient option. The ones we’d just bought were far heavier and many times more expensive than the standard plastic wares.
We’d just finished processing and grinding the wood from our freshly harvested tree, and with our pots being unloaded from the pick-up, we had everything in place for our distillation… the first of its kind.
To illustrate how fermentation and distillation play a role in the notes that come out in agarwood oil, we decided on the following design: we divided the dust that we ground up from the 40 year-old tree into four batches. The first batch would be soaked in a plastic barrel and then cooked in a steel boiler. The second batch would be soaked in plastic, too, but cooked in a copper pot. We would then immerse the third batch in a clay barrel, and cook it in a steel pot. For the final batch, we’d use another steel pot, with the dust immersed in ceramic.
Several months after the harvest, we collected the last drops of oil, rounding off the Oud Mostafa Experiment. All that was left to do was to filter the four batches before we could finally dive into the fragrance of each. We invite you to join us in this study.
Choose between four bottles of oud, or buy all four to own the set:
Option 1: plastic soak, steel distil; 2.5 grams.
Option 2: plastic soak, copper distil; 2.5 grams.
Option 3: ceramic soak, steel distil; 2.5 grams.
Option 4: clay soak, steel distil; 2.5 grams.
The oil I started enjoying the most is Mostafa Experiment No 2, it has this delicious calamus/grapes/yellow plums/apple juice/pineapple aroma. – Andrej, Croatia