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.

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