The scents of oud oils can loosely be categorized according to geographic region. There is, however, some crossover, and it’s important to recognize that the scent of oils don’t strictly respect artificial boundaries or political borders .
The first oud I purchased was from Borneo and I think it was a good choice for my introductory experience. Borneo oils are amongst the lightest, airiest and most ethereal of ouds. They have terpenoid top notes that have been compared to camphor, mint, acetone, magic marker, turpentine, lacquer thinner, etc. This high, whistle-y note is typical of Borneo oils and is one of their most distinguishing characteristics. The effusive, light sweetness of these oils is sometimes described as “floral”. Although I think that description is slightly misleading, their sweet and piercing topnote is vaguely reminiscent of the indolic nature of some flowers, or the mintiness of tuberose. Borneo ouds have a clear, woody drydown. One of my favorite ouds from this region is Oriscent’s Borneo 3000. Its clean crispness is typical of Borneo oils.
Oils from Malinau, in northern Indonesia, boast hints of sweet vanilla, cool melon, apple, tangerine and gentle spices. One of the finest examples is AgarAura’s Malinau. The complexity of notes adds depth, interest, substance and weight to the Borneo profile.
The brightness and clarity of Borneo and Northern Indonesia oils amplify their happy and uplifting spirit. Because of their sunny and breezy disposition the season with which I associate them is Spring.
Indonesian oils from Merauke also start out with a clear, vaporous topnote but their midrange and basenotes are herbal, dry, mossy and earthy. Notes of mushrooms and patchouli are clearly distinguishable; some exhibit salty and metallic notes. The cool dryness of Merauke oils is refreshing, however their earthiness adds a grounded and unrefined element to their character. Some people have said that Merauke oils that are distilled from Aquilaria filarial (such as Oriscent’s old Oud Royale) are closest to the smell of burning agarwood. Uns Fine Craft’s “Maroke” is an example, though it is no longer available.
Once again a (more subtle) clear and vapory top note greets the nose on sniffing oils from Irian Jaya in West Papua, Indonesia. This time that note is mixed with an ample sprinkling of white pepper, cloves and nutmeg. Some Irian Jaya oils have a resinous, pine-y mossiness that is reminiscent of a cross between patchouli and oakmoss. They exhibit balsamic, musty, muddy and damp notes in the base. Uns’ Irian Jaya oil (sold out) is representative of this group of oils. I associate Merauke and Irian Jaya oils with summer because of their herbal and earthy herbaceousness.
Peninsular Malaysian oils smell slightly turpy and sweet, are enlivened with a pinch of feisty cinnamon, and remind me of the smell of old, dark and damp basements. A classic example is Oudline’s well priced ML-OL-SRN- Super. I like its faintly musty smell that, to me, feels cozy and warm. In worst cases these oils may exhibit strong, swampy notes of decaying vegetation. East Malaysian oils smell sweet, thick and resinous and have a delicious, woody drydown. One such example is Oriscent’s Malay Royale. These “Borneo Maylay” oils (for example those from the states of Sabah and Sarawak), smell very similar to oils from Indonesia.
Ouds from Cambodia are amongst my favorites. They are very accessible to the Western palate, and their complexity and curvilinear development add to their wide appeal. Some of the notes I associate with Cambodian oils are figs, prunes, plums, liqueur, berries, jam, caramel, tobacco, cinnamon and vanilla. The drydown of Cambodian oils is sweet, gently spicy and woody. Oils from this region smell deep, warm, rich and sensuous- they are truly jewel-toned. A mouthwatering and affordable Cambodian oil is Oudimentary’s KSSS. In appearance and texture it exhibits the thick and gummy stickiness common to some of the finest Cambodian oils. I associate these oils with Autumn because they are bursting with richness and ripeness.
Laotian ouds can smell very fecal and barnyard-y. Because of their strength and reckless character I personally prefer them in blends, however there are some people who think their “energy” is unparalleled when it comes to using ouds for meditation. One very surprising aspect of Laotian oils is that although they start out smelling very raucous and unsavoury they have an unexpectedly sweet dry down. It’s hard to believe that these oils, after an hour on the skin, are the same oil that smelled so funky right out of the bottle. A large selection of Laotian ouds can be found on the Enfleurage website.
Hindi ouds from Assam are amongst the most beloved and respected of Dehn al Oudhs, especially in the Middle East. Because so many of the wild trees were cut down and are now protected by CITES, today most oils are distilled from plantation trees. The scents that predominate in Assam ouds are the healthy barnyard scent of new mown hay, the animalic lustiness of leather and the campfire-memory-generating smokiness of smoldering wood. Some ooze with the juicy note of succulent plums (Areej’s Hindi Manipouri); others exhibit more primal notes that only the most confident and daring would feel comfortable wearing in public (Oriscent’s Mostafa). An Indian oud that exhibits the stature, dignity and wholesomeness for which these oils are revered yet is still eminently wearable is Oudhasi’s Assam Flora. Because these ouds can smell aloof and imposing they remind me of winter.
I’ve only smelled one pure oud from China- Oriscent’s Chinese Exclusive. It gets the award for “rudest oud”. Anyone who loves the smell of ripe cheese and humus should definitely give it a go!
These descriptions are not exhaustive and not every oud is going to conform to these general profiles. They’re a start, though, in figuring out which oils might appeal to you. I strongly recommend purchasing samples, if they’re available. It’s taken me a long time to accept that we don’t all perceive smells the same way, and that basing a purchase decision on another person’s description isn’t really a substitute for sniffing an oil with your own nose on your own skin.
I hope your exploration of oud oils is an exciting and rewarding adventure. Onward and oudward!