Sandalwood

When I was a little boy, I found a sandalwood fan my grandmother got in India in the 1920s. It had a special, very dry, and not completely pleasant aroma impossible to describe. The fan has long disappeared. I haven’t smelled or even seen sandalwood—the actual wood—since.

While sandalwood perfumes abound, few of us have knowingly smelled authentic sandalwood oil, which is distilled from the wood. When I smelled the oil for the first time, I was struck by completely different notes I remembered from the fan. Of course, sandalwood smells like wood, but is also so complex as to include almost every aroma category. It has a special greenness that shimmers over a bed of wood. The wood seems lightly coated with a creaminess and a series of delicate floral notes. It also has citrus notes. It is irresistible.

The best sandalwood is said to come from Mysore, in Eastern India. Sadly, the trees were driven almost to extinction and the production of oil is now tightly controlled. Most trees are cultivated as few, if any, of the wild trees remain.

Although there are many suppliers of so-called Mysore sandalwood, most are fakes. This is not to say the oils we can find, from such places as Indonesia and Hawaii, aren’t plenty delicious—they are—but they lack the complexity of authentic Mysore. They’re missing a beautiful medicinal quality I find in the real thing.

Few of us will ever work with or even encounter Mysore sandalwood. Even if we could find it, the price would be exorbitant.

It has taken me many years just to recognize authentic Mysore sandalwood. I have a collection of over 20 examples of sandalwood from around the world and only two convince me they are the real thing. One, from the 1930s, is from a trusted supplier; the other is from an expensive and highly reputable source. Contrastly, two were junk and smelled of rancid oil after about a year. This would seem to indicate that they were adulterated with vegetable oil.

Next, I’m going to work to emulate this glorious substance with naturals and aroma compounds.

Wish me luck.