The Future of Oud Pt. 6: Wild Cambodi vs. Cultivated Cambodi

Although wild Cambodian Oud is  (statistically speaking) extinct, the Oud world currently has at their fingertips a wild-harvested Cambodi from Agar Aura, and a cultivated Cambodi from Ensar Oud. I would highly encourage my readers to grab a bottle of both, and to engage in an experiment. Can you smell the difference between Oud oil from cultivated trees and Oud oil from wild-harvested trees? Do a blind test, and see if you can locate the bottle of wild oil, and the bottle of organic oil. If you do a blind test, do it early,  before you can identify the fragrances by nose! Furthermore, if you are interested in taking the experiment to another level, try both Oud Yusha and Encens d’Ankgor for a direct experience of the art of distillation.

If you have already done these experiments, or if you are going to, feel free to post your thoughts and conclusions in comments to this post. If significant enough reply is received, a new post could be made featuring the conclusions of the noses of Oud connoisseurs!

We are currently witnessing breakthroughs in the world of Oud oil, and lucky to be participating in this historic moment! Speaking of breakthroughs and experiments, Ensar is currently in Thailand conducting an experiment of his own. He has acquired wild incense-grade Cambodian Oud wood, which he is going to distill into oil. He is doing this to see if his recent organic distillations can compare to the wild distillation, and to see if the wild holds anything that is missing from the organic distillation. A very intriguing, brave, and expensive experiment, Ensar once again demonstrates his characteristic fervor and devotion to discovering the nuances of everything related to Oud oil. Please enjoy the video below:

The Future of Oud Pt. 5: The Extinction of Wild Cambodian Oud

As stated in earlier posts, the wild Aquilaria Crassna trees of Cambodia are a thing of the past. However, the Crassna species has been experiencing serious cultivation efforts in Thailand. Ensar Oud’s most recent organic releases (Oud Yusha and Encens d’ Ankgor) are oils distilled from Cambodian Oud wood that has been organically cultivated in Thailand.

However, Agar Aura has recently released a 100% wild-harvested Cambodian Oud oil, named Oud Kampuchea. The claim that Kampuchea was 100% wild-harvested absolutely intrigued me. Knowing it to be a rare specimen, I asked Taha what the story was behind this oil, and I received the following very informative reply from him:

TAHA: Wild Cambodian Oud is indeed extinct. However, there is statistical extinction and there’s all-out extinction (e.g. there are animals which do exist on Earth, but they are considered ‘extinct’, because their numbers are small and chances of their continued existence too bleak).

In the case of Cambodian Oud, wild trees are so few that their existence is of no statistical significance. They are either close to borders (and we know how dangerous they can be in that part of the world), or hidden away in extremely hard to reach areas. (We, in the West, fail to realize how HARD it is to spend even a single day in one of these jungles. Some hunters are in there for months).

Statistically speaking, Indian Oud has also been extinct for LONGER than Cambodian Oud–since about the 1940’s or so. However, there are still wild trees present there today, albeit very few. Oud Khidr is an example of an Oud that defies stats, so to speak. Speaking of Oud Khidr, I’m disappointed that people haven’t been giving it the attention it deserves.

Anyhow, back to the point. Wild Oud is extinct in Vietnam, Cambodia, and India. However, there is still wild Oud coming out of their jungles. Its just soooooo little that their numbers are of no value. Did you know, for example, that even today hunters in Vietnam sometimes stumble upon legendary grade wood? Don’t even get me started on the cruelty that follows thereafter (including life threats, torture, etc.). But the point is that they are there, even if they’re very few.

That’s why cultivation is such a great idea. So far though, cultivated Oud hasn’t been all that wowing. I can tell you though, after I smelled Thai Encens 2*, I had to change my mind. : )

The trees from which Oud Kampuchea was distilled were actually not that old. Maybe around 2 decades old . But the infection was estimated to be older (7-9 years) based on the resin formation. I think maybe that’s the reason why Kampuchea is more potent. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter how old the tree is, beyond a certain point. When you’re talking about cultivated Oud, your focus has to be on the age of the resin, not the age of the tree. Then there’s the issue of diminishing rate of return (smaller and smaller % yield of oil), as the resin gets older and denser. That opens up a whole new cans of worms, ha ha!

In short: me getting a hold of Kampuchea was something God had destined. Something The Most Merciful was Gracious enough to gift me with. I didn’t expect it. I can’t count on always being able to get oil like it. I consider myself very fortunate for having acquired it. : )

*Thai Encens 2 is a privately released organic Oud from Ensar Oud. It is the second distillation from incense-grade wood of the Aquilaria Crassna variety. Due to its similarity to the fragrance of fine Japanese Incense, the oil has been named “Thai Encens”. Additionally, those who have smelled this oil have remarked on its striking similarity to the legendary Kyara LTD. A bottle of this oil has been set aside for me, and will be reviewed on this website.

Pure Transcendence: Green Oud

Although I’ve found that Oud oils that possess the greener notes tend to be on the lighter and airy side (where I prefer more body), the Kyara note remains one of the most tantalizing and profound olfactory experiences. I wanted to share the following description from Ensar of the various green notes one can find in Oud oil:

ENSAR: There are several types of ‘green’ when it comes to Oud. There is the green of gyrinops trees, which grow in West Papua. This is a leafy, damp jungle air green that is fresh and full of energy. Depending on how it is distilled, it might evoke anything from violet leaf absolute to Vicks Vaporub.

Then there is tea green. A more astringent note, laden with incense smoke, this is found in aquilaria crassna. The higher the grade of wood used to distill the Oud, the crisper and more crystal clear this green note will resonate.

Until you reach the ultimate Kyara green. This is pure transcendence. Aquilaria sinensis is the Oud wood that yields this note, if distilled with care. Yet if the grade of crassna is high enough, you will get the same Kyara note in a super fine crassna oil.

Personally, I find the sinensis oils to be a bit smoky in the top and heart notes. A premium crassna oil will yield a green that is as immaculate as Japanese sencha tea that simply dissolves in water.

Green Kyara, wood chip (1g)

The Future of Oud Pt. 4: The Art of Distillation

A fundamental revelation to all Oud connoisseurs: The raw materials are not everything.

What are “raw materials”? Raw materials are basically the raw wood itself, and the entire process associated with preparing it for distillation. But let’s back up a bit. Remember that the Aquilaria tree is not necessarily infected, and therefore not necessarily ready to transmutate into Oud oil. First the Aquilaria tree must become infected, and there are many variations on this process. In the case of wild or cultivated trees, the infection could occur naturally, or it could be naturally induced by the drilling of holes that allow insects to crawl in, and then there is inoculation. In the case of cultivated trees, everything that relates to the cultivation of the tree is significant. Has the tree been cultivated organically? Or has it been cultivated with the use of pesticides?

The next factor to consider after the reality of infection has been determined is how old is the infection? How old is the tree itself? How resinated is the wood? These are significant questions that pose tremendous impact on the quality of Oud oil. After all of this has been met to a vendor’s (or hopefully, artisan’s) satisfaction, then the tree is cut down for its wood, and the wood is then cut into chips, which are then ground into dust for distillation.

Then we begin to move into the distillation phase, and all of the preliminaries and quirks of that process. Is the wood to be soaked prior to distillation? If so, for how long? All of this will, of course, impact the quality of the oil and the minutest alteration of method could yield in a dramatically different scent profile. Here, the artisan treads carefully and with great sensitivity.

Oud oil has been around since ancient times. However, even as recent as 10 years ago, wild Oud oil was being distilled regularly–far before the likes of Ensar Oud and Agar Aura came onto the scene. Yet, Ensar Oud changed the face of wild Oud oil, forever–and I do not say that lightly. Ensar Oud took wild Oud oil to the next level by putting a level of consideration into the procurement of raw materials that has not happened before, and by mastering the art of distillation with a nearly prodigal flavor. Yes, wild Oud oil was being distilled before Ensar Oud and Agar Aura–even pure wild Oud oil, unadulterated. But how was it being distilled?

And what is an artisanal distillation? With wild Oud oil no longer on the horizon, I sought to find the answers, and grasp the future of Oud, if there was any at all. And there most certainly is, and a very bright one at that! Perhaps the most important thing I learned is summarized in the first sentence of this post. What Ensar started talking about with cultivated Oud is not something that currently exists. A visionary if I’ve ever met one, he is putting form to a vision no one else has. It is only after learning the incredible details of this process that I began to appreciate Ensar as an artist of the higher calibre. Yes, distilling Oud oil is not a business, or a way to make money. It is a fine art that few know about, and few come to appreciate with the depth that it commands to be appreciated with. Just as a painter is sensitive to his medium, to the substance of his art (whether it be watercolor, or pastel, or oil, or ink brush), and to the color of his paint–likewise someone distilling Oud oil must be just as sensitive to Oud wood, the species of Oud wood being distilled, its potential scent profile, its degree of resination, what exactly to do with the wood such that it yields its true potential (unique in every case). As a painter must very sensitively paint his vision, likewise an Oud artisan must carefully bring everything together in the simultaneity of color, form, technique, and deep sensitivity which inevitably yields an ecstasy, a profusion of fragrance that leads to the responses and reviews which you see on this website.

And I hold that it is something of this sacred process that gives Oud its intoxicating and sacred character. It is not merely the resin itself. Nothing is sacred in and of itself. Nothing is full, in and of itself, except the Supreme Lord of all the worlds, who bestows Fullness and Completion upon anything that is surrendered to Him.

Distillation is an art. And in the case of Oud oil, a sacred art. Have you ever smelled that dull, one-dimensional, and superficial quality of Oud oils from the Gulf? Have you ever encountered Oud oil that is completely pure and of reasonable quality, but that still doesn’t hit that spot?

Rather than attempt to summarize the artistic nature of the distillation process myself, I would refer people to Ensar’s latest blog post on the nuances of this incredible process. Below are posted some additional comments from him, which I feel are rather summary on why distillation is such an artistic process, and its impact on the oil.

ENSAR: Some distillers dislike steam because of the high temperatures it exposes the oil to. They are unable to impart their desired ‘smell’ to the oil, which many artisans take years to perfect and consider their trademark. You can do a lot less with steam. It’s basically chopping the wood into pellets, placing them on a metal grid and steaming ’em up until the oil separates from the vapor. No artisanal anything happening here apart from the wood selection process preceding the distillation. True, you can maintain the temperature not to exceed a certain level so as not to impart a ‘burnt’ smell to the oil, but that’s as technical as it gets. So in other words, I don’t think there is a certain type of wood that is more suited for steam distillation.

So far as ‘economical considerations’ go, steam is far less labor intensive than hydro distillation, which can take weeks of processing. Some argue that with hydro distillation there is more yield, but this is not something I have seen save in Assam, where the soaking is extended to 25-30 days, which leads to the hallmark ‘barnyard’ smell associated with Assam oils. 

I am very puzzled by something I witnessed in a recent distillation. When we harvested the tree, I picked up a chunk of wood that smelled extremely fecal, or like some nicely aged cheese. I even said in one of the video shoots that I encountered a ‘fecalicious’ scent when entering the distillery where that wood was drying atop the cookers, prior to grinding. Yet when I collected the oil just the other day, I got the very greenest scent I’ve ever smelled in any oud. It’s almost too green. I was really looking forward to some barnyard Thai oil, given the firsthand encounter with the super fecal smell direct from the still moist tree. And post soaking and distillation I got the greenest smell imaginable. How did that happen? The type of groundwater used for soaking the wood, and then the stainless steel stills. Would I have ended up with an aged cheese smell had I used steam extraction? Most probably! Would I go back and use steam if I could? Nope!

Most distillers cannot go into the nitty gritty of different material ducts and tubes. I only know of one guy who built and rebuilt his entire distillation systems three times within one year because the smell of the oil was not what he was looking for. As you can see in various pictures, hydro distillation stills are cemented in place, and it is not possible to change anything once they’re built.

In the case of Borneos and Kyara Koutan, all you have in the bottle is the smell of the wood itself. There is no scent imparted to the oil save by minimal contact with the steam (several hours distillation). So the whispy ethereal notes are the hallmark of Borneo oils, if the grade of wood going into the stills is high enough. Kyara Koutan was even higher grade wood, and given that this was exported to Taiwan for state-of-the-art steam extraction (far removed from the hydrodistillation degs of its native land) all you’ve got inside the bottle is the scent of that wood, unaffected by anything pertaining to distillation. In the case of steam, the mastery of distillation is as it were the opposite of what is sought in hydro distillation; the less the oil is affected by the extraction process, the more successful the job, the more masterful the distiller. A distiller who uses steam and gets a ‘burnt’ smell in the oil is still green. A hydro distillation expert who gets an incense smoke smell in the oil is a great master.

Water is never filtered prior to soaking the wood. Rather, it comes directly out of the ground. Every distiller has a signature, and it is most certainly his groundwater. I know of a great master whom I have a huge reverence for, the only man who refused to distill my incense grade wood in his stills which are regularly used in organic oud extraction; lest my incense notes should disturb his lilies and lilacs which he’s worked 20 years to perfect in his oil.

Yet I’m still convinced it’s worth getting him to ‘forfeit’ one still to use long-term for my incense note oils, just to see if they’ll be accompanied by any lilacs or lilies. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Once our distillation requirements got finicky enough (circa 2005) the distiller threw in the towel on Borneo and Papua equipment and started having the wood exported to Taiwan. Here we found a mad scientist sort of character who’d built himself a state-of-the-art distillation facility way out in the weeds. The temperature was maintained by these automatic gadgets that would shut the steam off once the max temp was reached, which could not have been beyond 200 degrees.

I’ve decided to go hydro simply because the tweaks you can do to the scent are endless. From the still to the water to the soaking to the cooking, everything is modifiable. Sort of like driving a stick shift as opposed to automatic, where you just hit the gas.

The Future of Oud Pt. 3: Can “organic” equal “wild”?

This is the big question that has been on my mind, ever since Ensar Oud went organic. I had no doubts that it was the right decision, given the non-sustainability of continued harvesting of wild trees. But frankly, I felt a bit of a sinking feeling at the same time, feeling that cultivated “organic” Oud would never be able to compare to the fresh raw and pure nature of an Agarwood tree that has been naturally infected, and then harvested after significant age. How could cultivated Oud possibly compare to the sheer wildness of jungle wood? I had my doubts, but there did not feel to be a way out of this one. I began to try to live with the reality that Oud oil had reached its prime in the artisanal distillations of Ensar Oud, and that we would never see the likes of such oils, ever again.

Take Oud Shuyukh for example. That first swipe of Oud Shuyukh is what made me understand Ensar’s devotion to wild wood. I felt like cultivated wood would not be able to energetically reproduce this level of wildness, this jungliness, this earthy primal quality. How could it? The raw and wild character of Oud Shuyukh had me singing the praises of wild Oud, long before I really knew and felt the endangered status of Oud right now.

I decided to ask Ensar about this, and also see what his feelings were about it. Since then, he posted this video, which I highly recommend watching: Can organic Oud be as good as wild Oud?

What follows is a question along the same lines. I feel that Ensar’s reply very nicely gets to the heart of the matter.

QUESTION: Ensar, can you smell the difference between Oud oil from cultivated wood and Oud oil from wild wood? From what I gather in other communications, the most significant factor in producing artisanal Oud oil is not the matter of cultivated wood vs. wild wood, but it is the nitty-gritty of the distillation process itself. Is that accurate? In that case, do you feel that Ensar Oud is beginning to prove that cultivated wood can produce the same quality Oud oil as wild-harvested wood?

ENSAR: If the cultivated wood is allowed to age at least five years after infection is engendered; and it is then distilled with proper care and expertise; and it is left to age naturally without any force aging or oxidation, it would be very difficult to smell the difference between wild and cultivated oud.

Most wild oud is distilled from trees that were infected for the same amount of time as cultivated trees, simply because if the wild wood matures enough it will then turn into proper incense grade hard agarwood which is all but impossible to distill into oil. This quality is sold as oud chips, and only the marginal shavings obtained during the cleaning process can be distilled into oud oil.

Yet if you take oud oil distilled from these shavings and compare it with incense-grade organic oud (e.g. Thai Encens No 1), I bet you not only won’t be able to tell the difference, you’ll opt for the Encens as the superior oil. So yes, the nitty-gritty details of what goes into the stills, how long it is soaked, what temperature it gets cooked at; does the steam pass through stainless tubes or copper ones; does the oil pass through stainless ducts or copper ones; is the still itself copper or stainless steel; and so forth; these are what makes oud oil artisanal.

Are we “beginning to prove that cultivated wood can produce the same quality Oud oil as wild-harvested wood?” I’d rather not answer that question myself. Here is what Taha  of Agar Aura has written me over the last few days:

I’m actually quite shocked at how similar [Oud Yusha] smells to Oud Kampuchea! The latter is the only 100% authentic wild Cambodian oud that I know of, that I’ve smelled. And the fact that Yusha is soooo similar to Kampuchea has me quite impressed. I don’t say this to praise Kampuchea, rather I mean that I am thoroughly impressed that Yusha could smell so close to wild oud. I’d say the two are about 95% identical. I have no doubt that you’ll be able to (continue to) produce organic ouds of the same calibre as, or even better than, wild ouds.

First of all, I think it was a great idea for this oil to have been distilled the way it was. It bequeathes the oil a complexity I have never seen in cultivated oils before. With the multi-layered ensemble displayed by this oil, one could almost swear it was distilled from ancient wild trees. The opening is woody and smoky, yet soft and smooth, and really does remind me of a wooden cottage. A touch of leather adds a nice dark back drop for the brighter notes to stand out and shine more. A subtle fruitiness begins to emerge after about a minute. A hint of sweet roasted nuts makes me think of a pie fresh out of the oven, with a thick filling of succulent fruits, sprinkled with cinnamon and garnished with crushed almonds and macadamia nuts. Surprisingly, to me Encens d’Angkor actually gets sweeter than Oud Yusha as it develops further, but the smokiness and darker notes keep fading in and out, making the oil unpredictable and keeping my nose ever-glued to my wrist. I feel I still haven’t fully grasped all of the oil’s subtleties, but I look forward to spending more time getting to know it better.

I couldn’t resist emailing you again, to share some more impressions on Encens d’Angkor. I’m surprised you didn’t mention honey notes in this oil’s description. Close the dry down stage, I detect a very noticeably ‘hot’ honey note that I have only seen in one other oil. Caramelicious and warm. Also, for the first time today, I realized that the name for this oil is perfect – it actually does smell quite a lot like a burning incense stick. It is as though Crassna oud is the agarwood part of the incense, while the other accompanying notes in the oil are the equivalent of spices and herbs traditionally used in incense-making. I can’t get over how complex this oil is!

The Future of Oud Pt. 2: Organic Oud

QUESTION: What is “Organic Oud”?

ENSAR: There are three things to rule out when labeling an oud ‘organic’. Chemical fertilizers; synthetic pesticides; and artificial inoculation via Biotech vaccine and the like. Not all cultivated wood is inoculated artificially. The bare minimum, which every farmer apart from select Assamese planters implements is to drill holes into the trunks of the trees. This will trigger natural resin formation, as the tree will fight to heal the wounds. Very few farmers stop there.

Then there are farmers who insert honey inside these holes to attract ants. The ants will swarm inside the holes, eat the honey and proceed to other holes carrying with them bacteria that spreads the infection of the tree. The more widespread the infection, the greater the resination.

Others will take the leftover water from hydro-distillation along with some of the cooked agarwood dust and inject that into the holes in the trunk. Presumably the bacteria that is still found in the dregs from the previous distillation can trigger a new infection in the uninfected saplings.

Then of course you have Biotech. This is the most widespread artificial inoculation method. Yet it is worthy of note that more than an inoculation method it is used as a catalytic agent used to speed up the infection rather than trigger it. As the old adage goes, ‘Good things happen to those who wait.’

In labeling an oud ‘organic’ then, we look for trees that were planted without the use of chemical fertilizers; not sprayed with synthetic pesticides; and not injected with Biotech. In all of Thailand we’ve only found three farmers whose trees fall under this category.

There are no harmful chemicals at play when distilling oud from trees injected with Biotech. I have an oil like that here which I procured specifically with the intention to study it and see how Biotech affects the fragrance in the long run.

But if we can produce organic oils, which are the closest thing both from a chemical and from an olfactory standpoint to the wild oil, then why remove the process that much further from the way it occurs in the wild?

The Future of Oud Pt. 1: Cultivated Oud vs. Wild Oud

Everyone who is following the fragile future of Oud oil right now is quickly becoming familiar with this sensitive and significant topic: Cultivated Oud vs. Wild Oud.

On October 16, Ensar made a post on his blog announcing “The End of Oud”. In this blog post, he stated that the Oud world would not “hear of any new wild distillations being commissioned by Ensar Oud again“.

On November 8, Ensar announced that Ensar Oud was going Organic. What does that mean? It means that Ensar Oud is now completely devoted to distilling Oud oil from organically cultivated Agarwood trees. Why? Because Oud is going extinct, and the continued harvesting of wild Oud wood will only lead to the end of Oud. As Ensar stated in some of his videos, he found that he could no longer harvest wild Oud wood, feeling it to be “unethical”, while boasting a sense of lightness and happiness about his first cultivated effort.

Naturally, this has raised many questions about the quality of cultivated Oud wood in comparison with wild Oud wood. Ensar was previously a very strong proponent of the superiority of wild Oud oil over against cultivated Oud oil. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the vast majority of distillations from cultivated wood are done far too early to yield proper results. If the Agarwood tree is not of significant maturity (i.e., at least 20 years old) and fully resinated, then it cannot possibly yield Oud oil of remotely comparable quality. (However, in a recent conversation with Ensar, he stated that the age of the infection is more significant than the age of the tree itself).

This post marks the first of many more to come which feature short interviews with Ensar. May everyone enjoy his lucid and deeply informative replies, and come to appreciate more and more of the meticulous and truly artistic process of distilling precious Oud oil.

The following question was asked on the Gaharu forum by another poster.

QUESTION: Hi Ensar, I have a question which may or may not be simple and I hope you don’t mind me asking you here. I assume that this may be of some interest to other oud enthusiasts who may, much like myself, not be entirely clear on what is “organic” oud and what isn’t.

From what I’ve read over the last couple of years oud oils extracted from cultivated oud were almost always universally dismissed as less complex and inferior to those distilled from wild wood. It was considered a fact that cultivated trees are often (but not always) harvested while they are just a few years old before the infection spreads more and the resin matures, so they couldn’t be expected to produce the quality of resinated wood that is found in wild growing trees.

In your recent interview to Model News you stated: “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.” But now it appears that you are spearheading a push towards ethically harvested organic cultivated oud trees to source your new distillations. Why the change of heart? Did you find a new, previously unknown, source of cultivated trees that were allowed to mature long enough to produce resin of quality previously unseen with cultivated oud? Or did the growers you came across employ some radically different cultivation methods that caused you to have a 180-degree in your outlook? Or is it perhaps the extinction of naturally-occuring trees in the wild?

I am just trying to understand this – you’ve always prided your products to be not only of the highest quality but also of wild origin, so what has changed now?

ENSAR: Your question is very propitious, and I appreciate you taking the time to formulate and post it here for others to read and reflect as well.

Wild agarwood was nowhere near the place we brought it to when we came on the scene. Carelessly distilled oils which were then most often adulterated. 100% of exports were to the Gulf market, where people are oblivious to aromatherapy and essential oils; they fail to recognize the fact that oud is an essential oil. Hence anything that smells ‘oudy’ is oud, be it agarwood oil, DOP, sharp smelling aromatics, whatever. We brought a great deal of obsession to the art of distillation itself, with a purism that verged on extreme. (I believe I spoke about this in one of the videos we launched on YouTube and our blog; were you able to watch any of them?)

Now, we always distill ‘a few years ahead’ of what we sell. So the oils that I was supposed to sell now were all distilled in 2009, just before the emergence of the great ‘China Market’.

I went to Singapore in October of this year for a personal matter not related to agarwood. While in town, I thought I’d pop in and say hello to the local merchants and colleagues of the trade. My jaw dropped when I saw the empty warehouses. Just a year back, when we visited in March 2010, there were piles upon piles of agarwood covering the warehouse grounds. Now, everything was all but empty. The wood that had been $20,000 a kilogram in 2010 was now $200,000 a kilogram!

Various suppliers confirmed these facts. Agarwood had experienced a major blow during 2010 by the recurrent appearance of Chinese bead manufacturers, sculptors, carvers and collectors ready to pay literally any price, without the slightest negotiation, for high quality agarwood.

I had not the faintest clue about what awaited me in Singapore. My Bhutanese distillations were happening as usual. After all, we were interested not in the solid wood as much as the dust collected from the cleaning of that wood. So this was coming in steadily. As for my activities in Borneo, I’d paused them out of a personal prerogative to proceed to unexplored areas, especially given the 2009 distillations of Borneos we’d already stashed away for release at a future date.

What I witnessed in Singapore is what led to the ‘End of Oud‘ article, and the switch to organic. There simply IS no wild agarwood left to go around, considering all the players involved now, some of whom are Chinese billionaires with no spending limit. Wild agarwood is history. Whether anyone believes me or not. You shall see it become a universally accepted reality within a very short time.

The premature harvesting of cultivated trees was indeed one of the reasons cultivation efforts could never live up to what we saw coming from wild agarwood. The quality of the wood was simply worlds apart. That, and we didn’t have the added concern of chemical fertilizers, artificial inoculation and so forth. I couldn’t imagine producing the kind of oils we did from cultivated trees. But, the move to implement in organic oud what we’d learned over the years distilling wild oud didn’t come about merely to keep the business going. It’s a whole new chapter for me as a producer; a new challenge. And for consumers as well who, given the current state of affairs, have very little to look forward to.

I admit I was being rather naive when I made that statement on Model News. True, organic agarwood could never yield the same oils we were producing from wild agarwood. But only because we weren’t producing any organic oils – yet.

I am now quite optimistic about the future of organic oud. Especially considering the personal involvement in the distillation process which I’ve resolved to maintain through all our organic distillations. These are a lot more tricky than wild distillations. The wood needs to be carefully selected. Then the fussiness of the organic farmers is far from the degree of artisanal fanaticism we’d like to see.

The beauty of it is I can now be part of the harvesting team and supervise each step of the distillation process in person. From the harvesting of the tree, to the grinding, soaking (if any), cooking, filtering; everything. There is no danger as there was with wild agarwood. The farmers own the land where the trees are located, so you don’t have to fear for your life as when venturing blindly into the jungles, not sure if you’ll find a tree to begin with; then the worry of harvesting an uninfected tree which will be a wasted effort as well as contribute to the extinction of the tree. The way I see it, it’s a win-win situation we’re in with organic oud.

Cultivated oud is now where wild oud was in 2004. So it’s going to be a steep slope. But I think we already have several beautiful oils to show for our efforts; and you have three of them in your hands as tangible proof for what can be done with organic agarwood.

Borneo Kinam

Borneo Kinam. With the bottle in my hands, I am at first impressed with a bold woodiness emanating from the bottle. I think, Borneos are supposed to be sweet. But I was pleasantly surprised to encounter this fresh woody character from the outset. I could smell that the accord of woody notes was in the lower anatomy of the oil, the body, the surrounding aura of the scent profile. I am immediately intrigued.

I unscrew the cap, enjoying the elegant vision of the gold rim slowly twist. The fragrance moves out in a rush of excitement. I remove the applicator stick, bathed in the gold of Borneo Kinam. Swipe. I take in the sight and feeling of the oil on my wrist, before gently rubbing my wrists together. Vanilla ascends from the body of the oil, soft and beautiful. I can almost taste the smoothness of freshly-ground Madagascan vanilla beans. The oil’s fragrance is deeply sensual, moving in the seductive curves of a woman’s body. A camphorous note mingles in the mid-range before rising to vanillin heights. The camphorous note is reminiscent of the fresh, wet, and green heavenly note of Oud Royale. As it unfolds, it reveals its Kyara-like profile–that beautiful airiness, that unusual indescribable aromatic essence that I know in every Kyara and Kinam oil.

The Kyara note is one of the greatest and most unique olfactory experiences. Unique to the rarest and most resinated agarwood, it is impossible to come by. And yet, here are the likes of Kyara in a Borneo oil. Absolutely magical. It is the feeling of a dream I never imagined suddenly coming true. A romantic vision, realized.

The anatomy of the oil quickly becomes a cohesion of form–with the camphorous notes broadcasting from the middle, accented with the high vanilla notes, all surrounded by a cedary-woodiness. The result: A pristine sweetness. Borneo Kinam is a painting in progress that achieves artistic vision and profundity before your eyes. Just as complex as it is sweet, the sweetness of Borneo Kinam is nothing like the sweetness of a Cambodi, or the rare sweetness of an Indian Oud. It is that passionate sweetness that everyone is desirous of and drawn to when they acquire a bottle of Borneo Oud. It is a sweetness that would be erotic, except that it folds into an equanimity of sensual sophistication and depth.

Borneo Kinam is not a “light” fragrance. One of its most impressing characteristics is its unusual depth and seriousness. Possessing a bold femininity, and a depth that is nearly dramatic in play with its sweetness, Borneo Kinam is far from your everyday Borneo Oud.  As the oil drys down, its floral notes come alive–slightly rosy with the fading fragrance of plumerias. The floral notes are subtle, as if caught in fragrant gusts of wind–just enough vanish your mind in exaltation.

Borneo Kinam is the most beautiful and uplifting Oud oil I have ever smelled. If there is an Oud oil that epitomizes the effect of enhancing one’s mood, then Borneo Kinam is it. However, I must say that the sensual ecstasy and sense of joyousness that Borneo Kinam gives feel to be its deepest gifts.

Jungle: Borneo
Crafted: 2007
Yield: 50 tolas

Oud Mostafa

Oud Mostafa. One of the greatest olfactory creations–only two years old, but already boasting a timelessness that will hold the minds and hearts of those who own this bottle for decades to come. An unspeakable deep and pulsating aroma that leaves an impression in the depths of your being. Anyone who has smelled this oil or who will be Graced to smell this oil, will be left with an unforgettable impression of its sacred aroma.

An Oud oil named after the Revered Prophet of Islam is no light matter. Given the significance of fragrance in the Islamic tradition (and furthermore the unique significance of Oud in Islam), the name of this oil spoke volumes to me before I ever smelled it. I felt a strong attraction to Oud Mostafa, and knew early on that it was an oil I would have to acquire.

After all of the anticipation, I finally ordered a bottle, and held the bubble-wrapped box in my hands. Immediately, my senses are filled with the sweet aroma of berries, but remarkably deep–not a light sweetness at all. This is before my hands have even unwrapped the box! I knew that these delectable top notes were only a taste of what circulated beneath it, in what I was beginning to feel would be a very full-bodied Oud. Needless to say, I was astonished at the potency of the fragrance, given that I had not even opened the box yet. Indeed, this powerfully penetrating quality of Oud Mostafa is something I have come to know and enjoy as one of its most endearing characteristics.

Alas, the top is unscrewed just enough, revealing the rim. I receive the first smell as if receiving a blessed gift. I find the sweet berry notes again, now mingling on top of a strong barnyard body. I had never imagined a harmony of barnyard and sweet notes like this before. However, Mostafa exudes a sweetness that is entirely its own. It is not a sweetness comparable to the sweetness one encounters in a Cambodi, or to the ascending sweetness of a Borneo, or even to the sweetness one encounters in other Indian Ouds. It is a sweetness that is inextricable from the barnyard heart of this oil, inseparable from the body of the Oud. Their simultaneous existence is at once beautiful, intoxicating, and addictive.

Oud Mostafa evokes the strongest response in me of any other Oud oil I have smelled. Mostafa stirs emotions of passion and ecstasy, reverence and gratitude. It speaks the language of supremacy and sublimity. It breathes its life into the body like a mystical offering.

As I swipe my wrist, the oil’s fragrance begins to emanate from my wrist. I can almost see it rising from my wrist like the smoke from a mabkhara, creating a field of fragrance that surrounds the whole body. My eyes close in response. I am stilled, motionless, captured in the rapture of this holy fragrance. I raise my wrists to my nose, holding my hands together, as if in a mysterious gesture of prayer. The fragrance reaches the heart with such power.

As I come out of this beholding, I begin to move and notice how Mostafa radiates its fragrance with a serious potency. I am more accustomed to experiencing the “burst” of an oil’s fragrance and character upon a fresh swipe, which always is soon to settle into a more consistent display of the oil’s scent profile. However, with Mostafa I was surprised to find that the initial “burst” lasted for a very long time. It is the only oil in my collection that steadily radiates such a strong fragrance for such a period of time. There is no diminishment in the potency of the fragrance after swiping it. In fact, it only feels to magnify, to expand itself, and express itself more with time. Oud Mostafa has a profound quality of radiation, of emanation, of ecstatic expression. It yearns to embrace and hold, to speak aloud the glories of the Supreme, to draw everyone into its ecstatic dance.

I drink in the fragrance. Each breath feels too shallow to fully receive the fragrance. There always feels to be more before the breath is finished. As I breathe in the fragrance, it feels as if it goes down my throat, entering the body in mysterious shape and form. An incredibly intimate experience. Mostafa has an all-pervasive and penetrating quality that I have not experienced before. The feeling of profundity pervades my heart. I spontaneously utter the Name of God. How can an aroma have such an affect? I nearly fall into self-consciousness, feeling the sense of madness the fragrance creates, wondering if I have gone mad, or if this is really possible. And yet, with every new breath, conviction is restored to the extraordinary and undeniable power of this fragrance.

Ensar writes on his website that “True Indian Agarwood oil is the epitome of the pure Oud fragrance”. I would take this a step further in saying that not only is Indian Oud the epitome of the pure Oud fragrance, but Oud Mostafa epitomizes Oud altogether.

Part of what leads me to this declaration is that Oud Mostafa possesses and exhibits the qualities that are commonly spoken of as the defining characteristics of Oud oil. Mostafa is easily the most long-lasting Oud oil in my collection, and I would be surprised to encounter an Oud oil that lasts longer and maintains such a consistent intensity and liveliness.  Mostafa is unable to remain silent. Infused with deep purpose, Mostafa is the fragrant sound and vibration of a Holy Scripture being recited. The feeling of Revelation makes this oil epic in proportion.

Oud Mostafa sits on the dresser by my Hawaiian window, a screen with open louvers. The wind is constantly blowing in and circulating the room with its freshness. Even when sitting in its bottle, I have found it impossible not to encounter Oud Mostafa. It has become impossible to enter my room without sensing its sublime aroma. On my wrist, this oil lasts over 24 hours if I do not apply soap where the oil has been applied.

Another noteworthy aspect of this Oud oil is that it leaves a trail. The trail of intoxicating fragrance is well known in Islamic literature. As Ensar shares in his description of Oud Mostafa, “Ibn Mas’ud (Allah be well pleased with him) used to apply the very finest perfumes money could buy, and after the Prophet’s passing (Allah bless him and grant us his perfumed visage) it was easy for people to say Ibn Mas’ud has been somewhere due to the unearthly scent that lingered well after he’d left the place.

To give an example of this oil’s trail: I had recently walked into my office to retrieve something I needed when I suddenly caught the fragrance of Oud Mostafa. I immediately dismissed it because I had not been wearing the oil, and thought that perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. I kept smelling. I was certain that I was smelling Mostafa. I walked out of the room perplexed, and moved to the kitchen. There I encountered the intensity of the oil’s fragrance and saw its source standing there in the form of my girlfriend, who had just applied some of the oil from the bottle’s rim. I felt relief in knowing that my olfactory endeavors had not left me crazy, and that indeed I had smelled Mostafa. I was amazed at the trail the fragrance left. It was clearly perceptible in the other room, where she had only stood a moment.

When this oil finally dries down after a few hours, one encounters a red-earthiness that has a subtle hint of spice and cacao in its body. Cloves and cardamom. If you smell it even later, there is even a leatheriness that is evident. Quite a display and diversity of notes!

But beyond its aesthetic value, Oud Mostafa is a sacred experience, a deep and profound fragrance that is not about this world. I feel that it has incredible healing effect on those who are in need of it, because it penetrates the heart, and uplifts the soul. Restoring sacred harmony to the whole body, Oud Mostafa is a reverberation of Divine proportions.

Jungle: Burma
Crafted: January 2010
Yield: 13 tolas
Status: 3 bottles left, near-Legend

Interesting facts: Oud Mostafa is a single-origin distillation from incense-grade agarwood from wild trees at least 70-80 years old.  Absolutely impossible to come by anymore.

Oud Thaqeel Pt. 2

Since the initial correspondence between Ensar and myself regarding ASAQ’s popular “Thaqeel”, Ensar has made further comments regarding ASAQ’s claim that Thaqeel is wild-harvested Cambodian Oud oil from a 100-year old tree.

ENSAR: I speculate Thaqeel is from trees that are no older than 20 years and 100% cultivated at that, the infection being present for 3-5 years. Although this is only my personal conviction, we can argue this both objectively (rationally consider the facts) and subjectively (analyze the scent profile). 

Rationally speaking, it is unlikely for Thaqeel to be from wild trees as these are practically extinct, and the second and third batches were just launched a year or two ago. Even the first batch was launched after the accepted extinction of wild Cambodian agarwood. For them to then supply who-knows-how-many ASAQ shops with wild Thaqeel oil is suspect. 

Subjectively speaking, the scent profile of Thaqeel is identical to Cambodian crassna trees cultivated in Thailand. The scent is so uniform it could only be plantation oil, which can be produced at large while maintaining the scent profile. Wild oils display wildly differing scent characteristics from batch to batch, just as the trees differ in the jungle in species, subspecies, age, infection, degree of resin formation, and so forth.

The only time I smelled wild Cambodian oud was when my distiller went into his shrine and pulled out a few vials he kept there as tokens of religious piety. I offered him whatever he wanted for them, yet he declined to sell them to me saying, ‘Not everything is money’.

These oils varied drastically in fragrance profile to the cultivated oils we see coming out of both Cambodia and Thailand. I am not saying they are superior, they were just so different to anything I’d ever smelled before it’s impossible to describe. The pitch, the body, the notes; all was extremely different to cultivated Cambodian oud.

Do I believe we can distill the likes of these oils from plantation raw materials? Absolutely. If it weren’t for the sheer age of these 15-20 year-old oils I would say both batches of Thai Encens are superior, simply due to the ultra strict selection process, then the meticulous distillation; just the way they were handled makes a huge difference.

Lastly, I know exactly how the thickness of Thaqeel came about. It is a ‘house secret’ of one of the great Thai distillers who will not appreciate me sharing his technique, which is why I am not at liberty to discuss it here.

Of course, these are only speculations, which is why I have prefaced my observations with “I speculate” and “it is my own personal conviction”.

However, it is obvious to me as a producer what type of wood it was obtained from and how it was treated for it to attain the thickness and scent profile it displays. Speculation, yes; but experience points to certain dots which if you connect them, you get an oud that smells, weighs and sticks like Thaqeel. Beautiful oil, no doubt, and one that I wear regularly (my own version), just one I would never see as coming from wild 80 year old trees, given my firsthand experience producing extremely similar, if not identical oils.

I also stand corrected about the ‘extra oxidation’ speculation on Thaqeel. I witnessed this in another franchise’s oil that was very similar to Thaqeel, and it threw me off. While it remains possible that Thaqeel was subjected to the same amount of oxidation (as oxidation is the rule in the Gulf) we cannot prove that it has, since the technique I have now witnessed with my Thai distiller can induce the same stickiness as leaving the oil uncovered for a decade and change.