One of my favorite experiences so far was visiting Kurt Schnaubelt, who not only introduced me to a wide variety of oils, but also got me interested in the rare and magical oil called Agarwood, Aloes, or Oud.
At the end of our visit with him, he casually mentioned that one of his future ventures will be to create a collection of agarwood oils from different regions of Southeast Asia.
I asked him "what is agarwood oil", and he shared that it's a consciousness-altering essential oil that has been valued for thousands of years but is little-known in the West.
Having my curiosity aroused, I began a many month long journey exploring this amazing oil.
What is the origin of Oud?
(I have read a lot about Oud since I first wrote this column, and have recently revised it in order to increase its accuracy and depth).
When subtropical evergreen trees of two different genuses, Aquilaria and Gyrinops, suffer injury (from a specific fungus infection), a small percentage of them exude a resin to protect themselves. It is the resin that is highly prized for its aromatic and spiritual qualities.
Agarwood oil or Oud (or Oudh) is currently available from two sources: the rapidly-becoming-extinct wild trees, and the sustainably farmed and manually infected trees. Unfortunately, in the wild, most trees are cut down en masse (even though 85% of them have no resin content) in order to harvest the oil.
The most reverential and respectful method of harvesting Oud from trees in the wild is to remove just the resin-saturated infected parts of the trees, leaving the trees to continue to grow and thrive. I am very happy to discover a few oils obtained this way, because it's the most ethical approach, and holds the trees as sacred beings.
Most Oud is prepared by steam or hydro-distillation of the pulverized wood, but some Oud is now being made using CO2 extraction (a cold method that extracts more of the constituents of the plant).
(Ensar Oud points out that the production of "synthetic Oud", a mix of various chemicals some of which are toxic, has grown considerably in the perfume industry. Even some Oud purveyors are selling synthetic Oud as the real thing.)
Lower grade Oud can have a one-dimensional barnyard or stanky or animalistic smell, but the better Ouds are much fuller and rounder in aroma and in fact offer so many different scents that each one is an exploration in itself.
Important Note: Dorje123 pointed out, on the Basenotes.net forum, that there are two very different kinds of barnyard, and some excellent Ouds have a barnyard component, but, to quote him:
"I think in a good oud the barnyard is balanced with other very rich notes, especially extreme "oudniness". And, the barnyard should dissipate into a woody-incense kind of note after a time, leaving a very rich, incense, sweet, maybe slightly fruity and intense smell that remains for a long time. Also, it would be marked by the absence of other "off-notes" after the barnyard fades away."
Oud is used in many high-end perfumes because of its complexity and versatility. In perfumery, scents are described as top-notes, middle-notes, and base-notes. Top notes are what you smell first, and represent the most volatile components of any oil. Middle notes form the central body of the fragrance, while base notes "fix" the fragrance (make it last longer) and are sometimes called the "dry down" scent, because they are the final scents that remain.
Therefore, when one applies Oud to oneself, there are a medley of notes to be experienced. Some Ouds don't vary much from beginning to end, while others vary tremendously.
For example, I recently got an Oud from India that was very pungent and intensely animalic in odor, and I thought that I would never sample it again. But I tried wearing a very small amount of it, and after a while (after both the top and middle notes were done), I was surprised by the sweetly floral dry down.
Among the scents found in agarwood oils are:
Floral: chamomile, lilac, rose, etc. (Typically found in Cambodian and Thai Oud distilled in Copper.)
Green: Grassy, herbaceous, minty, mossy. (Typically found in Borneo and Papua New Guinea Oud.)
Earthy: Dirt, mud, soggy wood, mildewy, hay. (Typically found in Candan Oud.)
Pungent: Barnyard, fecal, animalic, musky, funky. (Typically Indian Oud.)
Incense: Burned incense and wood, powdery, frankincense, heated resin (Typically from the highest grade and oldest wild trees).
Ice: Phenolic, crystalline, mineral (Found in Indonesian Ouds.).
Sweet: Perfumey, syrupy, vanilla, honey. (Typically in Copper distilled Cambodian.)
Fruity: Orange, lemon, berries, raisins. (Typically found in Cambodian and Thai Oud.)
Spicy: Cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper,
Balsamic: Resinous, soothing, syrupy, amber, balsam. (Found in both Thai and Cambodian Ouds.)
Note: The species of wood used, the method presoaking (short/long, type of water used, additions to the water), the method of distillation (steam or hydro), the vessel used for the distillation (copper, stainless steel, hybrids, etc.), all alter the scent characteristics of the Oud produced. Oud can easily be ruined by mishandling, or made really special in the hands of a master distiller.
I myself prefer the sweeter, more floral and fruity Ouds, but others prefer the "Royal" ouds that have more bitterness and pungency.
Labeled AA or A or HQ, his oil are so low priced because most of the Ouds he sells are second distillations. I.e. they are produced after the high-end Ouds have already been extracted. This makes them quite a bit less concentrated and more perfumey, and notably shorter-lived in the persistence of their scent, but for beginners they provide an affordable start.
Ish does sometimes have first-distillation AAA Ouds for sale, which are much better, but they are bit more expensive, and you have to contact him to find out if he has any currently available.
Important note: When searching for Ouds, be careful NOT to purchase Mukhallats. These are blends of a little Oud with many other fragrance oils and are not pure agarwood oil.