I have a confession to make: I have a difficult time with oud.
It's not that I dislike oud itself; I love oud attars, agarwood chips lit for incense. They are some of the most magical scents in existence. It's just the oud as it has come to be represented in a commercial fragrance product. Since I've also studied perfume making for a number of years, I have become acquainted with the oud bases that have become available from IFF (Oud Oliffac); both Black Agar and Pretty Oud from Firmenich; Black Agar Givco- though I admit I have a soft spot for this one as its so incensey. However, often when I experience a fragrance that relies on these bases for its oud note, they often stand out so much without there being very much added interest surrounding it. They seem to have become a crutch, and one hackneyed oud fragrance after another just seems to become a blur of redundancy and ennui.
However, we have Bertrand Duchaufour's brilliant composition Al Oudh. Some even consider this very little to do with oud at all, actually, as it seems more about the carnality of spices like caraway and saffron mingling with the chewy, almost caramel aroma of dates and a compote of prunes and currants with rose water. The transparent original bottle in my possession, which is my only reference point, has this impression more of agarwood incense: the headspace apparently is difficult to capture. It isn't in the forefront, but is there, carrying this sensuality on the skin along with a hint of civet. Nothing is loud, but rather sonorous.
This is a very sexy scent. I can't quite make out whether any of the aforementioned bases are used; Duchaufour could've very well created his own "trompe le nez" accord giving the illusion of oud/agarwood. However, I do agree that for anyone who expects oud to be front and center would be a bit disappointed; rather, one would want to approach Al Oudh with an open mind and a curiosity. In the end, it could be quite rewarding and stimulating.
Al Oudh by L'Artisan Parfumeur (2009) arrived at the onset of the "oud craze" in high-end Western perfumery, re-igniting interest in exoticism sentiment stemming from fascinations with regions once considered "oriental" as opposed to "occidental" at the turn of the 20th century, with both being terms now best not used in a cultural context unironically in polite conversation. Then as in a century before, the fascination with dense, highly opulent and sometimes comparatively challenging perfume materials of the region lead to a focus on using them in the highest-end Western fragrances lines, even if only for inspiration and not directly included in the perfumes themselves due to cost or rarity. In the days of old, such materials like sandalwood and real amber compounds were plentiful and relatively inexpensive when bought in bulk to be scaled up for fragrances like Guerlain Shalimar (1925) and the like, but with global natural perfume resources over-harvested or outright poached into scarcity, the discovery of oud lead more or less directly into making proxies of it for mass-production. Therefore even more so than many of the Western amber perfumes of yore, Western oud perfumes are exceedingly artificial and only tangentially related to actual oud attars, oils, and mukhalats. Bertrand Duchaurfour, longstanding perfumer for L'Artisan, was sent on a mission to make his take on a typical oud perfume from the Arabian world, and he landed upon Al Oudh. I say it's pretty respectable, probably not enough for the hardcore oud collectors, but it'll hunt.
Anyone who has smelled the really expensive Western odes to traditional oud perfumery like those made by Roja Dove or Frédéric Malle, will likely see a common thread here, as Duchaufour tries to emulate that east-meets-west style of stiff animalics, deep ambery oud notes, and lighter western floral flirtation. The key difference here is obviously cost of ingredients, and most of the animalics used by L'Artisan are their cruelty-free and lower-cost synthetic counterparts, which not only makes this safe to use for those concerned about such things, but also not over $1000 like the Dove and Malle examples. My best way to describe this is as a much lower-cost Oudh Infini by Parfums Dusita (2015), preceding it by a few years of course, but following the same rose chypre construction stuffed full of oud and animalic accords, just dialed-down synthetic versions of them. The opening of this will still very much smack you in the face, in only the fleshiest most unwashed way possible, but is immediately softened a bit by pink pepper and neroli. The castoreum and civet notes mingle with rose and the aforementioned neroli, with patchouli adding some herbaceous chypre quality alongside some oakmoss plush, while the Firmenich oud accord enjoyed by both Le Labo and Dior comes out to play. Those who know this accord will recognize its sour barnyard quality, that gots enhanced in Dior Leather Oud (2010) or mulled into woody-ambers in Bogart One Man Show Oud Edition (2014). Here, it balances with sandalwood, incense, and vanilla to remain smooth.
L'Artisan Al Oudh is still a pretty musky number even if dried out considerably thanks to more straightforward synthetic animal notes blended deftly with woody tones, florals, and incense, Oudh Infini basically does this same trick, but upgrades to real oud, real civet, and real castoreum, keeping the rose chypre structure and including jasmine indole to create the mother of all red light district fragrances. Either gird your loin or run away boys, because that one plays for keeps. If anything, Oudh Infini was likely inspired by Al Oudh, so you can use the latter as training wheels to prepare you for the former. Otherwise, Al Oudh does what most really good Western synthetic takes on the subject do, which is only flirting with the idea of being a dangerous exotic perfume, like being a tiger bred in captivity and held safely behind unbreakable plate glass. Still, ol' Trandfour Duchaubert did a good job Engelbert Humperdincking the finesse out of these industry materials to create something just exotic enough for the typical bourgeois clientele likely to purchase a L'Artisan fragrance, no different from what Guerlain, Caron, Houbigant, or D'Orsay were doing with sandalwood and amber materials a century prior to bring in wealthy shoppers interested in the mystique of oriental perfumery. If you want a Western oud that isn't a medicinal or sharp scouring powder mess of a thing, or a heavy saffron musk pretending to be oud, L'Artisan has you covered, mostly. I'd still sample just in case even fake animalics prove too much to bear. Thumbs up.
Al Oudh belongs to a class of outrageous incense Orientals, that I mostly associate with Italian fragrance houses, especially a couple of fancy, limited-edition perfumes, from Bois 1920. Those perfumes have a lot of Uber spicy patchouli under the hood, and I think that is what is also powering this complex monster. L'Artisan has not launched anything worth discussing in a long time, and revisiting some of their old classics lately, has reminded me what an amazing house it used to be, with perfumes that smelled like nobody else's. I cannot really say, that I have found any signature accords, or obvious thematic elements, that tie the house's perfumes together, I don't smell any of them and think, this must be L'Artisan, like I do with perfumes from Guerlain, or Chanel, or Etat Libre d'Orange, however, I used to know that, whatever it was, it would be fresh, stimulating, and likely take a while, for me to understand everything I was smelling. Al Oudh is still confusing to me, but I think that might be one reason I love it so much.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Al Oudh, it would be ... raspy. It smells like hot sand, dried peppercorns, desiccated fruits, a shot of Scotch whiskey, the kind of incense that gets in the back of your throat and makes you cough a little, Smelling it, is like running your fingers over the rough surface of my favorite set of makeup brushes, that have a rose-gold sandpapery texture on their handles, rough, but with an appealing dull sparkle that makes holding them an experience. It almost attacks you when it first comes from its sprayer. It is, almost, like pepper spray, and I say this, as an endorsement. It is like wearing a desert, if the desert were packed with chili peppers and dates, which are fruits that love desert climates. Perhaps, that was what Bertrand Duchaufour was thinking, when he composed Al Oudh, not only the dead things in the desert, but the live things, too, and the stuff they leave behind, the scraggly plants that grow on rocks, and their resinous products. I smell dried rose, the leathery trail of labdanum, a powerful cloud of frankincense, and masculine-urinous castoreum twinned with feminine-uruinous civet. Clove slices through the melange. It is, actually, much like Opium, but with two-day unshaven stubble.
The perfume critic Luca Turin, likes to describe Duchafour's perfumes as transparent. Al Oudh is not transparent. It is not just dense, it it opaque, in texture, and it does not let up. Rose comes forward, as it warms on the skin, and the perfume's spices swirl in its winey density. At this stage, it reminds me of the red-hot cinnamon-candy spiciness of a glass of powerful California Zinfandel, with the same restorative effect on the senses. Wearing Al Oudh always wakes me up, and I reach for it on dull, gray, winter days, for a similar warming solace. Then its amber base comes forth, and it dries down to a spiced cocoa base that sticks to skin for up to 24 hours.
Al-Oudh is not universally loved, in fact, some people actively hate it, so I recommend it, with a warning. If you like some of the more exotic Commes des Garçons Incense Series, Sahara Noir, or L'Artisan's own Timbuktu and Dzongkha, you will find something here of interest. What you will not find, is oud. I do not smell petrol, bandages, or anything fecal, so its name is confusing, if not actively misleading, which does irritate me, perfume names are poetic, and I believe Duchaufour was aiming at a perfume that speaks of the place and atmosphere of the same places and world that celebrate oud, not a reconstructed imitation of the actual ingredient. It also makes interesting smelling for lovers of spicy rose perfumes like Rose Rebelle Respawn.
I have a personal perfume category of kitchen sink perfumes, scents that seem to combine nearly everything in the perfumer's library, and Al Oudh occupies a spot on that list. Most kitchen sink perfumes, are opulent floral oroentals, so this one stands out among those bedecked and bejeweled feminines. I love it in cold weather, and it is one of my favorite scents for nighttime and clubbing, where it stands out among all the fruity desserts, that usually dominate that landscape. It is dashing, daring, never a dull companion. I am still trying to understand it, and I write this review, in the hope that someone who has not tried it, or has not smelled it in a long time, perhaps, will find it as interesting, and even lovable, as I have found it. It is a standout, in the work of a perfumer, and the roster of a house, with an outstanding record of great work. It is, also, one of only a very few L'Artisan perfumes, that can still be found in their beautiful old presentations, at extremely economical prices. Four and a half stars, as not everyone will find Al Oudh wearable, and two coppery-red, manicured, thumbs up.
The opening vascilates between a soft sweetness, from the cardamom and pink pepper together, and a balsamic leathery saffron. It is not heavy and oppressive, but feals somewhat clear. As it dried, say 15 minutes in, I get some of the dates and incense. There seems to be quite a bit of blending here, and it smells like a nice quality fragrance. It has a similar feel to Declaration by Cartier, but with some background sweetness. At discounters I see this right now at about $45 for a 50ml bottle. At this price, if this is to your tastes, it seems like about the right price for quality.