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.

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