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!

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