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There are only around four companies from which you can reliably purchase true oud oils. The ouds I purchased are Borneo 3000 and Kyara Koutan, from a company called Oriscent [NOTE: in the years since this post was published, the company now goes by the name of Ensar Oud], considered la crème de la crème purveyor of oud oils—and if you pay a visit to the site and read their blog, you’ll know why. Ensar is a hands-on perfectionist who lives on the road and appears to be involved in every facet of collecting and distilling the oud oils, as well as cultivating relationships with agarwood tree growers.
Borneo 3000 and Kyara Koutan are held in high esteem by oud connoisseurs, and though they entertain a number of nuances in terms of their scent profiles, they are, first and foremost, woody. When they arrived to me (I purchased both as samples, and later bought a bottle of Borneo 3000), each vial was housed in a velveteen bag and a little cardboard box, and I’ve kept them that way in a dresser drawer in my bedroom. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I open up the drawer, their woody aroma comes wafting out—from these tiny little sample vials still in their respective boxes! It’s almost as if I’m opening up a cedar chest (even though they don’t smell like cedar).The oils themselves are incredibly viscous: one drop is enough to scent myself for an entire day, sometimes longer, and while they are rather bracing and somewhat medicinal-smelling when first applied, they are not overwhelming unless you continually hold your scented wrist to your nose at this stage (which I do, because I’ve come to enjoy every aspect of their development). Waiting for the mists to part is how I view the ouds during the first thirty minutes of wear time, when their most volatile molecules are knocking around like clouds and taking their sweet time to settle. What will eventually be revealed are scent facets that seem incredibly tender for having surfaced from these thick depths.
Borneo 3000 is overall what I would call a sleek oud. In the first few hours of wear, it's reminiscent of curled up shavings of dried pine left behind on a carpenter’s table, next to a leather work glove. There is a beautiful balance between the wood and the light leather, and then the fragrance starts to sweeten such that the leather facet begins to smell more like a fruited, black tea. Overall, it offers a fine mix of astringent, fruity and caramel-like tones. When I first described it to Igor in an email, I had not noticed a leather note and so cannot say whether or not he perceives one too, but what Igor likes about Borneo 3000 is its “balsamic sweetness, airy woodiness and the high-pitched top notes which come across very clean and almost menthol-like.”
Kyara Koutan is a Burmese oud which you can no longer purchase from Oriscent. These oils are in such limited supplies that the most prized ones sell quickly, which, in this case, is unfortunate for me because it took me a while to discover that Kyara Koutan is actually my favorite of the two oils. At first, I was intimidated by its opening, which is not just medicinal but as throbbing as bass notes boomed out of a car stereo from your favorite punk on the street. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the sweet notes that arise out of it are so bright and clean and floral and lemony, they almost make a person want to cry.
“Thought I should mention to you that KK will change a great deal (and for the better) with time,” Igor wrote when he learned I had purchased this oil, which is one his top three favorites. “If you don’t use up your vial in the next few months or perhaps get more, you’ll find that the bracing top notes recede, the resinous quality in the mid-notes becomes deeper and the sweet drydown is more pronounced against the backdrop of other notes.”
I have no doubt he is right; even with the intimidating opening, I was pretty impressed with Kyara Koutan. Now that I know I can’t purchase anymore of it, it seems doubly good. When I asked Igor about his other top two favorite ouds (Royal Kinam and Burmese Kinam ), he replied: “Unfortunately, you won't find any Royal Kinam at Oriscent any more, it sold out quite a while ago, and as for Burmese Kinam - that one never even made it to the website and was sold in small amounts privately. I wish I could get more of both, but alas, they are now gone and with the latest announcement from Ensar about no more new distillations, we may never get anything even remotely similar again. Sadly, once you step on the [financially] treacherous path of oud exploration, you quickly learn to stock up on the oils you truly love before they are gone forever.”
Hmmm, spoken like a person who’s down deep in the Rabbit Hole.
How is it that the ground is so shaky down here? I wonder. And can anyone tell me which way is out?
Samples of a number of fine oud oils (the pure and genuine article) can be purchased at Oriscent (now Ensar Oud). Be prepared to spend a pretty penny for a small (.5 gram) sample, but take cheer in the fact that this sample could actually last you for many months. One little drop of these precious oud oils is all it takes to enjoy a full-day of glorious, wood-scented wear.
Photo of bottle of Borneo 3000 pure oud oil is from the Ensar Oud website. (NOTE: When I first wrote this post, the company was known as Oriscent, but is now Ensar Oud, and in that time, the very last bottle of Borneo 3000 was sold. It is now only available to purchase from private individuals.)
February 11, 2012:
“There's a huge variety within every general (however loosely defined) genre of oud, let alone between different regions or from different species. One "Cambodian oud" may smell absolutely nothing like another "Cambodian oud", same goes for all others. There's at least two or three general types of Cambodian ouds, so by sampling one you are probably only scratching the surface of the iceberg.”
-- Igor01, Basenotes.net
“To me the woodiness is one of the most attractive aspects of oud experience, be it burning the chips or wearing pure oils. It, together with balsamic and resinous mid notes, provides the bridge connecting oud's vapourous top with its mellow, heavy and dreamy base.”
It’s funny how you can think you’re at the very bottom of the Rabbit Hole—a reasonable conclusion, once you’ve been down there wandering around for so many years—and just when it occurs to you that the logical next step might be to surface again, Surprise! The bottom you thought was the bottom suddenly drops out, and the light you thought you glimpsed at the top of the tunnel is now the pinprick equivalent of a distant star.
That’s what happened to me last November—a precipitous fall into a whole other level of olfactory curiosity that can be summed up in three dangerous words: Artisanal Oud Oils. And when I say dangerous, I mean seriously addictive and expensive, though I suspect their addictive properties might only be conceived as such by a small subset of the perfume community, simply because they smell so
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The above quote is from a gentleman I had the pleasure of “meeting” through my participation in the Oud Caravan project at Basenotes.net, and is taken from one of the discussions there. Igor knows a great deal about ouds and I asked him if I could reference him, because he is so familiar with the two oud oils I purchased (which are not Cambodians) that I thought it would be illuminating to include his descriptions, as well as my own impressions. I also thought I’d use his quote, above, as a lead in to say that this, in a nutshell, is what oud connoisseurs find so attractive about these oils (and not just the oils, but the oud chips that are burned in a censer in the traditional Arabian way). Pure ouds cover a wide gamut on the olfactory spectrum: their scent profiles vary vastly depending on what country the agarwood tree was grown in and how its oil was distilled. As such, ouds collected in some parts of Asia are known to smell quite indolic, whereas those gathered from another country might smell exceedingly green and fruity. Overall though, they should smell woody (oud being the Arabic name for wood), and here I’m going to borrow another one of Igor’s quotes from the Oud Caravan discussion:
Exploring the Pure Oud Oils of Oriscent
(and Sending Out an SOS!)
different from what most Westerners conceive of as perfume. I never imagined myself as someone who would be interested in wearing these oils—when I ordered my samples, it was with the notion of finding out what pure, unadulterated oud smelled like as a raw material—but almost as soon as I began testing them, I came to view ouds not as a building block for other perfumes, but as unique perfumes in and of themselves. I say this having only tried two of them (because for the time being, that is all I can afford), but these two oud oils each offer up what I’ll call a “complete” olfactory experience—a slow unfolding of scent facets that one can hardly guess at when these oils first detonate on the skin with their initial, medicinal blasts—and are so expressively different from one another that I can’t lump them together in my mind and label them “oud,” as if they are interchangeable. They really do smell like two different wood perfumes.