PERFUME TRIVIA - What is oud?
For some years now, the agarwood scent essence has been synthesized into fragrant chemical compositions, although the real stuff continues to be naturally harvested in the Far East. However, the olfactory scent profiles produced in plantations are only a rough approximation to what is achievable with wild oud, which is almost nowhere to be found.
The development of the aromatic resin known as agarwood is the Alkylaria tree's immunological response to a variety of traumas. In the wild, these traumas occur by natural causes such as trunk blows and broken branches, caused by wildlife, parasitic fungi. The insects also contribute to the process by spreading the mould and fungus to different sections of the tree. Small tunnels are formed inside the trunk often resulting in elaborate labyrinths. In "industrial" plantations the traumas are caused artificially.
The Alkylaria tree then responds with an aromatic resin to repair these wounds. The natural process of creating agarwood is apparently simple, but very random and time-consuming, justifying the fact that it is the most valuable natural aromatic essence in the world.
Most of the so-called "oud natural oils" available are pleasant enough, but far from satisfying the "connoisseurs" of the genuine handcrafted wild oud oil.
Large companies such as Givaudan and Firmenich currently produce synthetic scents to replace natural oud, such as "Oud Synthetic 10760 E" and "Black Agar Givco". These chemical compounds portray only a single olfactory profile and not the broad spectrum provided by natural oud. The comparison is even more unfair if you compare them with wild oud. Synthetic oud often exhibits cedarwood or leather notes that attempt to replicate the natural oil mass-produced in India.
Distilling any kind of natural agarwood oil is tricky as well. The different techniques used by commercial distilleries impact the final oud oil quality and aroma. If the oud chips are soaked in water for a long time before distillation (to gain volume and increase the final quantity), most of the time the distilled oil has a "barnyard" or faecal profile. This is the cause of the erroneous concept that oud has a "barnyard" or fecal offensive odour.
The most eager distillers can soak the chunks of agarwood for months without even changing the liquid. This starts an anaerobic fermentation that produces hydrogen and sulphur. The wood becomes completely saturated and begins to decompose. Saturated wood produces more oil when distilled, but the smell of that oil can seldom be what you would expect from rotting wood. This type of oil may be natural, but it is not a truly handcrafted quality oil.
The oud of Indian, Cambodian and Laotian origin is the most known for having these unpleasant fermented profiles. India, Cambodia, and Thailand are perhaps the largest producers, although agarwood is also produced in China, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Burma, and Indonesia. Commercially, the different flavours of agarwood are attributed to regional influences. As an example, Indian oud is often animalistic, Thai is sweet, and Cambodian is fruity.
Now you know where or how western designers, several niche players and perfume middle east houses get precious oud essences. Acclaimed oud perfumes may range from a dozen Euros, like Oud Noir 100ml flask that of course uses synthetic oils, to more than a couple of thousand Euros for some niche players' offers, like Frederic Male's The Night 250ml bottle. In between, you will find hundreds of very good options either from well-known fashion houses like Tom Ford, Versace and Gucci to name just a few, or Middle Eastern perfume producers, like Lattafa, Rasasi and Swiss Arabian as examples.