Mark Evans, perfumer at Australian indie brand Evocative Perfumes, recently sent me a sample of his latest creation, Nirvana, a fragrance that celebrates and encapsulates the true characteristics of oud (also called aoud, oudh, agar, agarwood, gaharuwood, eaglewood, jinkoh and aloeswood). The description for Nirvana is as follows:
There are many, many fragrances out there with oud or agarwood as one of the featured notes. Of course there is never any actual real oud oil in these fragrances as it is way too expensive. The oud note that wearers have come to expect is a fantasy and not really anything like the experience of real, genuine oud oil. Nirvana is my attempt to provide you with this experience. I’ve used a high proportion of natural ingredients, blended to provide the incredible richness of the funky, cheesy top note and the floral, rosy, jamminess and dry deep woodiness of a real, sticky, Cambodian oud. (Source: Evocative Perfumes website)
And herein lies my conundrum. I want to review Mark Evans’ lovely new Nirvana, but I have to confess that I don’t know what oud, real or fantastical, smells like, even though Mark gives a pretty good description of it above. It’s a perfume note that has evaded me, despite being used in many commercial, niche and independent perfumes as one of the trendiest perfumery ingredients in recent years. Some say oud is one of the rarest and most expensive materials in perfumery. Some loathe oud because of its ubiquitousness in contemporary perfumes. Some talk of oud’s complicated nature, its multifarious characteristics and facets, which just adds to my confusion. I just want to be able to identify oud, and the more complex it is, the harder that will be.
The problem for me is compounded by the fact that actual oud is not used very often in perfumery due to its expense: often weakened dilutions that don’t smell much like the best quality oud are used instead, or a synthesised chemical form of oud. Sometimes perfumers create illusions or impressions of hard-to-source ingredients out of other ingredients entirely, and I think this probably happens in the case of oud, simply because the ingredient is too expensive to buy for many perfumers. So, bearing all of this in mind and if I have no access to the raw ingredient, how am I supposed to know what oud smells like? I wonder if it’s a bit like musk, in that there’s real musk, and then there are various synthesised versions of it. The modern-day, legal, chemical versions of musk smell almost nothing like the raw ingredient, which comes from the scent sac of the male musk deer, and which I have actually smelt. I wonder if fake oud smells anything like real oud, or whether they are two different substances with the same name? I wonder if oud is, as Mark Evans suggests, a fantastical notion in most of the perfumes that profess to feature it? Am I on a wild goose chase in my quest to be able to identify oud?
When I was training my nose to recognise certain fragrance ingredients, it was a long process of comparison and elimination. I would go into a department store, armed with a list of perfumes featuring a certain note that I wanted to be able to identify. Gradually, after smelling perfume after perfume on my list, and searching for the common factor, I would learn to identify a particular ingredient. Learning to detect tuberose wasn’t too hard, thanks to a whiff of the obviously named Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens, which features a bold, camphoraceous and indolic tuberose. Jasmine, used frequently in perfume, came easily, as I had the blossoming flower on my fence to compare it to. And ambroxan clicked into place for me after smelling Not a Perfume by Juliet Has a Gun, which is supposedly composed solely of this ingredient. Ambroxan, with its distinctive, nostril-hair-burning smell has also played a role in my quest to identify oud. In fact, it is in so many perfumes that I’ve smelt that supposedly feature oud, that I thought that perhaps the perfumers intended for ambroxan to replicate or stand in for the real thing. But perfumista friends soon corrected me, and told me that oud did not smell like ambroxan, however, they weren’t really able to explain to me what it did smell like in a way that helped me to identify it. And so, I was back to square one. However, I have since found out that oud is also burnt as an incense, so perhaps the ambroxan, with its smoky smell is supposed to convey the smell of burning oud incense?
All of this musing, this hunt for the true nature of oud is because I want to be able to review and appreciate Mark Evans’ Nirvana properly: Nirvana is such a lovely creation that it deserves a proper review from someone who knows how oud smells. I could pretend that I know and fudge my way round a review, but I’m too honest to do that. Instead, I’m going to treat this as an opportunity to learn something, to give myself an ouducation, so to speak, as learning is all part of the program here at Perfume Polytechnic.
What is Oud?
In the middle east, the word oud or oudh (which in Arabic means stick or rod) is used to describe agarwood. Oud is the term most used by perfumers to describe the resinous, fragrant wood of the agarwood tree, as well as the essential oil derived from it. The following definition of oud (referred to here as agarwood) from Wikipedia is a good introduction to oud, and discusses some of the issues surrounding its cost and sustainability.
Agarwood, also known as oud, oodh or agar, is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees (large evergreens native to southeast Asia) when they become infected with a type of mould. Prior to infection, the heartwood is relatively light and pale coloured; however, as the infection progresses, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin in response to the attack, which results in a very dense, dark, resin embedded heartwood. The resin embedded wood is commonly called gaharu, jinko, aloeswood, agarwood, or oud (not to be confused with ‘Bakhoor’) and is valued in many cultures for its distinctive fragrance, and thus is used for incense and perfumes.
One of the main reasons for the relative rarity and high cost of agarwood is the depletion of the wild resource. Since 1995 Aquilaria malaccensis, the primary source, has been listed in Appendix II (potentially threatened species) by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In 2004 all Aquilaria species were listed in Appendix II; however, a number of countries have outstanding reservations regarding that listing.
First-grade agarwood is one of the most expensive natural raw materials in the world. A whole range of qualities and products are on the market, varying in quality with geographical location and cultural deposition. Oud oil is distilled from agarwood, and fetches high prices depending on the oil’s purity. The current global market for agarwood is estimated to be in the range of US$6 – 8 billion and is growing rapidly.
Celia Lyttelton, in her book The Scent Trail, describes the traditional process of harvesting oud (which she calls gaharuwood):
…local people [across Southeast Asia] regularly tap the trunks of Aquilaria trees to gather it. They knock the trunks with a tool, and if the tree contains the resin it makes a particular sound. Gaharuwood is still often obtained from Aquilaria trees in secret rituals which women are not allowed to attend, and gaharu oil-filled wood is so heavy that it sinks in water, which is how it got its name: “the sinking perfume”.
Once the resin has been tapped it is soaked in water for a long time before it is distilled into an essential oil known as oudh. (p.63)
There are three methods through which agarwood oil is distilled, namely, hydro-distillation, steam distillation and super critical CO2 extraction. However, the most common methods of distillation are hydro-distillation and steam distillation. Another thing that has its mark on the distillation of the oil is the age of the tree. Older trees have a higher resin content and just like a wine, old resin gets better with age. Speaking of the grading of agarwood oil, the best quality oil comes out from first distillation and after this the wood undergoes for second distillation and hence, it is graded accordingly the number of times it is cooked.
Oil coming from steam distillation is said to lack the three-dimensional smoky quality which comes from hydro-distilled oil. In both methods, after the oil has been distilled, it is filtered, sunned, and aged for a while. The more the oil aged, the better it will smell.
Other than its use as an ingredient in perfumery, oud can be found in high-grade incense in Japan, across Asia, the Middle East and also in India, where it is used in a variety of festive and religious events. The leaves of the Aquilaria tree can also be used as a herbal tea, which is reputed to have antioxidant properties. In China, where the Aquilaria tree is known as Chen Xiang, the resinous wood is used widely in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including kidney, spleen and stomach disorders. Various parts of the tree, including the bark, resinous wood, and heartwood have also been used in Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine.
How Do Others Describe the Smell of Oud?
The first step in my ouducation was to explain my conundrum to perfumer Mark Evans, to confess that I didn’t know what oud smelt like, that it was a tricky note for me to identify, and that I had confused it with ambroxan. Mark very kindly offered to post me a tiny amount of real oud oil for me to smell, as well as some ambroxan. Wow! Mark is amazing and incredibly generous to do so, and for someone (me) who has such limited access to raw materials, this is a marvellous opportunity to go directly to the source, to the actual raw material, not a chemically synthesised copy of oud. I look forward to discussing the smell of these two ingredients in Part Two of this post, and to reviewing Mark’s perfume Nirvana and comparing it to the smell of real oud.
Onwards and upwards, my next journey was to consult the Internet, and to read some discussions in online perfume communities about oud. In particular, I found a detailed discussion on Basenotes about real oud oils very helpful. In this discussion oud is described as smelling like a multitude of things, including antique wood, wood sap and bark mixed with green notes, turpentine, bandaids, Dettol, rotting vegetation, faeces, and smoking wood. It is also described as resinous, mentholic, funky, medicinal and “too hard to describe”. To complicate matters, the ouds that come from different areas – from various parts of Southeast Asia, mostly – smell different to one another. One particularly observant comment in the Basenotes thread (by a user called Buzzlepuff) discusses the Dettol-like antiseptic aspect of oud and explains how it makes sense that the tree would produce a medicinal smell as a kind of defense against the mould that is attacking the tree and causing infection. Buzzlepuff also states that this facet of the oud smell is rather like the smell of the chemical chlorhexidine digluconate, which is used as a disinfectant in various settings, including dentistry.
Celia Lyttelton describes the smell of oud as follows in The Scent Trail:
Oudh gives off an almond-sweet smell and has been compared to a blend of sandalwood and ambergris. The older the wood and the more mature the resin, the more delicious the oudh smells. (pp. 63-4)
Fragrantica describes the smell of oud as “a rich, musty woody-nutty scent”. (Source: Fragrantica)
It seems like I have my work cut out for me, but now I’ve done my research, and have a sample of real oud on its way, I’m confident that I’ll be able to spot this note in perfumes and more importantly, give Mark Evans’ Nirvana the review it deserves.
In Part Two of An Ouducation I’ll share my impressions of real oud, tell you about some oud fragrances I’ve sniffed down in the big smoke, and will review Nirvana, the latest perfume from Evocative Perfumes.
You can read Part Two of An Ouducation here.