Conversations with the Artisan: JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery

This article is in the series Conversations with the Artisan
I've been researching and writing about attars, ouds, and sandalwood for a book for over a year now, and one thing that has struck me the most is this: if most people don't know much about attars, then they know even less about the people that make them. I have come across so many interesting, passionate, and knowledgeable characters on my journey – generous souls who've been more than happy to share what they know with me – that I thought it would be nice to shine a light on what they do.

It might take years, but what I'd like to do is to initiate a series of interviews, called Conversations with the Artisan, that feature some of the most passionate and committed small-batch, artisanal attar makers and oud/sandalwood distillers I've had the privilege of meeting or talking to. At the end of each interview, I will write some reviews of the attars or oils that have resonated with me, and that I think deserve to be more widely known.

Some interviews will come with the promise of a sample pass attached, either using samples donated for the purpose by the person or company being profiled, other times using the samples I have in my possession myself. I know that it's one thing to read about these mysterious oils and attars, and another thing altogether to be able to smell along with the interviews. In the absence of Smell-O-Vision, something I frankly thought we'd have by now, this is the best we can do.

Now, onto our inaugural interviewee, JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery.

JK DeLapp is quite a character. Larger than life, funny, and as open as a book, he's the kind of man that always answers the question, a quality I am going to exploit heartlessly for the purpose of this interview. His hearty openness makes him a breath of fresh air in a world that is often times mysterious and opaque, especially to a Westerner and a female like me. We've had a series of Skype chats, e-mails, and phone calls about attars, ouds, musk, and sandalwood over the past few months, and I know that if you're as interested in this stuff as I am, then you'll want to hear from him too.

JK, welcome!

Q: You make attars. Do you get the impression that most people know what attars are, or is there a bit of confusion over the differences between attars, essential oils, pure oud oils, and concentrated perfume oils?

Thanks for having me! Thrilled to be here.

I think the term attar has become a bit more familiar to people the past few years here in the West, mainly within the fragrance community (and largely thanks to Amouage) – but the understanding of what an attar is, is still quite limited.

The term attar / ittar / ittr refers to an essential oil usually derived from botanical sources (but may also include oils derived from sea shells or baked clay, for example). These oils are most commonly extracted via hydro or steam distillation, although other methods of extraction may be used. But it generally means the oils are extracted with water.

To make it even more confusing, many Westerns consider an attar to be a material distilled into sandalwood oil via an older method of extraction most commonly associated with Indian distillation in the region of Kannauj. Conversely, Westerns would call, say, distilled rose oil a rose otto. To call it a rose attar, most Western ears would hear it as rose distilled into sandalwood oil. Try having conversations with Indian distillers…I never imagined such a confusion could happen over a single word or two.

In the case of Amouage, although they call their oil-based perfumes “attars”, they are in fact not technically attars at all because they were made from mixing different compounded materials together, not from distilling essential oils from materials directly into sandalwood. The Amouage attars are actually mukhallats or concentrated perfume oil.

For my purposes, I describe things according to the following categories, so as to clear up any confusion:

-“Traditionally Distilled Indian Attars” – meaning distilling aromatic materials directly into sandalwood using traditional methods. I make use of several traditionally distilled Indian attars.

-“Indian-style Attar Distillation” – meaning it may have been distilled outside of India by one of my distillers into, most likely, sandalwood oil. For example, we sometimes distill agarwood and Omani frankincense into sandalwood, which creates an oil with much the same traditional methods as in traditional Indian attars, but resulting in a perfume that you wouldn't really find in India, or anywhere else for that matter.

-Then there are the “Rising Phoenix Attars”, meaning fragrances I compound myself in sandalwood oil, resulting in a 100% pure perfume oil. Some might call that a mukhallat – and technically I suppose it is, mukhallat simply meaning “blend” or “mix” – but I call them attars because in the West, most people think of attars as having a sandalwood base. It's a mark of quality. Any of the attars in my shop that are not labeled as “distilled attars” are my special Rising Phoenix attars, meaning aromatics compounded in pure sandalwood oil.

Regarding the last part of your question…

Genuine, pure oud oils are actually rather difficult to find. They are indeed essential oils (water distilled agarwood oil), but the cost of producing them has created a plethora of adulteration techniques, from doctoring them with synthetics, to cutting them with patchouli or nagarmotha, to co-distilling them with sandalwood, Aetoxylon, or some other less expensive materials to increase the yield while still smelling oud-like.

Part of what garnered Rising Phoenix its cult following is our custom distillation of oud oils that are pure, incredibly complex, and wear like perfumes in and of themselves, complete with top, heart, and base notes.

Most commercial ouds, by which I mean oud oils sold as pure oud oils by the big guys like Ajmal, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, Arabian Oud, and so on, are distilled from low quality woods because of the economics involved – they have to stretch the material because they sell in larger quantities. But Rising Phoenix ouds are distilled from much higher quality raw materials, sometimes 100 to 1,000% more expensive than the wood that goes into commercial grade, mass produced oud oils.

Then there are cheap perfume oils – the kind of junk sold all over the world (and likely in a head shop or mall kiosk near you). Let's put it this way. Lemon essential oil is more expensive than that stuff. That junk has nothing in common with the type of work Rising Phoenix does.

Most of the commercial attars coming out of India these days are largely synthetic, or are natural materials distilled into petroleum / paraffin, or some other solvent like DOP or DPG. Most of the “attars” being sold for cheap (usually a few bucks for a bottle) are 100% synthetic.

Often, when speaking with customers from India or the Gulf, they are initially a bit taken aback at my prices. They are used to “cheap, cheap, cheap”. The ouds they buy are not pure or all natural, and definitely not aged for the crazy number of years, decades or centuries they being are advertised as. They often don't understand (or more often – don't care) about the difference between natural and artificial. They think that fragrance is supposed to smell like a nuclear bomb. But naturals are softer and perform quite differently from synthetics. That's just how it is.

Most Westerners understand that if you want quality, then you're going to pay for it. But people still want ‘champagne at beer prices'.

Q: What's a nice, middle-class, Christian, kind of conservative American male based in Atlanta, Georgia doing making attars? I ask this question half-jokingly, but really, I've come across very few non-Muslims in this line of business.

I'm an oddball in an industry largely dominated by Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian folks, that's for sure. I might not be what one would imagine a person in this line of work might look like. And yet, I tend to surprise my clients and distillers.

I'm a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine; so actually, I come at perfume from that angle. People in the East, including my customers, are usually surprised by my fluency and expertise in the same exotic substances that confuses most Westerners. But the fact is that I have worked as a doctor in 3 hospitals in Shanghai, as well as on the Hematology and Oncology (Cancer) Ward at Rady's Children's Hospital in San Diego. In other words, I know my stuff! Agarwood, sandalwood, musk – none of those materials are mysterious to me, because I already use them in many of my formulas for patients.

So, to circle back to your original question: I may be a Westerner…but because of my specific background in Chinese medicine, I live in a world that is much, much bigger.


Q. You are trying to launch a line of Eaux de Parfum currently – are these your attar bases scaled up into EdP formats or separate formulas? Can you tell us something about your plans for this new line of products, and what it represents for the future of The Rising Phoenix?

I have several distributors wanting to put my products onto shelves in several markets, namely here in North America, the Middle East, Russia, and the CIS territories. We are starting with a line of EdP's – the first 5 of which are NOT based on the existing attars I offer, so in fact, a completely new line of fragrances – but also, there is some interest in picking up my line of attars for wider distribution.

These are big, ambitious projects. I have everything lined up already, meaning the formulas for the perfumes, the raw materials, the compounds, global distribution channels, $2m in advertizing, $500,000 in advance purchase orders, and a committed team (me!).

But one piece of the puzzle is missing: the money. To break into these larger markets, I need tons more bottles, packaging, raw materials, labels, and so on. I will still make everything myself, by hand. But I need $350,000 in order to bring my business to the next level.

I know that sounds like a large amount of money, but really, it's only 3,500 bottles! If I reach that target, then contributors to the campaign will have helped Rising Phoenix Perfumery launch on the global market.

That's why I have launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the money I need to make that final leap and close the gap. I figure it's not a risk for investors because I have everything lined up except the money for the bottles and packaging, and I myself am not exactly an unknown quantity in the business. In fact, the EdPs have been test marketed and received very positive feedback, the most impressive of which came from Luca Turin on his blog, Dr. Turin said that my Phoenix Fougère was the finest fougère he has smelled since the invention of fougères in the 1880's.

I have very ambitious fund raising goals that I have set, and I would greatly appreciate the support of Basenoters in achieving them so that I can share my work with people around the world. There are some great and unique rewards options for your support, so please read more about the project and get involved here.

Q: Apart from attars and now your EdPs, you distill your own sandalwood and oud oils, is that correct? Can you tell me about how you manage that process, quality control, sourcing, and so on, given that you're based in Atlanta?

That is something that really sets us apart – we are involved in every step of the process of creating our fragrances. I've gone so far as setting up several distillation operations across SE Asia and here in the US to custom extract a variety of the key components of Rising Phoenix fragrances.

The two materials that get the most traction with our customers are our custom Mysore sandalwood oils and our oud oils. The really cool thing about being involved in the distillation process is being able to select the quality of raw materials to be extracted and also to change how a material is distilled. These two details can yield spectacular results – multiple sandalwood odor profiles, and dozens of oud oil profiles.

Oud is unique in this regard. Take rose oil, for example. Distill any species of rose from any of its multiple countries of origin, and it will smell like a rose - with some nuances, certainly, but it still smells recognizably like a rose. Line up 20 different Rising Phoenix oud oils side by side, and sure, there's a common core “oudiness” to many of them, with minor variations here and there. But then there will be a few oud oils that will cause you to blink and scratch your head in wonder – is this oud? How can oil from this same piece of wood smell SO differently to the other oil?

Oud can smell fruity, floral, purple, red, green, earthy, jungly, sweet, sour, gourmand, resinous, woody, animalic, barnyard, hay-like, musky, ethereal…often containing a multitude of these facets, simultaneously. It can be a bit mind boggling at first. I imagine it is why oud has proved to be so captivating throughout history – there is tremendous variety in how it can smell.

We also extract various varietals of frankincense and myrrh, fossilized amber resin, and so on. We also do some traditional-style Indian distilling, that is, distilling various aromatic materials into custom-distilled sandalwood oil.

It's a labor of love over here, and I utilize numerous techniques that I learned in medical school, as well as more modern methods of extraction and compounding. It's a real marriage of East and West, new and old, all of which results in something that is distinctly my own.

Regarding sourcing, quality control, etc., well, let's just say that I couldn't do what I do without good old Skype and WhatsApp! Thank God for modern technology.

For all the rest, I go by experience and human instinct. I've been working in Chinese medicine for so long that I've developed a good sense of the kind of person I want to work with, their honesty, their integrity, and their willingness to try new ways of doing old tasks, like distilling. It took me years, but I have found a great team of people I wanted to work with, and I have trained them thoroughly on how to do the work according to my specifications.

We don't distill everything in-house, but we do extract all of our key materials. For the rest, I try my best to work with smaller operations creating premium oils for me to work with, as well as relying on “the big boys” like Robertet and The Lermond Company for other materials.

It's a lot of work – but once you've tried a Rising Phoenix Attar or EdP, I hope you'll understand where all this work and effort have gone.

Q: Many people on Basenotes and elsewhere would love to explore the world of attars, pure oud oils, sandalwood oils, and so on, but just don't know where to start. It can be a very intimidating world for the beginner, that's for sure. If you could give some words of advice to people starting out, based on your experience, what would they be?

Sure! Here are some general rules of thumb while hunting for your oils and attars:

1. You get what you pay for. If it's cheap, then it's likely synthetic.

2. If it smells like a nuclear explosion (lasts for days on skin, you can smell it 20 feet away, etc), then it's likely synthetic.

3. Be careful buying oud on eBay or Facebook.There are tons of cheats, and even when you end up finding some genuine material – it's usually pretty low quality stuff. On top of that, the seller will likely lack the language to describe what that particular oud oil smells like and it might not meet your expectations. You're essentially buying blind and with no buyer's safety net.

4. The real deal costs money. You're not going to buy a Lamborghini at a bicycle price tag. There's no money shortcut when it comes to genuine, top quality oud or Mysore sandalwood.

5. Stick to reputable, small-batch, artisanal producers for top shelf oud and Mysore sandalwood oils. Like lavender coming out of France, there is far more oud being sold than there is being produced. I want you to read that sentence again slowly and let it sink in what I am saying.

Yes. There's no way all the huge Gulf companies can supply all the oud oil necessary for their products and maintain 100% purity. It's either synthetic, or drastically cut with synthetics. Thickened with DOP or DPG. Even the “pure oud oils” sold by the big Gulf companies are enhanced with synthetics, likely we are talking 50-75% of the oil.

Are you shocked? You know it makes sense. The demand for oud far outstrips its availability, so realistically, something's got to give. If you're paying out several thousand bucks for one of the “pure” oud oils from one of the major Gulf companies, then I am sorry to tell you, but you are paying mainly for a brew of some natural oud oil mixed in with a cocktail of synthetics. The Indian distillers with whom I work marvel at how a few kilos of their pure oud oils magically supplies hundreds of stores with dozens of product lines.

Don't be duped. And don't be stupid.

Q: What's the market like for your attars and raw materials like oud wood, sandalwood, resins, etc?Are the majority of your buyers in America or overseas?

I've done quite well with my limited reach, operating out of my home and through Etsy. I'm contacted daily by customers and shops around the world looking to buy or carry my products. About 70% of my current customer base is in the US, but there is huge demand overseas for the type and quality of products I'm making, especially in Russia, the CIS Territories (essentially the former USSR), and the Gulf region.

We've even been test marketing my products in Japan with the help of some extended family, namely the now-retired general manager of Johnson and Johnson, Japan, who is somewhat of a “second father” to me. He's an old family friend, and now runs a firm of 50 consultants that helps bring foreign companies to the Japanese market.

The obstacle, at present, is having a “retail-ready” product, meaning having the appropriate bottles and packaging and sample vials – basically the kind of stuff you'd expect to see in any bricks and mortar store or boutique that sells fragrances. It's no small hurdle to overcome.

Q. There are many lovers of Mysore sandalwood here on Basenotes. What's the future of Mysore sandalwood looking like right now? Have you smelled the santalum album from the plantations in Australia, and if so, how is it? Can you tell us a little bit about the sandalwood oils that you distill and the wood you sell for incense or beading?

There is much confusion on this subject, so let me attempt to sort some of it out here.

Contrary to what is being circulated, some Mysore sandalwood is available. There are some plantations that have started producing again, in addition to the harvesting of old wild trees with proper permits and so on. There is also harvesting ongoing on private land and private plantations.

The key here is working only with folks that have the proper permits. In some regions of India, the harvesting of old, wild sandalwood trees is still allowed. Like I said, you just have to find the people who have the right paperwork to do it.

The bigger problem is access to Mysore sandalwood outside of India itself. 90% of the oils (all oils) produced in India are “self consumed”, meaning they are absorbed within India and not even exported. The Indian fragrance, flavor, and tobacco industries pretty much use up nearly everything they produce.

It's my understanding that 50 or so tons of sandalwood oil are produced in India every year. Not necessarily all from the Mysore region, but they are producing. Global annual demand is closer to 400-600 tons of sandalwood oil, which is why Indian sandalwood is generally not used any longer. From an industry perspective, it “no longer exists”. What that really means is that demand exceeds availability, hence the newer Australian and Hawaiian Sandalwood oils filling in to satisfy demand.

There has been a long history of adulteration of oils coming out of the East, although not just of sandalwood oils (spice oils up until recently were always crazy expensive and therefore commonly adulterated or faked). Sandalwood oil was commonly cut with Gurjum oil (a tree resin oil), Himalayan cedar oil, and with oils from wood in locations like New Caledonia and Indonesia. And in the last century or so, it's been cut with synthetics.

In fact, we recently ran a distillation project producing premium New Caledonian sandalwood oil (named Lupita, for the original inhabitants of New Caledonia). Many of my Indian customers, when we did a blind test of several new sandalwood oils that we produced, picked out (blindly, you understand) the New Caledonian oil as exactly what THE old Indian oils used to smell like. This indicates that even the grand old Indian sandalwood oils of their childhoods were likely cut or even partially substituted with New Caledonian sandalwood oil. Go figure.

What about the new S. album plantations in Australia?

I think options are great. Anything that decreases the burden on wild stock is a good move.

The Australian s. album quality is good, if we are looking at the total santalol content (santalols being the benchmark for sandalwood quality testing). A Grade Australian s. album tests at a consistent 90% total santalol load (our own Rising Phoenix sandalwood oils test atan average 91-93% total santalol load, for comparison sakes). I think the new Australian material is pretty close to this benchmark, although the trees are 20 or so years old, which is young for sandalwood. That means that you can distill it in good conscience, but its tone will lack the subtle nuances present oils drawn from the heartwood of older sandalwood trees.

One thing I've noticed with the new Australian album oils, though, is that they tend to smell like popcorn. If you like buttered popcorn, then great, you're in luck. But it's a different type of “buttery” aroma that you get in older Mysore oils or in Rising Phoenix oils, which tends to be deeper and more sandalwoody (yes, that's a word). Sandalwood enthusiasts will grasp immediately what I mean by that. For casual sandalwood oil users, I doubt the difference will matter much.

The upshot is that for large-scale compounding, I think the Australian album material is a great replacement for the Mysore oils of yore. But on its own, as a perfume for personal use, it won't quite hit your sandalwood sweet spot in the same way. Therefore, globally, Australian plantation s. album is great news for larger scale perfumery, but it won't satisfy customers in the small-batch, artisanal production sense.

For Rising Phoenix's purposes, we source old stock logs from a variety of resources. For premium centennial Mysore stock, I work with proper permitted Indian resources and Chinese and Japanese bead and incense companies.

For Indonesian material, I work with a few folks in Borneo and a private retreat center on an island off the coast of Borneo that has a very large parcel of private land with hundreds and hundreds of wild centennial trees. We distill the oil in two locations in Indonesia where I have distillation operations.

I work directly with local villagers in Tamil Nadu (the “other” best sandalwood in the world, believe me) and their local government to acquire wild centennial stock, which I am using to produce an upcoming premium Tamil sandalwood oil. That stuff is delicious.

We've done the same to produce some batches of premium New Caledonian sandalwood oils.We'ven produced a little known “Queensland” Australian sandalwood of the S. lanceolatum species, an oil I've termed QLD. I'm also experimenting with making some Mysore and Tamil sandalwood beads from premium centennial stock. Stay tuned on those.

Q. Many oud artisans with whom I spoken have talked about “the end of oud”, meaning that there is very little wild oud left in the jungles of Far East Asia and Northern India. Are plantations the way forward? Do you distill oil from wild or plantation? Many commercial and niche perfumes are said to contain sustainable oud from Laotian plantations (Oud Palao) – why is oud oil from Laos in particular finding its way into commercial / niche spray perfumes?

I hear the term “extinct” an awful lot. It's a misleading term.

There are likely more agarwood trees today than there ever have been in history, thanks to plantations.What the “extinction” folks are referring to is the decline in number of naturally-inoculated trees left in the wild. Like many trees of huge commercial value in the wild (rosewood, ebony, teak, etc), the old stocks in the wild are declining, yes. However, they will not disappear completely, thanks to plantations.

It's the same scenario when an industry says that “Indian sandalwood is extinct” when what they really mean is that global demand has outstripped supply to such an extent that for their purposes (and no other), it might as well be extinct. So, from an industry perspective, if there's not enough material for them to work with, they say it is extinct. Even though there's still plenty of wood left for us small-batch distillers and perfumers to work with. So, yeah, it's a bit misleading.

Even in India, the practice of planting agarwood trees out in the wild (as opposed to plantation planting) has been going on for over a hundred years. And in the Hong Kong and Hainan Island regions of China, planting of agarwood has been documented over several centuries, not just one. Overharvesting is not a new problem, unfortunately, but neither is the supply and demand problem. Thus, people have been actively trying to find ways to meet the demand for generations.

Hong Kong, by the way, means “Fragrant Harbour”. It was the center of the spice and incense trades for centuries, but the term actually references the dense agarwood forests that used to populate the surrounding area.

Currently, we distill from both wild and plantation stocks. We are hoping that the plantation stocks will rise to the supply challenge in the coming years, both in terms of the quantity and the quality of raw materials available. At some point, I hope to have our own private plantations to grow the oud wood we use in our distillations. That's the dream.

Not all plantation stock is created equal, though. We are very selective about the raw materials we use. We prefer trees to be at least 20 to 40 years old, whereas most of the perfume industry uses really young trees of between 3 and 7 years old. We also demand a non-chemical inoculation procedure, which means that we don't inject the trees with any kind of chemical inoculant. I prefer to make use of simple drilling methods into the trees, allowing natural infection or insects an easier path into the wood, as opposed to a chemical reaction from who-knows-what chemical injection.

As you might imagine, just these two conditions combined means that the process of sourcing and securing the agarwood we want to use is much more expensive and time-intensive than the norm. Both the age of the tree and the age of the infection impact on the quality of the oil produced – we know this, because we smelled the results of rush jobs. Because we don't do things on the cheap, our oils aren't cheap, but you know what? You'll smell the difference in quality.

And it's not just the wood. It's how you distill it. Everyone can use paint. Not everyone paints a Monet.

Laos has many plantations, as you mentioned. Their proximity to China led to their wild stocks being depleted long ago. These Laotian plantation trees are chemically inoculated, and both the age of the trees and the infections are not old or well developed. This results in Laotian plantation oil having a lot of off flavors such as heavy metals or funky, cheesey rot. The distilleries there produce “Hindi-style” distillations (meaning long soaking and fermentation prior to distilling) to increase yields and wring as much scent as possible from the low quality wood.

Of course, there are a handful of Laotian plantations out there doing a better job, but as a rule of thumb, this is what a large part of the current plantation model looks like in Laos and other regions. This is likely why Laos oil is finding it's way into current commercial and niche fragrances – low prices and enough supply to meet the current demand. It doesn't smell good at all, but hey, it's cheap and niche perfume companies can boast that their fragrance contains real oud.

I aim to do better.

Q.Now, if you don't mind, can we talk about deer musk for a second? You are unusual in that you are both a licensed practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and a perfumer – that must mean that you come into contact with genuine deer musk in some capacity. In what ways do you work with musk? Can you say something about deer musk in terms of ethics and legalities?

Chinese medicine is often blamed for a number of things. Keep in mind that near half of the world's population uses Chinese (Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, etc) medicine as primary healthcare. Let's also not overlook other forms of indigenous medicine serving very large populations of people, like the Ayurvedic system of India. Also keep in mind that herbs still form the bulk of material from which western pharmaceutical companies extract most of their medicines. So I would say that “medicine” in general is making use of many substances. But I digress…

There are over 400 Chinese formulations that utilize deer musk as an herb. It's an invaluable material, and is classified as a resuscitation-inducing aromatic that stimulates the central nervous system when taken internally, and can help with pain and swelling when used topically. It's often used to treat things like heart attacks and severe infections.

It's an expensive ingredient, and demand exceeds supply, so in most formulations these days, the musk being used is synthetic and of pharmaceutical grade (different than what is used in the world of perfumery). Again, not true in all cases, but in most, especially in less expensive preparations.

But with a population the size of China's, it only takes a small percentage of its population using formulas with deer musk in them for the global supply of deer musk to be drained. I like to say that it's not that people are using too much deer musk, it's that deer musk is being used by too many people. Like anything with a supply and demand problem – tuna, oud, deer musk – we should aim to conserve the resources we are given by nature by consuming them in small amounts and conscientiously. That's why I love compounding and making attars – it's all about paying respect to a few of the greatest, and unfortunately over-harvested raw materials in the world.

Sustainability and ethics matter. But we should think hard about whether we're doing more harm than good in simply outlawing certain materials. The first response should not be to ban outright but to search for a better, more cruelty-free way of doing things.

The plight of the African civet cat is a perfect example. 50 years ago, the public pushed cosmetic companies to stop using civet due to the cruelty involved for the civet cat in the extraction process. Did this improve the conditions of civet harvesting? Quite the opposite. Instead, the ban pushed civet paste prices into freefall and brought the civet farmers to the brink of starvation. Because the prices fell so drastically, the farmers tried to make up for lost income by simply producing more and more civet paste, which in turn meant that the civet cats were put under increased pressure and stress to give up their paste. A lose-lose situation for everyone, and by everyone, I also mean the animal.

It is my belief that better ethical treatment of the animals would actually occur under industry acceptance of the paste, paid for by livable living wages, enforced work standards, and medical supervision of the family operations by a local veterinary agency. Something not unlike Fair Trade Civet Paste with the addition of mandatory medical check ups and regulations.

Deer musk was also used prolifically in the incense traditions of the Middle and Far East. Due to its price and increased regulation, this isn't as true as it used to be, although it is still used in higher end formulations.There are farming efforts in several locations in China, and both legal wild and farmed deer musk is available through pharmaceutical companies in Asia. There is also legal wild deer musk available from places such as Siberia.

Due to the price and also the increased regulation of deer musk over the past 50 years, there have been reports of increased populations of wild musk deer. Good news, indeed! There are also farming efforts, as I mentioned, and I have seen some very good quality farmed grains that are available through pharmaceutical companies in the East. These are all legal, and to someone with a medical license, like myself, accessible to those who know how to source them.

Talking about ethics is a difficult topic. The ethics of using animals in the cosmetic and fashion industries is not a new discussion. Talking about the ethics of animal ingredients should be like talking about politics…something that shouldn't be done in public if you want to walk away still liking everyone participating in the conversation.

Deer musk aside, there are a wide variety of animal ingredients that have been used through the ages, such as ambergris, civet, castoreum, and hyraceum. There is a pharmaceutical company in Korea extracting musk from the musk rat for use in medicine.

People love to scream about ethics, but the reality is, shouldn't we be finding the best ways to use some of these ingredients if we are going to change how things are being done? If we don't, well, the trade in deer musk goes on regardless. Let's find a better way to do something that is going to happen whether we like it or not.

It's a great topic to discuss, albeit a volatile one. I'm sure I'm going to get a few friendly emails after talking about it. I will be forwarding them all to you.

Q. Going forward as an attar maker and perfumer, what are your greatest wishes for this corner of perfumery in general? What would you personally like to see happen?

For starters, I hope to secure the appropriate funding to begin the commercial expansion that The Rising Phoenix needs. Long term, I hope to be putting in place plantations to support the long-term growth of the many projects I hope to undertake, and to support the expansion into a variety of markets that I hope to be in one day. As the old saying goes, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” I've taken that to heart.

Concentrated attars, as I make them, are the most ethical and wise way to make use of natural materials, especially the more rare and expensive ones. An attar may be more expensive than most EdPs, but they also last longer, with the cost of each use being less than that of an EdP. They are even less expensive per use, albeit more expensive per bottle.

In this regard, I can use premium and rare materials in a cost effective manner and in a more sustainable way. I'm starting out with EdPs in the commercial expansion because that is what people are more familiar with, but ultimately, it is my attars that I hope become the mainstay with my customers.

Claire's Top Picks from the Rising Phoenix​

In the course of writing my book, I have worn and reviewed about 17 Rising Phoenix Perfumery attars, some of which are listed below. If there is a common theme or quality running through JK deLapp's attar work, I would define it as follows:

  • An extremely high content load of naturals, like oud, sandalwood, and florals, most of which JK has distilled, compounded, or macerated himself through contracts with distillers in the Far East and in his own studio
  • An Eastern approach to attar perfumery, meaning a Japanese or Middle Eastern aesthetic (in comparison to the classic French perfumery aesthetic of Sultan Pasha)
  • A special talent for taking ancient recipes or formulas (such as an old recipe for choji oil, which Samurai warriors would use on their scabbards, or a traditional Ghaliyah attar formula) and recreating it using only high quality, natural raw materials in an effort to restore the attar to its former position of respect or glory
  • The quality of the RPP sandalwood is unparalleled in modern attar perfumery: often vintage Mysore is used (and in non-homeopathic dosages too), sometimes high quality s. album oils, or other high-santalol oils from other regions with the same buttery, deep, spicy tone that is much desired in the Mysore oil.

Now, onto the actual reviews of some of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery attars and EdPs.

Phoenix Fougère (EdP)

I know plenty of women who would love this, so really, don't let the word “fougère” in the title make you think that this has been ring-fenced for men. In fact, Phoenix Fougère is a rare example of a fougère that doesn't smell like something your dad might have splashed on in a barbershop in the 1970's - you know, that forbidding mixture of lavender shaving cream and bitter, dank mosses that has “for men” written all over it even if there's no label.

Instead, Phoenix Fougère focuses on the sunlit parts of the forest rather than the shade, with a burst of bright lemon-and-lime fizziness sparkling on top of gentle, earthy green notes. The zesty yuzu and bergamot drive a citrusy stake through the heart of the perfume that is slow to fade, which given the traditional volatility of citrus notes is something of a surprise. Indeed, Phoenix Fougère smells more like an earthy, green citrus fragrance to me than a classical fougere, and is all the better for it; it has the feel of a Habit Rouge or an Ettore Bugatti.

It smells incredibly natural (which it is) but it also has a clarity and definition that one doesn't normally see in all-natural perfumery. Think of the smell of your hands after using the most intense yuzu soap ever, and you're in the right headspace. It remains like that and then fades out over the course of 5-6 hours.

Luca Turin raved about Phoenix Fougère on his site, stating as follows:

“The one that had me smiling from ear to ear is their Fougère which their unusually erudite web page describes as “reserved for masculine perfumery”. I assume this, and the picture of the prat that comes with it, are intended to trigger a rush of orders from women who just will not listen to sense. Fougère is a classical composition, and lends itself well to a magisterial sprucing up with top-notch materials. RPP and Robertet appear to have done just that, and produced what could well be the best Fougère since Paul Parquet's Fougère Royale, though more citrusy, less animalic and none the worse for it. TS, ever practical, says it smells like a Bee and Flower soap. I'm gonna get me both.”

Yeti Attar 2012 (Attar)

This is a sandalwood lover's dream. It coats the skin in a liquid hug of savoury-sweet sandalwood with nuances of creamed coconut, peanut shell, and melted Irish butter. There is little better, when you're a sandalwood lover, than smelling the real deal and in such generous amounts.

Yeti Attar has a relatively simple structure – sandalwood, then ambergris, and then sandalwood again, like the best sandwich ever made. When materials are as good as these, they are like the best conversationalists at a party; your job is to introduce them to each other and then leave them alone to do their thing. The ambergris used here is a subtle, golden one, with a range of aromas ranging from earthy tobacco to damp newspaper and finally to dry, salty newspapers left out on a beach to curl up and yellow at the edges.

It is difficult to smell the ambergris in its totality when you sniff it directly from the skin, and in fact, its nuances only reveal themselves when sniffed alongside something else on your other hand (in this case, the Rising Phoenix Musk Attar, also excellent). I have found this to be true of the finest grades of white ambergris, in that its smell is rather subtle but its effect on the overall scent profound and noticeable. Once my nose turns to the musk attar, and then returns to the Yeti Attar, I can suddenly grasp all of the facets of the ambergris used. Strange sensation!

The ambergris used here is truly beautiful - soft, earthy, saliva-ish, intimate, and golden, like just-licked skin. It is not overbearing, dirty, or animalic in a horsey way, rather it is salty, musky and skin-like. Very sensual, and most importantly of all, delicate to the point of being ethereal.A must-try for any sandalwood and ambergris lover.

*Note: The very same Yeti Ambergris used to make this particular Ambergris Attar was written about in Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, by Christopher Kemp.

More Beauty than Beast (EdP)

A spicy floral oriental, More Beauty than Beast opens with an orange-soaked amber accord as roundly sweet and waxy as Fendi's discontinued Theorema. Seriously, it is so familiar a scent that I wore it a couple times in a row just to try and figure out what it reminded me of. And that's what I arrived at: a softer, more natural, “glowing” version of Theorema. But the fragrance just uses this as a jumping off point, because within minutes I think what most defines the scent is the combination of a spicy, custardy ylang ylang and a very good (non-metallic) clove or cassia note.

Ylang is tricky to work with because it is super powerful and can overwhelm a scent with a benzyl acetate-driven gaseousness that makes everything feel like it's been caught in a grape-flavored burp. But here the ylang note has been massaged a bit so that we only feel its banana crème brulee aspects. Soft, powdery, and somewhat innocent in feel, it reminds me in part of one of my favorite ylang fragrances, Tasneem by La Via del Profumo. Here the clove note adds a hot, cinnamon-spiced seasoning that keeps the ylang within the bounds of decency, like a sprinkling of black pepper on something fatty. Powerful, unruly notes, acting as checks and balances for each other – it's practically the US government!

There is a cream-of-wheat milkiness in the base that speaks to the presence of a particularly fine, subtle grade of sandalwood. It is both softer and gentler than the usual sandalwood used in The Rising Phoenix perfumes, and dare I say, less distinctive for all of that. But still, a very pretty, natural sandalwood “milk” there to catch and then bed down all the spice and the florals in the heart.

Musk Rose (IAO Finalist) (Attar)

Musk Rose Attar, a finalist in the 2016 Art & Olfaction Awards, does not contain any animal musk but instead focuses on recreating the aroma of the musk rose, rosa moschatus, a species that is very rarely distilled. Unusually, JK chose a Russian rose de mai otto to be the focal point of the fragrance, a species that gives off a very tart, pure, green aroma with a sort of in-built delicacy (and some might say “frilliness”). There are three distinct phases to this attar, with the first two playing out over the course of 3-4 hours, and the last phase lasting for a good 3 hours past that.

The first phase is bright, sharp, and tannic. Paired with a touch of oud in the topnotes, the rose sings in a high-pitched peal of rosy lime peel notes over wood varnish. It is sparkling, fresh, but also pungent in the way only strong citrus notes know how to be.

The second phase is all about champaca. After the first half hour, the champaca flower starts to make its presence known. Often, to my nose, champaca smells like a muskier, headier version of magnolia, but in Musk Rose Attar, it takes on a dimension I had never noticed before, namely a boozy, fruity edge like fermented apple peel or apricot schnapps.

Slowly, the champaca seems to swell, filling up all the spaces in the attar with its creaminess, and there are moments when, true to champaca being the origin of the word “shampoo”, it smells rather like a luxurious apple-and-rose scented shampoo (fans of By Kilian's Liaisons Dangereuses would love this). Still, the boozy, jammy, fermented edge to the champaca gives the attar an adult edge that stops it from feeling or smelling like a cheap drugstore product. The floral element is clean, but also sensual and full-bodied. In fact, I think this is the best use of champaca I've smelled in attar form.

The third phase, the drydown, lasts for a very long time after the bright rose-lime notes and the creamy-fruity champaca notes have completely died away. The base smells incredibly like deer musk mixed with other animalic such as ambergris and castoreum, and in fact, there is a remarkable similarity to the “old-school” animalic drydown of Bogue MEM. But in fact, there is no deer musk in this attar at all. How, then, has this extraordinary “deer musk” muskiness been achieved?

In fact, it all comes from plant-based sources, specifically by way of a rare Hina musk attar, a traditional Indian shamama distilled from hundreds of different aromatic materials, including charila (Indian oakmoss), henna flower, ambrette seed, herbs, vetiver root, saffron, davana, and kewra (screwpine flower). I say rare, because true hina musk attars can take anything up to 2 months to distill, and we are talking continuous, repeated distilling, 24 hours a day. That's even before maturation and resting times are taken into account.

Attar makers rarely have the time or economic motivation to make shamama in the old manner anymore, and their access to good sandalwood is not what it used to be. A genuine, traditionally-made hina musk attar costs in the region of several thousand USD per kilo, even within India itself, where prices for attars tend to be at their least inflated.

The last element, the kewra, is otherwise known as pandan, a green leaf that gives a distinctively sweet, piercing floral flavor to all manner of South East Asian dishes and syrups. To my nose, apart from the vegetal, musky thickness contributed by the shamama, the most prominent note is the pandan, which when combined with the rose gives a very traditional Indian flavor to the attar's finish. But the drydown is also authentically “musky” in smell, with a lingering, body odor sourness mingling with sweet mustiness, and something sweetly saliva-ish. Astonishing work, and to my nose, convincingly musky in the drydown.

Afghan Smoke (EdP)

Afghan Smoke begins with a sheer wash of dry, rubbery smoke reminiscent of Bvlgari Black before it was neutered, and enough birch tar to rival Patchouli 24. But there is also, briefly, a fruity “spilled gasoline” accord that sweeps in to funk up the place, kind of like Pekji's Eau Mer minus the strange, melony aquatics. But Afghan Smoke quickly settles into the track it will continue in, which is that sweet, wafer-thin birch tar leather. Its texture is dry to the point of being dusty. There's a crisp, unobtrusive elegance to the scent's bone structure that qualifies it for wear even in the stuffiest and most scent-phobic of work places.

All of The Rising Phoenix perfumes are naturally-minded fragrances that JK has formulated, many of which he matured himself for months, if not years (one or two of the attars, such as Sicilian Vanilla, have a small proportion of natural isolates such as vanillin, when necessary). From testing much of JK's work, I've found that there is often a surprise twist in the far drydown that invites people to refrain from making too hasty a conclusion.

For example, I thought I had Afghan Smoke pegged until hours later, I discovered a hidden layer – a last gasp of sorts – in the fragrance, namely a handsomely rugged sandalwood with nuances of both salted butter and sweet, powdered sugar. It shares some of the papery, dusty nuances I picked up in both Sicilian Vanilla and Yeti Attar, so this must be a combination of the sandalwood, vanilla, and benzoin that JK likes to use. The sandalwood used in these fragrances is real Mysore sandalwood, so it's worth waiting all day to get to the reward tucked into the tail there, like an Internet Easter egg.

If you love sweet n' sooty black leather fragrances like Black, House of Matriarch's Black No. 1, and Aftelier Vanilla Smoke but with the translucence of rice paper, then Afghan Smoke will be right down your alley. I love it, and it is my personal favorite of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery's new Eaux de Parfum.

Sicilian Vanilla (Attar)

Sicilian Vanilla Attar has a deeply unsettling opening, because, quite frankly, it smells like oud! Given that there is no oud listed, it must be an apparition conjured up by two or three of the more pungent materials present in the topnotes, possibly the veiny, dried-fruit dirtiness of natural tobacco leaf absolute colliding with the pissy undertones of cassis (blackcurrant). The oud phantasm dissipates quickly, leaving a trace of pungent cherry-flavored cough syrup in its place, before finally allowing all the separate nuances of tobacco absolute to fall into place.

At first, the more animalic, “wet” facets of tobacco are present – spoiled fruit, medicine, and spilled brandy. But then, with the help of benzoin and perhaps some myrrh, the tobacco absolute begins to dry up, separating into different layers of aroma that range from raisins to the musty, yellowing pages of books in an ancient library. This I absolutely love because I am forever on the hunt for perfumes that remind me of books and old libraries.

As the papery tone increases, the blend retains its forceful character – in other words, it is very strong (tobacco absolute being a bully of a material). There also appears an element of dry woodsmoke, but I am not sure about this, because my nose sometimes confuses the dryness of paper with the dryness of woodsmoke. Either way, let's split the difference and call it a note of singed paper.

It takes me a while to realize that what I thought was dry, papery tobacco had actually morphed into the savory, arid creaminess of the Rising Phoenix Perfumery's signature Mysore sandalwood, plus powdery benzoin for that sweet-and-spicy vanillic dust feel. Strangely, I don't get much vanilla in this attar, except for an ashy, dark smoothing out of the other materials at the edges. Nevermind, because the sweet creaminess of vanilla is not really welcome here anyway - this is great as it is.

Green Velvet (EdP)

Wowsers! The opening note of kaffir lime is so photorealistic that I immediately feel thirsty. But straight away, what is noticeable to me is the sandalwood, here a nutty, buttery, savory type that smells exactly the same as when I open one of the Rising Phoenix attars. The rush of genuine Mysore sandalwood at the start gives this EDP a very attar-like feeling, by which I mean that it is both simple (a few great raw materials hanging out together and left to do their own thing) and authentic in feel, traditional attars being aromatic materials distilled directly into sandalwood oil and then left to macerate.

Traditionally-made attars are rare these days because of the expense and scarcity of good sandalwood, even within India, but you'll know when you smell the genuine article: despite the presence of other notes, what will strike your nose first is the smell of sandalwood oil. It is unmistakable, and probably the only real benchmark of quality left in the attar game that matters. Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that Green Velvet has the feel of something made not in a lab, but in a deg and bhapka.

Oddly enough, Green Velvet smells a little animalic, right off the bat. I am sure that this is down to the reaction of the lactones (creamy, milky-smelling molecules) in the sandalwood with the citric acid of the lime, which creates a sort of curdled milk effect. The combination also creates, for a moment, a ghostly ambergris note, full of silty funk.

But then the drydown takes over, mostly an earthy, musty combination of vetiver and tree moss, and what do you know, a common theme of citrusy bitterness emerges to unite all three major elements; the vetiver, the sandalwood, and the lime. If you liked the idea behind Smuggler's Soul by Lush and wanted a smoother, less pungent rendering of the theme, then try Green Velvet. I disagreed with the velvet in the name until I hit that drydown, where the brown, salty creaminess of the sandalwood wins out. This is simply superb; a fresh, cooling attar reinterpreted as an EDP, making it perfect for hot weather.

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba (Attar)

First, a piece of nomenclature – any attar bearing the word ‘Kaaba' in its title refers to the famous black cube that stands in the center of Islam's most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, around which the sea of Muslim pilgrims move during the annual hajj, a special ritual called the tawaf. The pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj is the sacred duty of all adult Muslims, who must make the trip at least once in their lives. The Kaaba is there to protect a sacred black stone that was placed there by Muhammad in 605 A.D. Ghilaf is the Urdu word for the black and gold cloth that covers the Kaaba, literally meaning “sheath” (Ghilaf seems to be analogous to kiswah, the Arabic name for the black cloth).

If you think about it, it's a clever name for any rose-oud attar because the cloth itself, with its band of gold threads richly embroidered onto a matte black background, is a good metaphor for the age-old contrasts of the age-old oud and rose pairing, the bright sweetness of rose glancing off the darkness of oud like a ray of sunlight.

In my experience, rose-oud attars are sublime only when two things happen, the first being a high content load of superior raw materials (all natural), and the second, when there is a perfect balance achieved between the light and dark elements of the blend.

The first, in attar perfumery, will depend on how much the attar maker and his customers care about the quality of the raw materials. Some people prefer the modern horse power of synthetics, even in attars, and therefore, there are attars that smell less natural (but more diffusive) than others. Other attar makers – usually small, artisan attar makers whose customers care deeply about the naturalness of raw materials – go to great lengths to secure the best rose oil, the best wild oud, tincture their own materials, and so on, all with the purpose of simply setting the materials in the blend like polished jewels and allowing them to shine as nature intended.

The Rising Phoenix Perfumery is one of those small, artisan attar making outfits that cares first and foremost about having the most beautiful raw materials to showcase in its blends. Ghilaf-e-Kaaba features a rare, steam-distilled Gallica rose otto that displays a bright but silky character – not as jammy or beefy as a Turkish rose, and not as lemony-sharp as a Ta'if rose. The oud is a wild Hindi oil from Assam, a forceful, slightly raw-edged spice and leather affair that comes at you all guns blazing but later dying back to reveal a stately bone structure.

If the first, the raw materials, is more a question of selection, then the second is a question of alchemy, that strange magic that happens when a talented attar maker knows what to do with his bounty. Balance in attars and mukhallats is more difficult to achieve than one might imagine, because of the way naturals behave, continuing to evolve and even deepen over time. In a way, rose notes are like citrus oils in that their brightness is volatile and changeable, while the dark mustiness of oud go through its own series of changes way down in the basenotes, from cowhide, to leather, to woodsmoke, to herbs, and so on. An attar maker must consider how each raw material will behave and at what time.

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba surprises me because normally, in rose-oud attars, one note dominates before giving way to the other. But with this particular attar, sometimes it smells like oud, sometimes like rose, without the actual overall scent ever changing from one moment to the next. From the sample top, I smell a deep, fiery rose otto; on the skin, the first thing I smell is the pungent, spicy Hindi oud. Moments later, although I can't say that the attar has changed or evolved, I can suddenly smell the rose, but not the oud. At the rare times the two notes appear together, the blend smells excitingly coarse and strong, like a retsina wine, full of sour, woody tannins and turpentine.

Both the main raw materials used here are strong and a bit fierce: the Gallica rose otto burns with a purity that could cut through cloth, and the Hindi oud, although smooth, has a feral edge reminiscent of just-cured leather skins. After a rough (but exciting) start, this very potent blend starts to relax on the skin and meander into a long, languid drydown of smoky, dry leather and woods, tinged with the sour brightness of rose petals. A custom blend of floral attars, labdanum, and benzoin is there to support the rose and oud from the base: I can't say that my nose picks up on any of that, and the drydown is not ambery, sweet, or powdery in any way – the resins are just there for ballast. In other words, this attar is single-minded; it doesn't deviate once from the rose-oud script.

Ghilaf-e-Kaaba is very Arabic in tone (obviously) but even if it does tread the centuries-old, tried and tested route of rose-oud pairings, the sheer quality of the raw materials distinguishes it. It lasts forever and is phenomenally strong or concentrated, a tiny drop keeping me pungently scented for 24 hours. I admire very much both the quality of the raw materials used and the balance with which they are showcased in the blend. This is a rose-oud attar for purists and those for whom excellent raw materials are a prerequisite.

Frontier (EdP)

Frontier is a very good, almost fresh leather fragrance with a twist of anise and basil to give it a chewy black licorice lift. The leather notes are soft and sappy, but infused with a thin layer of smoke and something a little animalic and raw, like the vestiges of flesh clinging to the undersides of freshly tanned skins. The animalic nuance may be due to the inclusion of poplar bud absolute here, because to my nose, poplar bud absolute can smell as animalic as osmanthus absolute or Cassie. In fact, it can smell a bit like rotting, fermenting fruit, giving this perfume something of an oud-ish air, especially in the topnotes and heart, when the leather is at its strongest.

The scent soon levels out, though, into a fine, dry herbal leather. The name suggests something rugged and outdoorsy, and indeed, there is a certain Marlboro Man charm to this. But it's fine-boned enough for a lady, or this lady at least. If you like dry, chewy leathers and the savory snap of a good licorice vine, then give Frontier a go. It traverses a field of textures from rugged-rough, to moist, to sappy, chewy, and then finally to dry and papery.

Keep your eyes peeled for a sample pass of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery scents on Basenotes very soon!
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About the author
Claire Vukcevic is a Basenotes contributor, two-time Jasmine Award winner, and author of the blog Currently, she is serializing her book, The Attar Guide, on Takeonethingoff – a must-read if you are interested exploring the world of oil-based perfumery, i.e., attars, mukhallats, oud oil, sandalwood oil, or concentrated perfume oils (CPOs).

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Had not seen this interview before. I must have missed it. when it was first posted. I found it very informative and quite entertaining.

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