Sri Lanka Distillery
Who or what exactly are these artisans anyway? In my experience, I have found artisans to be largely one-man (or one-woman) shows, driven to do almost every step of the process themselves from sourcing the material to distilling to bottling and marketing.
Artisans seem to be driven – almost to the point of obsession – to wrangling minute nuances out of intractable materials like oud and sandalwood. The perfumes, attars, and pure essential oils that come out the other end are the opposite of the slick niche juices focus-grouped and work-shopped to death before a consumer gets to test them. Artisan-made perfumes are raw, gutsy, and elemental. Like ‘em or not, they make a grab for your soul.
But artisans face a huge challenge on the other end: how to educate and prime their customers for an experience that probably deviates greatly from the kind of scent they are used to? Oud is probably the prime example of this difficulty. Unless you grew up in the jungles of South East Asia or in a well-to-do family in the Middle East, you are not likely to have much exposure to oud, or real oud at least. Even experienced oudies have to start out at the bottom rung, knowing absolutely nothing about the material they are huffing from their wrists like junkies who have discovered opium for the first time.
Exploring the world of pure oud oil is like learning a new language. There's no dictionary, and boy, the lessons are expensive. It is easy to waste money and time on oud oils that are either not the real deal or not to your taste. Luckily for us, there are some really great teachers around in the oud world, if we are willing to listen to their interpretation of this new language. And if we are talking about oud, then it makes sense to go right to the top of the oud chain, by which of course I mean Ensar, of Ensar Oud.
That might seem like a rather stark statement, but what I mean by this is that Ensar blazed a trail in the oud world by being the first artisan to give up a comfortable life in the West to go into the steamy jungles of the Far East just so that he could distill pure oil himself. He felt certain that he could do it better and to a higher standard than local distillers, which is exactly the type of self-confidence bordering on arrogance necessary to becoming a successful artisan.
His hunch paid off: with his obsessive control over every detail of the distilling and ageing process, Ensar began turning out a series of oud distillations that far outpaced local efforts in both purity and complexity of aroma. Most importantly, being a Westerner by birth, Ensar understood very well how to translate his oud oil into a language that fellow Westerners would understand and appreciate. He is the High Priest of oud whispering.
But he is also very nice and approachable. I was lucky enough to have several hours of conversation with him via Skype about a year ago, and our conversations have shaped what I now know to be true about oud. More than anyone, he was able to debunk certain myths and tell me some eye-opening things about the way oud oil is sourced, produced, aged, and most importantly, marketed.
My hope is that, with this interview, we will be able to have an open discussion about oud that newcomers and oud-heads alike will find useful and elucidating on their journey through this fascinating but often frustratingly opaque world.
At the end of this interview, I will write some reviews of the Ensar Oud oils that have resonated with me on a personal level and that, I think, provide a good example of certain genres and styles in the art of oud distillation. There are also links to the website where you can order samples.
Ensar Oud Distilling
To start with, would you be willing to share with us some of the back story about how a nice New York boy like you ended up distilling oud in some of the most uncomfortably hot and humid places on earth?
I'm sitting in a small town cafe in Thailand, mud all over me, and I smell like I just bathed in citronella. I literally just got out of the jungle, where you're attacked by clouds of mosquitoes, spiders the size of your palm, all sorts of creeping and crawling things that come out of nowhere and a stifling humidity – and I ask myself the same thing.
My journey into Oud was one and the same as my journey into spirituality, a personal quest for meaning. I was fresh out of college and wandering around New York's old bookshops looking for nourishment, until one day I found in my being a thirst for spiritual ‘experiences' and began to explore the world's great religions (blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, etc). From cathedral to Sunday guitar sessions to postmodernist poets who had the need to wash their feet in the midst of the loftiest conversation so they could kneel down and prostrate to God, I found the path that had been etched for me.
Mysticism and spirituality were scented realities that brought not only hidden meanings but a plethora of signs and symbols that carried their own scent, pointing in the direction of gnosis. I don't think it is a coincidence that mystics of all faiths use agarwood.
Soon after I embraced the faith, my spiritual guide presented me with a plane ticket. He said I was to go to Indonesia and not return until I had “the best oud in the world” to bring back. I forget the name of the hotel I stayed in Jakarta, but it was dank and decrepit. Torrential rains were permeated by subtle wafts of fragrant smoke that came through the window. I followed the smoke trail.
That sounds very poetic! But let's talk practicalities for a moment. I presume there was a huge learning curve at the start – you had to find someone to bring you the wood, distillers whom you could trust, and so on. I imagine that the language and cultural barriers would be huge. What were those early days like?
When you're buying raw agarwood to be used for distillation, you're investing thousands of dollars just to produce a few bottles of oud oil. So, understanding the wood and grading systems is crucial.
On top of that, unless you're dealing with trusted colleagues you literally need to inspect kilos of wood, piece by piece, to determine authenticity. On one hand, this was especially true in the early days when you're still building relationships with the hunters and various wood brokers. On the other hand, it's even more true today where people have come up with very sophisticated methods to tamper with wood to make it seem like higher quality than it is.
It's standard practice to inject metal shavings or simply moisture in the centers of logs to make them heavier (in the end, you're paying by weight), painting oud chips to make them appear highly resinated, steaming the wood to darken the appearance, things like this.
But there's also a more subtle kind of misdirection. For example, there are many batches of Malaysian wood being brought into places like Vietnam and Cambodia because of the rarity of local trees. So, connoisseurs get told they're investing in a rare Cambodi, while it's not true. Or, cultivated wood gets mixed into batches of wild wood, then sold as purely ‘wild'. If they see you're especially gullible they'll easily push an entire batch of cultivated wood as wild.
And that's just the wood. All those who buy oud oil blind ‘direct from the distiller' end up getting all sorts of funky concoctions. Anything from pig fat to motor oil end up in the end product. I'll talk more about this later…
So, aside from the language barriers, the various cultural business sensibilities, the watch-your-back atmosphere, all the treachery of the trade requires you to stay on top of things all the time. In many ways, you're walking on even more slippery soil today compared to the early days. You know a lot more now, but the sophistication of the deception has also become much more advanced.
As a distiller and oud artisan, what are some of the things that you do differently to everyone else? What marks an Ensar Oud oil out as being different to the oils from other producers?
I didn't reinvent the wheel. I want to make that clear. Oud distillation has been around for centuries. What I do is get under the skin of the people I work with to get something very specific out of this tradition.
Some folks are obsessed with distillation techniques. I know one guy that repeatedly takes apart his entire distillery just so he can try new condenser types, hybrid pots, etc. With folks like him it's all about the tools they use. Certain others buy the most expensive wood they can and distill it, and the aim is just that – to distill the most expensive wood, whatever the oil ends up smelling like.
I've been infatuated with a certain kind of agarwood called ‘kinam' or ‘kyara'. It's by far the most expensive kind. I got this bug from hanging out with kinam connoisseurs for way too long. Kinam became the prism that reflected everything I did. Capturing the “green dragon's” breath in my distillations was the defining obsession that embodied just about every project I threw myself into. I wanted the kyara smell, and I've been able unearth it in places you're not supposed to find it. Whatever tools and wood I use serve this goal. They're never an end in themselves. I guess that's one thing I do differently.
There's a principle in Islam that says: “Whoever does something, let them perfect it.” Even though you can't expect to find the kyara note in any and all ouds, it's the blood, sweat and tears it takes to try as hard as you can that spills over into every project you work on, and this lets you carve out new tracks even on more familiar ground (like cultivated oud).
I don't distill anything for the purpose of selling it. I run every distillation as though I'm going to keep the oil and smell it for the rest of my life. I choose the best wood money can buy and cook it in the most high-tech equipment available. A day or two running my batches is more costly than entire runs done by other producers. Economic ‘viability' is something I generally avoid. If someone else would do something because it makes their oil cheaper, I make sure I don't do it the same way.
I then live with the oil for several years as you would a partner that you eat at the same table with, sleep in the same bed… If we hit it off and the relationship is a happy one, I bid the oil adieu and release it. If we get into debates and personality quirks, I keep it until it evolves further. Many oils get rejected and don't even make it into the company archives. The distillers are tasked with wholesaling them off. Other artisans release every single thing they make, blunders and failures included. Art doesn't work like that.
It cannot escape anyone that others distill in order to sell. The wood is hardly located, and we're told about the next great oil we've got coming. The minute the pots are lit, an upcoming release is announced. Some oils are sold before they're even filtered from the hydrosol.
You see what I'm saying? We don't even know what the oil is going to smell like and it's already being marketed as the next best thing, for no other reason save they used good tools and good wood. The aroma is treated as secondary. I approach distillation very differently. I have oils that were distilled in 2007 and 2008 that are still aging happily. Because they weren't distilled to get sold to begin with. They were distilled in order to be kept.
You said something very interesting there that I'd like to circle back to: you don't distill to sell and economic viability is a concept you avoid. That sounds like you run Ensar Oud more as a social enterprise or a cooperative than a business. What does that mean for Ensar Oud in practical terms? For example, if you think an oil won't be ready for release for another 10, 15 years, how does that way of thinking affect your bottom line?
It doesn't always work!
For example, and I'll be quite frank with you, I just released Suriranka Senkoh. This wasn't an oil I planned to sell now, or even this decade. If I could, I wouldn't even sell it, period. But I have to keep the ship afloat, the kids in school and pay the rent.
One distillation usually just pays for another. Or, sometimes many pay for just one. I have distillations that cost us up to $500,000 – for just one oil. Yep, you read that right. The wood, the labor, the distillation, everything involved in these kinds of productions are insanely expensive and take a long time to complete – and most absurdly, will yield an oil I probably won't even be able sell much of. That's what I mean by ignoring economic viability. Ask anybody who's ever made oud if he/she paid even a tenth of that to make just one oil. And if they'd do it again… and again…
But somebody's gotta come up with the cash, so I'm sometimes forced to show my hand. Also, like any other business, you're pressed to take a hit here and there in order to keep going. So, I've intentionally underpriced oils like Archipelago in order to raise money (I hoped it would be obvious but of course, some think it's just a marketing ploy I made up).
I also offer Olde Ouds for way less than many others would/could sell them for. People realize the bargain they're getting with these, so that helps me continue with ongoing projects. Most luxury goods dealers will tell you: ‘Don't do sale promotions. It destroys your brand'. I've even had friends tell me this. But I do offer sales, cause bills need to get paid.
You also mentioned the words “kyara” and “kinam”. Although these terms used to apply exclusively to wild Aquilaria Sinensis trees that have reached full maturity (over 80 years old) in Vietnam, is it fair to say that these days, the words simply describe a very special quality a piece of wood may possess – green, pure, incensey, etc? In other words, can other species and other regions can produce oud oils with kinam or kyara qualities?
Kinam is like the Alexander Technique. You can't really write or read about it. Someone needs to show you. (Think the Kodo master and his disciple.) So, I'll try to confuse you just enough…
This will sound controversial, but at its inception kinam actually didn't even have to be Aquilaria. The Japanese were after a certain scent, and if anything smelled like it, it was kyara. Later the definition started to be limited to Vietnamese agarwood.
But even then, it need not have been Sinensis. That's a later addition as well. In fact, Sinensis is not even the dominant species in Vietnam and all this time they could have been talking about Crassna! And maturity didn't technically matter either – rather, trees of a certain age tended to be the ones that contained kinam, but it was not a requisite. If it smells like kinam it's kinam, even if the tree was 70.
So, these days are much like the old days. Kinam is a unique scent category. Chinese collectors have identified it in other regions outside of Vietnam and believe me, their standards are by no means slack. Collectors pay millions for Brunei kinam, or any other. And they won't just pay for a scent they can easily get cheaper anywhere else or for a profile that was just ‘made up'.
Even within what you could call ‘orthodox' kinam circles, there are various types – purple kinam, green kinam, white kinam, for instance. Some have argued that these in reality reflect different regions, and that some could not be traced to Vietnam exclusively.
What I can tell you is that kinam is an extremely niche market. I suspect (with reason) that many of the people I've seen talk about kinam haven't actually smelled what either the Japanese or the Chinese refer to. But that's a topic for another day!
You are seen as a trailblazer who cleared the way for other artisans to follow in your footsteps. Do you think that what you did had an influence on artisan oud distilling in general? If someone were to describe the mark you left on the oud scene, what would it be?
Next time you're on an airplane, flip out the magazine in front of you and check out the perfume ads. Every description reads the same, reeks of the same false marketing. Since day one, I never wrote about how my oud will release the inner Charlize Theron in you, or how it personifies George Clooney's confidence.
From what I remember, no one was doing this kind of thing when I first started. People were either selling glow-in-the-dark orange juices, or botanical blends, or a bunch of synthetics with the ‘Oudh' label. And of course you had Montale. I was ganged-up here on BN once for saying Montale is not pure oud.
Fast forward to today and notice how just about every single oud seller has the same narrative. It gets annoying because it's great if others join in and add their own flavor to the craft. But this doesn't happen. Every new guy on the market is just another clone of Ensar Oud. So, sadly, one mark I seem to have left is that ‘artisanal' oud has turned into a monoculture instead of branching out and flourishing into different designs.
It's actually fun to check out all the spinoffs out there. At some point it became so bad, customers would send me links to the latest ‘artisan' who literally copied and pasted whatever was on my site. One of them even neglected to take out my name on his ‘About Us' page!
At some point my descriptions became more technical – I talked about using copper and steel pots, fermenting the wood in Evian instead of well water, things like this. Next thing you know, everyone's talking about copper, steel and soaking. You've got people who have never stepped foot here, never even seen a distillery, can't identify an oud tree if their life depended on it, not to mention working with the wood directly (which is where the real craft lies), but they have access to my website and blog and use that as a DIY kit that enables them to run their own ‘custom' distillations via Skype and WhatsApp.
Even my non-oud related interests get copied. When I launch Borneo Zen, every oud dealer follows with a musk fragrance, not to mention launching ‘something Zen' (from kinam to miso soup). I talk about sandalwood and, lo and behold, most oud sellers now also offer some kind of ‘Mysore'.
Don't get me wrong, I got into these things through the work of others. But from all those who've followed in whatever little trail I might have chiseled out for myself, very few have gone on to create something uniquely their own. So, the copycatting is not only annoying cause it is, but because it stifles creativity and kills so much vibrant potential to do something new.
That's on the retail front. Here's a simple example from the production end: if you visited Thailand eight years ago, everybody was using blue plastic drums for fermenting their wood. We came here and tried different types – clay, ceramic, etc. As one distiller told me, after everybody read and watched the videos of what we were doing, they're all into ceramic now. It's a minor change but one that ripples across the oud world. The Saudis & Emiratis suddenly enjoy a ceramic tinge in their ‘Cambodis'.
That must be frustrating. But an important point I'd like to clarify with you: when you mention copycatting, you make it sound far more serious than the simple laziness of sellers cutting and pasting your website language - that in fact some sellers are co-opting the language you use to lend credibility to oils that they probably haven't distilled or even commissioned themselves, but are simply re-selling. Did I understand you correctly? There are oud sellers out there that pretend that they have distilled their own product but instead are flogging oils of unknown and unverified origin?
I mentioned earlier how people ‘doctor' wood and oil. The sad thing is that sometimes it's so obvious it makes you laugh – but then you think someone is going to end up with this stuff. I know this all too well because folks send me samples all the time, to get feedback (is it pure, is it good, etc.), and you'd be amazed to know how much garbage people end up with thinking they got real (not to mention quality) oud.
Just recently I was talking to a well known re-seller about a sample he'd sent me. It was NOT oud, and clearly – I mean CLEARLY – synthetic. I just brought up the name of the oil (didn't even have time to voice my concerns) when the person said: “Amazing, right? Can you believe that's a Borneo?” I showed the sample to Kruger, who works with me, before I told him the story. He wondered why I was showing him a synthetic perfume. This happens more often than not. All sorts of fake, or at best low-grade ouds get peddled as the latest greatest work of the new ‘artisan' on the block.
I have no problem when someone re-sells oud, just like I don't have a problem with a clothing outlet that doesn't just offer hand-tailored shirts. But I do take offense at the Louis Vuitton bootlegs you see all over the place, where they don't even bother misspelling the brand name like they used to – before they'd at least have Louis Vuittion or something.
The problem is that many of those who borrow from my work have very inexperienced noses (selling oud is just a side hustle for them, for example – a ‘business', not a specialized discipline) and usually simply swallow anything the people they get the oils from tell them. This in a trade where the default is lying. They then use the same narrative, same style, descriptions, categorization, sometimes even the same website layout, etc.
That's how you end up reading about ‘wild' ouds that aren't wild, ‘incense-grade' or ‘sinking-grade' ouds that are a FAR cry from the real thing. And some of them really milk the stories they heard from a guy they've never met for all their worth, false as they are. I know much of what goes on behind the scenes. I'd meet distillers who tell me about who they supply and about how the oils came about. Unfortunately, I then see how that same oil is being marketed and it makes me cringe.
My real gripe isn't with the copycatting itself. It's what it does to the market and the confusion it stirs up. It throws everything off and literally undoes years of educating I've been trying to do.
You also produce your own attars and sandalwood oil, using traditional techniques. Can you tell us a little about those? Any plans to expand the range of attars you currently offer? Is oud still your main interest, or are you slowly thinking about branching out?
Branching out sounds a bit ‘big business' to me. Sandalwood has been a pet passion of mine since the beginning, and so have oud perfumes. But we're a small outfit, and it's only recently that we've had time to give these ‘expansions' their due. If I offer something other than oud, it has to live up to the same standards. So I'm not offering just any sandalwood, nor do I just throw together random ingredients. My oud perfumes contain the most expensive aromatics and some of my most exclusive ouds.
The sandalwood oils I offer are extreme rarities while our own sandalwood distillations are anything but traditional. Take Santal Royale – distilled from high grade 40 year-old Mysore heartwood, the way we do our oud oils. The result is a sandalwood profile you don't find anywhere else, carrying over the redness of colossal Mysore heartwood not only in the fragrance but also the tinge of the oil.
As for the oud perfumes, they take me forever to make. My latest Sultan Leather Attar took months to finalize. Many of the ingredients are unique harvests that are difficult to replace, so reformulations can take a year or two, if even doable. And I'm not talking about oud here. Some perfumes use a particular, limited edition blue lotus or other floral, and if that's gone it's gone. That, and we don't have a chemist on the payroll who takes care of new formulations. So… unless I can clone myself I don't think we'll be tackling much more than what we're currently doing.
Sultan Pasha attars have become very famous in the perfume community! He uses one of your oud oils, Encens D'Angkor, in what is considered to be his best attar, Aurum D'Angkhor. How does it feel to see other artisans use your oud oil in their own compositions?
One thing I love about jazz is the way musicians intermingle with each other. One day Coltrane is doing a solo album, the next day he's on stage with Miles. I admire the work Chris McMahon does and certain ingredients he gets can't be matched and he's the only man I'll get those from. If it weren't for the likes of him, I just wouldn't be able to realize certain ideas. If Mandy Aftel didn't write her books we'd all be worse off. So, it's great to interact with other artists.
Tolstoy once defined art as the ability to get a feeling across. And that's what matters at the end of the day. I can distill oud until I'm blue in the face, but if there isn't anybody to appreciate and benefit from what I do, what's the point? The aim is to spread the love, and collaborating with Sultan Pasha and others like this helps reach more people in new ways. That's a great thing.
You explained to me how certain oud oils are now distilled in a certain style, rather than being the original oil from a certain terroir. For example, everyone has heard of ‘Cambodi' oils, but few know that genuine Cambodis had all but disappeared from the market by 2004 or so, because all the original wild trees yielding that oil were depleted.
That means that all Cambodis today are simply Cambodi-style oils, i.e., distilled and aged in a certain manner to give them the characteristics we now associate with the original oils, such as the fruits, caramel, and so on. Are styles becoming more important than terroir or even species of tree in the oud world?
Nobody will tell you, “Hey, I've got the latest Aquaria Agallocha, fermented for three months, cooked in stainless steel cauldrons, then oxidized for 30 days.” They'll just say, “I got the latest Hindi.” The details of terroir and species and distillation setup are already embodied in the style, and style isn't a new thing.
But, definitely, the nitty gritties of the style can change, and that can lead to lots of cheating – or should I say, misrepresentation. Fifty years ago ‘Cambodi' meant oud distilled from Crassnas mainly in Kampong Speu, Pailin, Pursat, or Koh Kong. Today, that same profile (fruity, sweet) is made in Thailand in a different way. No problem with that. To the regular Joe shopping in Dubai, ‘Cambodi' just vaguely means a scent profile. All the salesmen will insist the oil is from Cambodia, even if it's not, but it doesn't matter because Joe doesn't really care.
Yet, to a diehard oudhead it means the world. Genuine Cambodian oud smells very different to Thai oud. But only to the connoisseur. Folks new to the artisanal oud scene are on a learning curve where details aren't clear cut but do matter. You train your nose to identify certain notes and develop your personal taste along the way. Knowing the details helps you navigate the ocean of choices out there – tells you which oud you might like and which ones to avoid. At this level, style and terroir both matter.
I guess my follow-on question would be this: is it possible to take oud wood from one region, such as Thailand, and distill it and age it in a manner so that it takes on the characteristics (or style) of a Cambodi or Hindi? Can you bring Borneo-like facets out of an Assamese oud? How much of the final result is due to the terroir and species of the wood, and how much is due to distilling and ageing?
Someone can do a PhD thesis on this. It's kinda like trying to get the taste of oranges from sour lemon… but in the world of oud it is doable.
You've got many species of Aquilaria and certain species dominate in certain places. Most of Thailand grows Crassna, most of China, Sinensis. You've got Malaccensis in Malaysia, Agallocha in India… Each species possesses its own inherent scent properties, but on top of that the soil, the climate, the surrounding fauna, the insects, the unique ecosystem the tree grows in will determine the smell of the oud you get in the end.
Aging isn't a factor in the equation. Aging affects the oil, but subtly so – it won't change the profile completely. But by manipulating the distillation parameters and the wood selection you can do a lot in the way of changing the typical profile of a certain batch of, say, Aquilaria Crassna. We've distilled a Borneo that smells Papuan and we've done Marokes that smell Sumatran, Cambodis you'd think are Hindi. That's part of the artist's challenge, to explore new expressions of the ordinary, in addition to being quite a distillation feat. So as an oud man, I try to cast smells in a new light, unearth smells in places you'd never expect to find them.
But you know, it's not just about getting a Cambodi to smell Indian. It's about trying to transcend the regional profiling altogether – to uncover a totally new smell. This is what I love most about making oud.
Sumatran Oud Wood
A totally new oud smell to transcend regional boundaries and differences – like a UN of oud, only hopefully more effective! I like that idea. But before we leave the issue of regions, styles, and species, we once talked about a very interesting study done by a young scientist in Vietnam that hypothesized that the mineral content of the bullets that strafed the Aquilaria trees during the Vietnam war was possibly responsible for the special kinam qualities of the oud wood from that area. Do you agree it's possible?
Just to backtrack for a second, in case readers aren't clear about this: Oud originates when the aquilaria tree gets hurt. The oud we end up distilling is the direct result of a tree trying to fight off fungal infections that are triggered by cuts, birds chipping at its bark, or insects drilling into the heartwood. The tree effectively generates its own anti-venom – and only when needed (that's why many aquilarias don't contain oud, because they were never infected.)
So, the ‘wound' is the cornerstone of it all. Some trees survive, some turn moribund. (For people who might object to the idea of cutting down trees to make oud, the ethical approach is to harvest trees that are already moribund and about to collapse or decay, right before they do. Otherwise, if they're still healthy enough to grow, let them grow.)
So anyway, this scientist is saying that during the Vietnam War trees got hit by lots of bullets – hitting trees at different angles and often drilling quite deep into the heartwood (in the case of AK47s, sometimes going right through). This certainly helps trigger the resin formation. But he goes a step further to suggest that the sulphur content of the bullets is what brought about the kinam.
It's a very entertaining theory, except that it's mostly wrong. The most obvious objection is that kinam had been around long before the Vietnam War. That said, he might still be onto something. Perhaps the kinam we got from certain jungles subsequently could be the result of bullets, or the war could have accelerated the resin formation which triggered, if not kinam, highly dense ‘super king' resin formations.
You are famous for being a superb marketer – your descriptions for your oils read like novels (with some accusing you of hyperbole), and you maintain a very active blogging presence. How important is language and consumer education when it comes to selling the end product? How much of oud is showmanship?
There's the famous example of how the shape of the wine glass affects its taste. Scientifically, the shape of the glass has zero impact, yet the taste does change. Marketing can literally change your experience of a product, for good or bad.
Is that what I'm trying to do? Get you to think something is better than it would be otherwise?
Oud has grayed my hairs. It has left Kruger and me crippled and taking turns to clear out the food poisoning after our evening meals in badly lit back alley hotels. Sleepless nights chopping, chiseling, cleaning, sniffing and soaking at distilleries where dengue is always on your mind. Stumbling man alone at midnight through the streets of Kuching with chest pains shouting for help, watching the cars just pass you by. It's been hard much more than it's been easy.
I don't sell tissue paper. I don't sell socks. I'm not selling soda drinks advertising them as a ‘healthy alternative' or marketing trans fat on behalf of the heart foundation. I'm not out to sell factory line merchandise.
Was it Churchill who said, “You have enemies? Good. It means you've stood up for something at least once in your life.” My writing has been called ‘marketing fluff' by a few, but opened the door to a new world for many more.
It's the second group of people I care about, because that's what oud has done for me. Hyperbole is an issue if it's not true, or not felt authentically. But when your very life's blood goes into trying to make the very best oud in existence, you're writing from the heart. I'm trying to realize what Tolstoy meant when he asked ‘What is Art?' It's about conveying a feeling. And for me, that happens through language.
But the finesse I put into my writing is not only my best attempt at conveying how I feel about oud (and thus, how you, too, could feel) but also to give the oud its due. I could hyperbolize the daylights out of Sultan Ahmet and wouldn't feel that I have swindled anybody one bit because in reality words cannot describe just how incredible it is.
I can totally see how some may see it as showmanship. Fine by me. I'm not here to write the all-American novel. I'm not offering literature. I want you to feel the way I feel about the oil. The potential it has to heal and stir your emotions. I want you to get a glimpse of that immediate sense of beauty that hits when you take a whiff.
And that's where the literature ends. In the end, you need to take a whiff to experience it yourself… and herein lies the crux of the matter: People can call it marketing fluff, showmanship, or whatever. They can criticize my writing till death do us part. But how do people feel about the scents I write about?
You've spoken about the “end of oud” before, to warn others of the impending depletion of wild stocks. Is the situation still dire?
More than my ‘showmanship', it's my forecasts about the future of oud that have gotten me the most flak over the years.
You'll hear people say that in reality there are plenty of wild trees standing, or at least enough for smaller operations. We just heard it from JK in the previous interview. So explain to me, why are there scores of loggers sitting in prison? Why are there thousands in poaching fees issued annually? Why is wild agarwood on the CITES list of critically endangered species? Why did Trygve Harris – ten years ago already – summarize the state of affairs like this:
“Are our forests burning? Are we destroying our world? Yes, and yes. Should agarwood be monitored and protected? Yes, and yes.”
Why am I in Thailand now to join my colleague in harvesting his first wild tree in nearly a decade? This is someone who lives here, is in touch with every hunter and knows every farmer and broker. Why are hunters going on 18+ hunting expeditions in 2016 and have nothing to show for it? Why do you encounter so many brokers selling inoculated sapling wood as wild (creating the added impression that there's more wild wood than there actually is)?
Why are the biggest suppliers of wild wood to the Gulf market investing in shopping malls and starting restaurants because they don't see themselves in the business for too much longer? Why have they already closed down half of their warehouses in the last two years? Why does a single wild distillation cost me upwards of $50,000 now, instead of the $5,000 it cost only a decade ago?
Thankfully, since I started writing about the End of Oud, others have tried to walk in my shoes, and people can go ask them. Except for the folks running their oud shows from home without really having their finger on the pulse of the jungle telling you it's all good, the guys on the ground and in the jungle sing a very different tune…
In follow-up to that question, what do you think is the way forward for oud oil production in general? Is farmed oud going to replace wild completely? Can plantation oud oils ever be as good as the wild ones?
Most people will tell you the opposite, but to me the future of cultivated oud does not look too rosy. I've written an article on The End of Organic Oud if you want to read more about it. There's no question farmed wood is going to replace wild wood. In most parts it already has (Cambodia, China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, to name a few) but for how much longer will even cultivated last?
For distillation purposes, plantation wood can be on par with wild wood, I've always said that, and tried to show it as well through the likes of Jing Shen Lu. But will we ever get enough plantation trees that reach the level of maturity for this to happen? At the rate cultivated trees are cut down and not replanted in sufficient numbers because planting Durian turns out to be more profitable in the end – that's the question.
Do you yourself work with plantation wood? If so, could you talk a little about that? If not, and it really is the end of wild oud soon, then what is the way forward for Ensar Oud?
We started tackling the cultivated oud challenge head-on in 2010, and now have a range of ouds that are exclusively from plantation wood. It's work I'm very proud of.
But it's tricky. The vast majority of agarwood cultivation involves weird kinds of inoculation, chemical sprays, and trees that are prematurely harvested. I get it – farmers can't sit around for 30, 40, 50 years waiting for their trees to mature. They need money. Even five years waiting is a long time. Unfortunately, this model doesn't get you very good quality oud, and that's why the aroma of most cultivated ouds on the market is sorely lacking in complexity and depth.
My aim in making oud from cultivated trees is to show people to what extent cultivated oud can mimic wild. It's a daunting challenge. Our organic ouds have to be from much more mature trees where there was never any interference with chemical fertilizers, growth hormones or inoculants of any kind, the infection has to be far older than in other plantation trees, and the distillations much cleaner. It also means we're cut off from 95% of the trade. Only a very small handful meet the criteria.
The way forward? There's no two ways about us seeing through the last days of wild oud. The wild distillations I'm currently doing are almost exclusively from vintage agarwood that was harvested decades ago.
When I hear people talk about all the wild trees still standing I want to shout, “Where?! Please show me! Where are they?” Once the vintage batches are gone (as many already are), I don't know exactly how we'll proceed. You'd think going all-out cultivation is the way forward, but at the current rate – and unless you've got your feet in the mud over here, you won't fully realize the truth of this – wild oud and cultivated oud might well go down hand in hand, at least for the current generation.
I remember when we last talked, we discussed a very interesting idea you'd had to distill an oud oil from really cheap wood, to see if it was possible to create something beautiful out of something inferior just by sheer skill of the distiller, and also, to see if you could get an oud oil out there that could be costed at a friendly entry-level price. Did that ever happen, or can you speak to that at all?
Good oud is all about good wood. Full stop.
You can distill something beautiful, something pleasant using lower grade wood, no doubt. With some expertise you can get more from a batch of lower grade wood than most others could. But that's not what I'm out to do. I focus on crafting the best oud possible. So, I could never use ‘really cheap wood'. As for friendly, entry level prices, it cannot get cheaper than the likes of Aroha Kyaku or Dom Kwan. These are impeccable ouds that we sold at a giveaway price. I've made it clear from the get-go that with ouds like these I'm making a PR statement more so than a profit.
You'd think it would be easy, if I just use normal grade materials and regular distillation techniques that anybody can come out and match Aroha Kyaku or Jing Shen Lu's profiles, but so far nobody has even come close. In fact, you'd find far inferior oils selling for two, three, four times as much.
You probably also assumed I'm only talking about cultivated ouds here. But we've even had a line-up of proper wild, classic Koh Kong distillations that sold for less than others' cultivated ouds. Kambodi X, Kambodi Kuwwa, oils like these, that formed part of the ‘Great Cambodian Experiment'.
Have you ever come across a Western, alcohol-based perfume that you feel represents the smell of real oud well, whether real or synthetic? Are there Western perfumes or compositions that you are fond of, personally?
No. Every mainstream ‘oud' fragrance I know of uses either synthetic oud or low grade oud in low quantity. What many did successfully do is create a Western rendition of the typical synthetic Gulf ‘oud' profile. Either way, none of them smell like anything resembling good oud.
There are Western perfumes that I appreciate for what they are, but I can't wear any of them. Once your nose becomes used to natural aromas, anything synthetic, no matter how nicely put together, stings and clings to your nose like glue.
You told me once that you rarely, if ever, held a quantity of an oil back for your own personal use, and that you mostly sold everything you produced. Is there a particular oil that you loved and now wish you still had? If there was one oil (of your own) that you wish you could stockpile in large amounts because it was so good, which one would it be?
That used to be the case until quite recently. I wouldn't keep even a single drop of most ouds to myself unless I needed a sample for reference. Sometimes I'd look back at some of the irreplaceable ouds we've sold over the years and dearly wish I could smell them again.
But I've changed my tune. I've discontinued Oud Sultani, for example, keeping the little that's left for myself. There are the likes of Purple Kinam, which I now only offer in smaller quantities and a portion of which I'll definitely keep. There are also unreleased oils that I have that I do not intend to sell at all.
I began holding back when it hit me just how bad things are really getting, how rare this stuff really is, and the reality that for love or money nobody can produce the likes of these again.
Do you wear oud oil every day? If so, is it only to test what you are distilling, or do you ever wear other things? I remember you saying that you loved to wear pure Mysore sandalwood at night for sleeping – is that still the case?
Wearing several kinds of oud is my day job – smelling, studying the smells. I'd be lying if I said it's not always just for enjoyment. Sometimes it's purely to evaluate the scent progression or comparing different notes to plan future distillations.
My kids had trouble falling asleep and by accident I found that sandalwood works wonders to help with that. I'd put some on their neck and they'd be off to Never Never Land before you know it! Lately, I've been wearing a batch of Sri Lankan oud to loll me to sleep.
Many people getting into oud might wonder, what's the difference between me buying from one of the big oud companies like Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Ensar Oud? It's all oud, surely. Is that right?
I used to recommend people start with the best stuff cause just like when you become used to eating clean you just can't stomach a Big Mac anymore, once your nose becomes attuned to the pristine quality of good oud, the lesser grade stuff will trigger a red flag by default. But you can see the problem here, right?
Eating clean takes some getting used to. In the beginning kale tastes awful, you crave the MSG, green tea makes no sense without a spoon of sugar. Newcomers will go through the same thing. All oud will likely smell the same – and not always very good either. You won't pick up which ones are low grade, mixed, cut, or even which ones contain synthetics. But believe me, you'll look back at your DOP-laced concoctions and wish you didn't flush your money down the tubes like that.
Abdul Samad and others get a lot of flak from oud puritans. But we do owe big companies like them, since they are the ones that paved the way and exposed many to the world of oud. Yet, is it all oud? To paraphrase Michael Pollan: “There's oud, and there's oud products.” Big difference.
What are the biggest misconceptions and myths about oud that you run into?
That anything that comes in one of these small gold top bottles is oud. That the color or thickness are signs of quality. That oud from one region is better than another. That oud trees grow in Saudi Arabia. And the biggest misconception of them all: that high grade wood doesn't really give you much better oud than using lesser grade wood.
What are the major pieces of advice that you would give to someone beginning to get into oud? What things should they be aware of?
Work your nose. Go to the kitchen and pull out the spices, pay attention to the subtle scents around you – smells of leather, wood, pollen, plastic, dampness, dust, grass after the rain, coffee beans, books. Smell flowers, smell leaves, smell the salty ocean air, become aware of your olfactory sense in the way a bodybuilder feels his biceps bulge. Your ears have Mozart to listen to, your tongue's got tiramisu to taste, your eyes have a rainbow to gaze at. Your olfactory sense is perhaps the most profound of them all and you'll be amazed at how oud is a microcosm of scents that burst with richness.
Oud profiles vary a lot. So get samples – but don't rely on them for too long. (Samples tend to oxidize, so the reference gets less accurate after a while.) Get yourself a full bottle or two and study the smell deeply. Enjoy it. Share it. Oud isn't cheap, so ask once, twice and thrice. Go with reputable names. If it's too cheap… well, then it's too cheap. Most importantly, give yourself time. I've lost track of how many people didn't like oud the first time they tried it. But they went back to it, and back to it, and they watched Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole soon after.
Finally, if you could leap back in time and meet yourself just before you got on that plane and changed your life forever, what would you say? What, if anything, would you advise your younger self to do differently?
I would tell my younger self to borrow money from every corner and use it to make more Purple Kinam, more Kyara LTD, more Borneo 50K. If I could go back in time, I would buy every high grade oud chip I could find and post it to myself in 2020 with a delivery note: “This is what you're looking for.”
Claire's Top Picks from Ensar Oud
I have tested a total of 25 oils from Ensar Oud (22 oud oils and 3 sandalwood oils), but for the purposes of this interview, I am only going to review a selection that can still be bought or sampled on the site right now. All of the sandalwoods I talk about can be sampled as part of the sandalwood sampler set ($149) here, which contains both oils and wood chips.
Similarly, Ensar Oud arranges their oud oils into three categories: aged wild ouds (distilled from exclusively wild trees and aged in the bottle), organic oud oils (harvested from ethically and sustainably managed plantation-grown trees, using natural inoculation methods and longer than usual ageing times), and Olde Oud / Legends (heritage oils from famous distillations, no longer widely available).
As Ensar says on his website, the best way to discover oud is to compare and contrast, and to this end he offers a wonderful sampler that contains a curated selection of pure oud oils from across all three categories, representative of a diverse range of regions and style profiles. The sampler, available here, costs $349, features 9 samples each containing 0.15 grams of oil.
I can't emphasize enough how much worth the outlay these samplers are, because for someone beginning their journey into the world of oud or sandalwood, these samples are an entire education for the nose. It's like staring tearfully at a complicated puzzle for hours and someone finally handing you the one piece that makes sense of the whole picture. If you have the chance to calibrate your nose with a fantastic baseline, then do it – because it will inform and guide your every choice after that.
This oil is a vintage Mysore oil unearthed and verified by Ensar himself, originally stored in a rusty old tin. Ensar is currently offering a follow-up release of Mysore 1984, from a second tin, and the aroma of this one, according to Ensar, is even better. But once it's gone, it's gone.
The 1984 Mysore from Ensar Oud is for me the epitome of what a Mysore sandalwood oil should smell like. Most people smelling Mysore sandalwood for the first time are surprised at how quiet and soft it smells, and quite unlike the fantasy version of it presented in commercial perfumery, where a cocktail of sandalwood synthetics and vanilla are used to fluff out its proportions to stadium-filling stature – think Ubar and Samsara.
The aroma of the real stuff as found in nature is linear and gentle, taking its own sweet time to cycle through different facets: raw lumber, blond peanut shells, green roses, buttermilk, salted butter, and finally a reddish-brown depth, aromatic (dry) wood, incense, hints of amber, spice, and full-fat cream. Mysore can also display some of the terpenic (pine-like) greenness associated with Australian sandalwood (s. spicatum), but these aspects are usually far less in evidence, and when they do appear, they are milky and gentle, not harsh or solvent-like.
But Mysore 1984 smells more like the fantasy of Mysore sandalwood I long held in my head than any of my other Mysore samples, meaning it skips completely over the quiet, blond “peanutty” and terpenic portions of Mysore to get straight to the meat of the aroma, which is deeply, boomingly sweet, rich, red-brown in aroma, and with an incensey depth that is almost suggestive of resin and amber.
It does not possess any peanut-shell rawness, displaying instead a smooth, gouty roundness suggestive of great maturity. It teeters between sweet and salty, perhaps tipping the scales a little more towards sugar than the salt. But the oil contains enough sturdy resin and wood notes to counter the sweetness, and so everything is held in perfect balance.
Later on, the oil also develops that dry-creamy push-pull effect so characteristic of fine Mysore – the buttery, sour cream facets pushing back against the dry, aromatic dustiness inherent to sandalwood. In texture, it is far more robust than the other samples, and even has some sexy loudness to it.
Santal Sultan demonstrates something that I think all Mysore snobs should know: that santalum album that grows outside of the Mysore region can be every bit as luscious as anything grown in Mysore itself, providing that care is taken with the quality of the wood and the distillation process. When I say quality, I mean oil distilled from properly mature s. album heartwood or roots – over 100 years old for preference – and when I say careful distillation, I mean someone who knows how to supplement elements that might be missing to make up the traditional Mysore flavor profile.
Santal Sultan is a truly stupendous oil that meets all of the above criteria. First, it is made from a distillation of 100 year-old roots of santalum album trees in Aceh, a semi-autonomous Indonesian region located on the northernmost tip of Sumatra, which takes care of the quality/age issue. Secondly, the robust reddish-brown depth missing from the pale rooty oil has been added back in thanks to Ensar's decision to co-distill the Aceh roots with red heartwood from wild Tanzanian sandalwood trees, which lends the oil its rich, almost incensey depth. Together, the two woods add up to a true Mysore aroma.
Note-wise, Santal Sultan opens with a smoky, rooty smell that briefly smells like a mixture of orris butter, green wood, burning rubber, and leathery oud oil. There is an almost vaporous quality to the topnotes, as if you might get light-headed if you sniff too closely – like glue or solvent. This collection of aromas, which I loosely categorize as antiseptic, gives the oil a clean, medicinal slant that remains lightly present from top to bottom.
The oil settles quickly into a classic Mysore profile: buttery, salty, savory-sweet, with a faint backbone of reddish, aromatic wood dust and the sort of ambery warmth I associate with labdanum. Above all, it is rich and smooth, like being slathered with a soft, oily salted butter and a discreet pinch of light brown sugar. There is also a noticeable vein of spice running through the oil, something like nutmeg mixed in with black pepper.
For all its buttery, spicy, incensey richness, however, it is also very soft and quiet. This is the oil I would invest in for private “me-time” purposes – including sleep, meditation, yoga, and so on. Basically, any situation that allows me to stay quite still and drink in the quiet, subtle aromas of santalum album without being distracted by ambient stimulation.
If I were to point a beginner in the direction of one particular oil that demonstrated – reliably – all the classic characteristics of a Mysore sandalwood oil, then Santal Sultan would be it. In the absence of Mysore-grown oils with proper maturity behind them, this oil is probably the best and most sustainable Mysore “type” sandalwood oil on the market today.
Unlike Santal Sultan above, Santal Royale is a pure Mysore oil, distilled from vintage stock (30-40 years old) of red Mysore heartwood. And unlike Sultan, which has been aging in the bottle for 12 years (since 2005), Santal Royale is a relatively young oil, having been produced in 2013, so it is only 4 years old at the time of writing. It is a very interesting experiment, therefore to compare and contrast the two oils, seeing as one is very aged but comes from non-Mysore s. album and the other comes from vintage Mysore stock but is itself a young oil.
And aroma-wise, there is a lot of difference. Whereas ageing has rendered the Sultan very smooth and buttery, Santal Royale still retains the lively, raw sparkle of freshly cut wood. This is especially apparent in the topnotes, which are fresh and silvery, with hints of menthol, crushed peanut shells, and rubber. Above all, it is bright – sandalwood floodlit from all sides, little veins of sap and salt sparkling like diamonds in the grain of the wood.
There is zero greenness, and no camphor or pine – just a hint of mint at the start, and even that comes across more like the minty tobacco leaves in a menthol cigarette rather than the herb itself. The main characteristic defining the heart is a very salty, bright (blond) wood note. On his website, Ensar mentions that it possesses notes that could remind people variously of ambergris or musk. It doesn't remind me of deer musk at all, but I can see where the ambergris comparison comes in – they share a certain sweet, mineralic salty nuance, especially that of white ambergris tincture.
It is not as dark, sweet, or as velvety as Santal Sultan, but with its bright, tenacious “salty peanut shell” aroma, Santal Royale probably comes across to people as more sandalwood-ish at its core. The drydown is a sparkling, sweet (almost sugared) thread of incense crystals dancing in and out of the core savory, nutty aroma. Texture-wise, it is far more robust and tenacious than Santal Sultan, and might even be described as invigorating. It has a lively, movement-filled presence on the skin.
Aged Wild Ouds – Green Papua
Green Papua is to Ensar Oud as No. 5 is to Chanel and Joy to Patou – a reputation-maker. All market-breakers have one feature in common; they break with previous traditions and create something new, shocking even. When Ensar introduced Green Papua to the market in 2004, customers and fellow distillers must have thought he was crazy. Here was an oil that looked and smelled nothing like other oud oils out there – instead of being dark brown or black, it was green, and instead of that fermented cow pat odor common to popular Hindi oils, it smelled clean and herbal.
The original Green Papua sold out very quickly. It was a revelation to customers that an oud oil could smell as bracingly clean and green as a forest, and yet still smell identifiably “oudy”. For many, it did away with the notion that one must suffer through an overwhelmingly barnyardy opening to get to the good stuff two hours down the line. So, Green Papua was, quite literally, the proverbial gust of fresh air that blew the cobwebs away, at least in regard to how an oud oil should look and smell.
The sample I smelled was from a 2016 distillation of the same type of tree as the first batch, which has produced a similar aroma profile and character. Distilled from the live wood of the Gyrinops tree from Papua as opposed to the more commonly distilled Aquilaria, the oil smells fresh, clean, and alive - not at all sour or animalic.
The opening is almost meaty in its fungal density, a viscous green-back smear of tree sap swiped from the bark. As the initial surge, there comes a succession of forest notes, one pasted thickly onto the next – tree moss, followed by mint, wintergreen, ferns, and a thin vein of something antiseptic, like Listerine. It smells clean, but also thickly packed with good aromas, just like a forest. It is reminiscent of that sappy, raw wood aroma you get from a freshly split piece of green wood, so young that its sap runs milky rather than clear or sticky.
And yet, despite the overall greenness of the oil, it is also clearly oud, because these almost fresh, fougere-like notes are not floating off by themselves; they are tethered to the ground by that familiar weight of leather, wood, tar, and medicine, the anchor notes that typically signify oud to our noses.
Newcomers would do well to sample this particular oud, because it will teach their nose that real oud oil can smell like clover, green wood, and pine sap just as much as it can smell like rotting wood and animal barns. A cleansing, spiritual oud oil that lends itself particularly well to meditation.
Organic Ouds – Oud Yusuf
Oud Yusuf is perhaps the most immediately likeable and friendly of all of the pure oud oils I have ever smelled. Ensar himself calls it “the prettiest oud you can wear” and I agree. Although it is thoroughly identifiable as oud oil, and not, let's say, a floral absolute or essential oil, it contains such an astonishing array of fruit and flower notes that one might be forgiven for thinking it is a blend, rather than a pure oud oil. That means that, although it's an easy oud for a beginner to enjoy, it offers a depth and complexity that will keep even experienced oudies intrigued over the course of the day.
Oud Yusuf is a testament to the skill of the composer who can gently and delicately coax out the various facets he wants from the wood, by minor adjustments here and there to wood he puts in the deg, to the distilling times, to the purity of the water he uses for the distillation, to the very material the deg is made out of, and so on. Otherwise, who would think that out of a block of wood could come such a range of fruit and flower notes?
Although Oud Yusuf is a Borneo-style oud with Cambodi characteristics, it does not have any of the sweet, sticky berries of the Cambodi profile. Instead, it is a summer cornucopia of ripe stone fruit, specifically pears, peaches, and apricots.
The lush fruit aromas, packed into the opening phases of the oil in particular, have that thick, almost fermented quality of the gusci sokovi (thick fruit juices) they drink in the former Yugoslavia and Russia. These juices, especially the pear and apricot juices, are so dense and grainy you imagine they put all of the fruit in there, including the core and skin, and so thick that you could stand a spoon up in them. These notes are what clearly come across in Oud Yusuf, overlaid with a slight tinge of camphor or wintergreen (even mint).
Three or four hours in, the oil develops a smoky, woody quality that one associates with the smell of oud, shedding most if not all of the stone fruits and mint notes from the first phase. It is more traditionally “oudy” at this stage, but not at all animalic or sour. Rather, it is elegant and refined, with the delicious darkness of soft black licorice or leather.
Standing halfway between dry woods and balmy supple leather, it reminds me quite a bit of the drydown of Vikt by Slumberhouse or the amazing Blackbird by House of Matriarch, both Western fragrances that contain a (probably holistic) amount of real oud oil. They are not smell-alikes, but there is a similar consistency to the aroma of the oud at this stage – dark, balmy, leathery, but not desiccated or raw-hide in character.
Then, for an astonishing last act – a flourish of delicate floral notes which appear just as you believe the oud is in its demise. Although I do not clearly smell lilies or lilacs like many do with this oil (including Ensar himself), I do smell something like a creamy magnolia or champaca, something with a tinge of crème anglaise to it, a vanillic heft. The florals are not fresh or green, but warm and mature. They bloom directly out of the wood, so carry that slightly sour, smoky woodsy note in the breath of their petals. An elegant, even beautiful oud oil, perfect in all its dimensions.
Organic Ouds – Oud Haroon
Oud Haroon is a feat of modern engineering, using a new approach to farmed oud to arrive at a result that genuinely smells like a wild Cambodi or Thai oil from the 1970's. Made using plantation wood from naturally-inoculated trees that were left to grow for between 25 and 37 years before harvesting, there are no sour or off notes to spoil the exuberant red berry aromas that jump out of the bottle at you.
But when we talk about a Cambodi aroma, it's important that we know what that refers to. I have been lucky enough to smell a sample of real Cambodi oil from 1976 (also thanks to Ensar), before everyone started oxidizing their oils to replicate the aroma of the oil from trees that no longer exist.
The 1976 Cambodi oil smelled deeply fruity, but also like medicine, which if you think about it, makes sense because the oud resin itself is the medicine the tree makes to fight off infection. It also smelled sweet and fruity without any of that sickly caramel smell that most Cambodi-style oils have these days, and definitely none of the sour “radiator dust” note that modern force-ageing creates in modern Cambodis.
Oud Haroon smells like a rich, plummy medley of purple grapes, sour cherries, prunes, plums, and apricots all mashed together and boiled up into a clear, golden nectar. There is a noticeable undercurrent of medicinal wood, so sour and rich you feel it might dry up a mouth ulcer on the spot. Unlike the 1976 Cambodi, there is a thick coating of either honey or caramel to the aroma, but it is not sickly sweet or unbalanced in any way – it simply forms part of the rich backdrop of Port wine fruits.
Best of all, there is no hint of any harsh or off-putting aromas like stale dust or unhealthy, plasticized air that one can sometimes pick up in modern Cambodi-style oils. In general, this is a big, bosomy fruit explosion set deep into clean honey and medicinal woods, with no smoke or leather to distract the nose. An incredibly friendly and generous-smelling oud oil, I recommend Oud Haroon to anyone who likes big-boned fruity, spicy orientals.
Agarwood Oil Bottle
Organic Ouds – Jing Shen Lu
To my nose, Jing Shen Lu is perhaps the most surprising oud oil in the Ensar Oud stable, because it doesn't smell like oud oil at all and yet clearly is oud oil. I am not making any sense, even to myself, but please, give me a moment to explain myself!
When I first smelled Jing Shen Lu, I thought I had gotten the vial mixed up with a pile of samples of raw materials I am also studying, such as poplar absolute, champaca, honeysuckle, narcissus, kewra, and white lotus. That is to say, Jing Shen Lu smells very much like a swirl of different floral and herbal absolutes, tending towards the minty, sweet, and green-succulent side of things.
There is also a solvent-like vaporousness to the aroma that reminds me strongly of Ensar's Borneo 2000. There is a very similar high-toned fruitiness to the aroma here, like the heady fumes that come off a glass of grappa, producing an almost hallucinogenic effect on the senses. Almost like alcohol esters from the wood itself, this oil emits a piercing note that has a physical, tightening effect on my scalp and my jaw. But this in itself is a clue to the savory, unami-like quality of oud itself. It's also the first indication (to my nose) that this is not some other essential oil, but the oud itself. No other essential oil has this unami, jaw-tightening property.
In his description, Ensar mentions green tea, and I do get that, as long as we are talking about that toothsome “brown basmati rice” aspect present in some green tea. There is a very smooth, nutty texture to the green tea here that makes it more substantial than the usual citrusy or tannic characteristics, and to a certain extent, it reminds me of the pearlescent, chewy green tea of Ormonde Jayne's Champaca.
However, past this initial blaze of green flowers, mint, and tea, the core of this oil is very oudy in character, developing a rich, plummy “Port wine” leather sourness that makes me wonder how I could ever have mistaken this for anything other than an oud. There is a very pleasant umeboshi undertone here – salty, sour, chewy plum smeared onto a thin piece of brown quinoa toast. A very delicate oud oil with a sort of Japanese, silk-screen character.
Olde Oud / Legends – Oud Ahmad
Distilled from a bundle of Malaysian kinam (incense-grade) wood, Oud Ahmad is said to replicate with faithfulness the purity and intensity of a piece of best quality oud wood smoked gently and slowly over a burner. It is also reputed to be one of only two oils in the world that are distilled from 100% sinking grade, incense-grade wood, that is, without any other qualities of wood making up the still.
Oud Ahmad is a beautiful oil with a deep, bosomy trail that displays that Malaysian disposition towards two different stories knitted together – musky, smoky fruit on top, and incense resin underneath. This provides for an interesting and varied experience that keeps the nose going back to the skin for hits throughout the day.
Immediately upon touching the wand to my skin, I smell high notes of fermented peach wine and champagne, grey buttery glove leather, and the tannic, apricot-skin aroma of osmanthus. It is lightly sour and smoky, with the varnish-like notes of steamy jungle wood joined with fermented fruit and sake.
The deepening sourness of the leather, fruit, and booze are wrapped up in a furry musk note, like a cloud of vaporized dark chocolate and deer skin. A friend of mine finds Oud Ahmad to be very sexy – I can see why he thinks that, and I agree. There is something carnal about the muskiness here. Once the fruited smoke and tannins die back, a velvety base of sweet, tarry resin like labdanum (amber), copal, and even some honeyed pine sap steps forward to take up the front of the stage.
Oud Ahmad is a great example of a multi-faceted, complex oud oil that will keep you guessing until you've figured out what the constituent aromas are and how they slot into each other. Occasion-wise, this oil is the equivalent of a glass of really expensive whiskey enjoyed in a book-lined study at the end of a busy day.
You can now purchase samples and 1/4 tolas of some of Ensar Oud sandalwood and oud oils at Luckyscent, here.