Oud

Oud perfumes have become so popular as to be almost cliches. In my own experience, many contain facets of oud that are quite fascinating, but only part of the whole picture. I've tried many experiments using various substances but they either haven't smelt right or were as expensive as oud itself (osmanthus absolute comes to mind). My only solution, in the end, was to add a lot of oud and not cheap oud (as though there is such a thing) at that. 

While many of you know what oud is, for those of you who don't, the oil is extracted (distilled) from an agarwood tree. Ideally, the agarwood tree should be wild and at least 60 years old. To complicate matters the tree must be attacked by a particular kind of fungus. The fungus turns the wood black and makes it so dense that it sinks. 

Unfortunately, there are very few wild agarwood trees left and much of the oud we encounter has been extracted from cultivated trees. While these cultivated ouds can be quite lovely, they never match the ethereal hypnotic aroma of the wild trees. Discovering an agarwood tree these days (they come from India, Southeast Asia, Borneo, and a few other places I forget) is an event as a single tree can easily be worth six figures. Once a tree is discovered, a trail is hacked to the tree through the jungle with a machete. These trails can be almost 100 miles long. Once the tree is reached, it is felled, and checked for the fungus. (Only about 30% of the trees have the fungus.)  The tree is then cut up into logs and shipped out on people's backs. It is then turned over to the distiller. There are many kinds of stills (copper, stainless steel, etc.), each one imparting its own nuances to the final oil. 

The main problem I have with ouds is my tendency to collect them. Once a sample arrives from one of my favorite suppliers, I'm immediately seduced, especially by the very expensive barnyard-free ouds. Many are available in vintages. (I read somewhere that Mohammed insisted that people spend a third (or abouts) of their income on scent--justification for wild spending.)

While oud is frightfully expensive and those of us who collect it border on financial ruin, I compare it to wine. Forty years ago, when I first started drinking wine seriously, we--my hippie friends and I--could drink old vintages from famous vineyards for not that much money. Now, these same wines appear at Sotheby's, auctioned by phone to buyers from all over the world. The other problem with wine, is that once it is opened, there is only a limited time--a few hours or so--before it turns. A fine wine cannot be recorked and left on the shelf or in the fridge overnight because it will be ruined. (I'm not talking about everyday stuff.)  Oud, on the other hand, can be sniffed without even opening the bottle (even the most hermetic bottles don't seal in its aroma). I expect to have my oud collection for the rest of my days. 

Mentioning my oud collection brings me to one of my favorite notions. Everyone should have an olfactory library. Why not? Most of us have libraries with books and collections of records (or whatever it is we do these days). I get great delight when friends come over not only to smell my own attempts, but to smell the oud collection, sandalwoods, musks, civet, ambergris, various florals, etc. Spending a half an hour or so exploring scent is almost always fascinating to guests.