No shop can be called a true Middle Eastern perfumery without offering some exposure to pure distillations of resinous woods that form as a result of purposely-induced infections in several species of Aquilaria (agarwood) evergreen trees. Over many years these infections cause the trees to produce a unique resin as a by-product in combatting this infection. Distillation of this precious resinous wood produces a rare and much-coveted liquid that is known as oud (aoud, ood, oudh, ud).
Aquilaria species are native to Southeast Asia, and the finest woods can be found in Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia (notably Borneo). Top-quality agarwood also grows in India's Assam region. Bangkok is the major trading hub for agarwood and the market is dominated by Chinese merchants, who have been active in this mysterious and lucrative trade for over 2000 years.
Historians are not certain when oud reached the Middle East. However, there are written accounts of Southern Arabian and Chinese merchants trading frankincense and myrrh that back to the first century AD, and there are references to "aloeswood" in the Old Testament which date back to the time of King Solomon in the 10th century BC. Thus, oud has likely existed in the Middle East for thousands of years, and over this time it has become an integral part of the region's culture and religion.
Unfortunately, the world's Aquilaria population is now greatly depleted due to increased demand and is considered potentially threatened. While the most highly-prized wood is still found in the wild, it is more common to find aquilaria trees cultivated and its infections induced via inoculation or simply via exposure to air through boring holes into scores of locations in the tree under the watchful eye of government agencies and the farm owners. The scarcity of high-quality wild agarwood has caused the prices of ouds that are produced from it to rise to over $10,000 per 10 grams.
The best grades of agarwood are hard, nearly black and very heavy and are extremely rare, as can be seen here. Because these woods do not float in water, the pieces are dubbed as "sinking grade" and command astronomical prices that can exceed $50,000 per kilogram. As they have done for millennia, Chinese buyers are scooping up much of the premium agarwood for large sums of money. This wood will either be burned as incense, or will be processed or aged further to eventually produce ouds of the highest-quality that may never be available to the public.
To be sure, similar to vintage French wines, the highest-quality agarwoods are disappearing from the marketplace. While the very highest-quality agarwood is almost always burned as incense, some of the remaining grades are distilled to yield ouds of various grades and characteristics. Agarwood that is destined to become top quality oud is itself sometimes aged for many years prior to distillation.
Oud distillation is a highly-secretive and proprietary process and is performed in batches under closely-monitored conditions. The very highest-quality ouds that are being produced today have typically been artisan-distilled from organic (cultivated) or wild wood, and the ouds themselves may be aged even further before they are sold. The agarwood is chipped or pulverized and soaked (or not) in specially treated (or not) water prior to distillation for various amounts of time which are determined by the distiller and by the nature of the wood itself. After distillation, many pure ouds are blended with other ingredients using proprietary formulas to create precious and rare fragrances.
The very highest quality oud oils are usually (but not always) aged and sold as unblended products which can command prices of $10,000 per 12 grams or more. To be sure, there are few "bargains" to be found when buying real wild oud and agarwood, and buyers should be wary if they are presented with one, especially in the online auction markets. Fortunately for pocketbooks the world over, a little goes a very long way.
Oud is a complex and intriguing substance, and it has many faces. Ouds that are produced from properly harvested and processed agarwood sourced from countries in the Far East are typically sweetish and smooth in character to various degrees. Others, especially those sourced from certain regions of India and perhaps over-soaked in water to induce fermentation and increase oud yield can be perceived as swampy or even barnyard-y and can be challenging for some to wear. Top-quality ouds are sometimes aged, and a percentage of one ASQ product formerly offered at TWIS has been aged for over 120 years. The aging of expertly-processed oud oils produces very complex fragrance profiles. In fact, some ouds have been known to produce olfactory fatigue even in the most experienced noses due to their depth and evolution during even a single application.
Ouds are very much like fine wines in that they are very personal in nature, and oud's presence in perfumes is perceived somewhat differently by each user. Importantly, there is an olfactory learning curve of sorts when trying to "understand" oud, and often first-time users are puzzled by its scent. While ouds can contain hundreds of distinct compounds, the most popular notes cited are green flowers, black tea, vanilla, caramel, jasmine, lemon grass, leather, freshly chopped wood, moss, mango, cinnamon, hay, honey, fruits of all types, suede and black currant but this is not nearly an all-inclusive list.
The notes in all perfumes can be perceived and develop differently due to an individual's olfactory sensitivity and body chemistry, among other environmental and emotional factors. But ouds take this to much higher level. In fact, the same oud worn by the same person can develop differently during subsequent applications, or some notes may not be experienced in every wear. Many have purchased expensive pure ouds or oud blends only to find that they are disappointed in the "advertised" notes or other characteristics of the perfumes. This is why TWIS highly recommends sample purchases, especially of the more expensive oud-based fragrances. We simply cannot tell you what to smell in an oud beyond gross generalities. Oud can play tricks on you.
Because of this, we question the utility of oud vendors guiding customers on what notes are present in a particular oud, as these notes may not be perceived by everyone...or anyone, for that matter. According to a March 2014 study published in Science magazine, it has been determined that the human nose can detect up to 1 TRILLION odors versus the 10,000 that were previously conjectured. What are the chances that a vendor or an online reviewer will be able to tell anyone which of those trillion scents are the right ones to perceive?
As with musk, amber and many other substances used in perfumery today, nearly all oud found in Western-based fragrances is synthetic, including that from some of the most exclusive Houses. Thus, most in the West have never experienced the scent of authentic oud in perfume blends, much less the pure oils themselves. In fact, most newcomers to oud can find little resemblance between the Western perfumes with the word "oud" in their names versus the smell of the pure natural substance.
TWIS is proud to offer pure ouds and oud-based blends produced by the artisanal distillers Agar Aura and Rising Phoenix Perfumery and oud perfumes from Abdul Samad Al Qurashi. ASAQ's "pure" ouds are typically blends of ouds and other ingredients so that product consistency can be maintained throughout its large retail network.
As you would expect, prices of oud-based oils directly reflect the various grades, purity and aging of the ouds, as well as the qualities of the other ingredients with which they are blended, if applicable.