Oud – An Introuduction

I’m thrilled to be a member of the ORS team, and I especially look forward to writing about oud oils and to reviewing some of my favorite scents. I thought I’d start off with a little background information by way of introduction.

“Oud” (in Arabic, “gaharu” in Malay) is commonly distilled from the resinous wood of Aquillaria species that are endemic to the hills and plains of south and south-east Asia.  The precious resin is produced in the heartwood as an immune response to the invasion of a fungus through naturally occurring or artificially produced wounds, possibly assisted by insects. Since ancient times the resin has been said to possess supernatural and psychoactive powers (the psychoactive part I can personally vouch for!). It has been used to banish evil spirits, to aid meditation (scientific research has shown that inhalation of agarwood oil vapor sedates mice) and is a component of Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, and Yunani medical practice. Countries in the Middle East are the largest importers and consumers of oud oils, however the multitude of recently released alcohol based perfumes featuring oud (mainly synthetic, poor approximations of the scent) attest to its rising popularity in the U.S. and Western Europe. The traditional oud oil perfumes, that are used to perfume the body and to scent cloth (be careful if you apply it on clothes- it stains),  can be purchased in pure form (Dehn al Oudh/ Dehen al Oud, literally fat of wood)  or in blends called mukhallats (mixture). Unfortunately the number of reliable sellers with Internet sites is limited.

Agarwood oil is produced using either hydro or steam distillation. How “good” the finished product smells depends on many factors. One is the grade of wood chosen by the distiller, which is defined by how much resin it contains. Because older trees contain the greatest amount of resin, and because “wild” trees generally contain more resin than plantation grown trees, the price of oils distilled from old, wild trees is higher. The expertise of the distiller- how long he soaks the wood (soaking makes extraction of the resin easier), how long it is heated, how carefully the temperature and/or pressure are monitored and controlled, how carefully and completely the collected oil is filtered and the trapped moisture particles are removed, AND weather the oil has been aged in the bottle- also affect the quality and price of the finished product.

In my next post I’d like to discuss the different scents of woods associated with distinct geographic regions, unless a bolt of lightening strikes and I feel utterly compelled to write about something else 🙂 If anyone has specific questions I’ll do my best to answer them in future posts and please feel free to come up with ideas and suggestions.

4 Comments

  1. apsara said,

    February 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Hi,
    in a comment below, I said that I took a few whiffs of Oud perfumes (Montale and another) and I did not like the synthetics in these, just as I dislike any commercial perfume for that reason. What I meant was that these fragrances contained synthetics, like all perfumes do (50-70 percent of the aromas are synthetic, even in high end French perfumes). What I did NOT mean was that they contain a synthetic oudh, because I don’t know that that exists.

    You say “the multitude of recently released alcohol based perfumes featuring oud (mainly synthetic, poor approximations of the scent)”, and I wonder if this could be clarified:
    Maybe there synthetic approximations, maybe there aren’t, there is so much money in this business, who to trust.
    I have a sample of oudh which is shoe polish like and one dimensional, medicinal smelling, which makes my already confused head doubt again whether it could be synthetic after all, despite its price tag.
    In any case, my curiousity about oudh led me to spend half a fortune for tiny amounts in the last year. And I honestly cannot say whether it was worth it for me.

    • apsara said,

      February 28, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      Opps, I’m so sorry, forgive me: I did not mean to say “maybe there are synthetic approximations”, I meant to say “maybe there is synthetic oud” (you used the word approximations – I did not mean to question that).

      This mis-take was due to the oud sample that I had coincidentally received (and was sniffing) when I wrote this. I swore to myself this is the last one I acquire. But it’s like six hours later, the shoe polish has disappeared and only magic remains, I never expected this one to unfold like this (Borneo 3000 from Oriscent).

  2. Marian said,

    February 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks, Mike! One of the first times I tried oud I had what I think must be meant by an “out of body experience”. The effect was so strong I actaully had to lie down. That’s never happened again, even though I’ve applied the same oil, in roughly the same amount, and in similar circumstances many times since then.
    Sometimes aloeswood has the same effect I’ve noticed with good sandalwood oils- slowed pulse, deeper breathing, and a feeling of relaxed calm. I should be more organized and note which oils have this effect and when.
    Some people put a little bit of oud in or underneath each nostril prior to going to bed. I fall asleep easily anyway, so I can’t vouch for oud’s efficacy as a soporific, but it’s really nice to wake up in the morning and have the smell of oud be the first thing that greets my consciousness.

  3. Mike said,

    February 28, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Great first post Marian! I’ve actually wanted to address the idea of aloeswood psychoactivity at some point, I think when some see the word “psychoactive” they start thinking pharmaceutical strength, but I think it’s a lot more subtle than that. I think it’s often a memory thing. I’m wearing an oud today that i haven’t in almost 3 or 4 months and just by doing so its taken me back to the time period I used it last very powerfully.


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