I was inspired to really delve my nose into agarwood oils, and I figured it was only a matter of time until I’d do so. Anyone interested in perfume, professionally or as a hobbyist, realises quickly that a rose isn’t just rose – just as an addition of incense or amber in one work is never the same when compared against others. Take my comparison of ambers in my post on Ambre Sultan: some are austere and grand, some are narcotic and boozy, and some others are plush and cashmere-like.
This blueprint for comparison can be borrowed rather easily. Like wine, the preparations before an oud can be found within a completed work (be it perfume, an attar, or by itself in dense oil form) all alter the final product. Like comparing pinot noir wines separated only by tiny levels of distance, the difference is recognised immediately. The backbone that makes a pinot noir a unique product in itself is there – but the overall impression of difference is a result of the before: where it was grown, weather conditions, and all the rest. The same principle applies to agarwood and all of its unique variations.
When speaking this way, I remind myself of Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit and its application of daffodils. When it was originally created, Vol de Nuit used an extraordinary daffodil absolute, however due to a rather fierce winter, all the bulbs were killed. Nature and its unpredictable temperament indubitably effects the end product.
I appreciate the difficulty of talking about oud, and within other comparisons of oud, discussion of its smell is often omitted in favour of approximation rather than exactitude. However, it is important to draw comparison wherever comparison can be drawn with parallels drawn to that which is most appropriately accurate. …And as a personal criticism, the -ey suffix is not a sufficient tool as a descriptor, ever.
Image from Grandawood
I will not bother offering a history of oud, nor how it is cultivated, as that will go beyond the scope of this comparison. I will however offer the following links on the history and process of agarwood: 1, 2, 3.
Evergreen Superior: Evergreen Superior is what I expected initially from this exercise. With its camphoraceous breeze moved with raw, vegetal honey all underneath a strong current of burning tyre and an opening note of cheese and barnyard- this is an oud with a strong shading of black, warm cinnamon-coloured reds, and forest greens. Find impressions of strong, bold, and tannic red wine: like a meaty Malbec, or a ‘black pepper and seared steak’ Shiraz wine from Australia, then a cedar and herbal driven red vemouth offset by fortified sweetness. What I find most interesting is the note of freshly washed skin, scrubbed with an ivory bar of soap.
Wild Taran: Wild Taran amps up the funk by the way of an unmistakable impression of patchouli and a hint of sticky ‘matchstick’ galbanum. The most intensely woody oud of the set, Wild Taran is a woody oud stirred with ripe fruit and crushed nondescript flowers, somewhere between olive oil and chamomile. Warm, marvellously woody, with a briny characteristic that is definitely an intriguing extraction of agarwood.
Kalimantan: With great resemblance to Wild Taran, Kalimantan is immediately smoother in both its woody profile and the way it is perceived overall on the nose. Kalimantan is a malted oud, with pleasant mellow echoes redolent of a soft Islay single malt Scotch. Notes of banana skin, blackberries, and orange zest offer sufficient departure from the woodiness of Wild Taran.
Wild Merauke: With its opening of warm sodden socks, new shoebox, and burning woods, Wild Merauke is a leathery oud reminiscent of dank overgrowth, all underpinned with that glorious expected note of austere oud which then mellows and tempers as it lives on the skin, transforming into a worn-in leather with echoes of fig leaf, dried dates, tomato stem, bitter florality, and toasted legumes. A challenging, albeit rewarding wear.
Dark Wild Merauke: An intense umami hit of pepper, leather, rubber, roasted red meats, and a suggestion of salty vegemite – this variant is a calm oud, with a pleasantly vertical static quality: like standing still and letting the busy world go by. A soft, solitary, and masculine oud – with a concentrated intensity. Delightfully reflective, moving onto notes of cut grass and green meeting black.
Supreme Borneo: An absolute delight, this oud maintains an incredibly pleasant profile of luscious berries and similar. Blackberries, sweet green grapes, warm patchouli crossed with dark chocolate, and more dried fruits with a combination of arid, vintage spices: clove, allspice, cinnamon. Overall a delightful impression of sticky sweet jams with minimal oud funk and sprinklings of leather, camphor, and old varnished wood furniture. A considerably beautiful extraction of the note.
Floral Superior: Despite the floral labelling, this is not a delicate floral perfume – this is an oud with floral nuances. With a glaring opening of smoked meat, waxy honeycomb and bacon – what is then found is a whisper of powder, intense notes of heady cut grass, sticky hyacinth, a suggestion of jasmine and jonquil, and a herbal breeze tinged with astringent daffodil.
Sweet Herbal Spice: Immediately what strikes me is how much this variant smells of Tawny Port. With a delicious warm spice accord redolent of baked desserts loaded with aromatic spices, I am surprisingly reminded of baked apples with their subtle sweetness. Beyond this, this variant is immediately pleasant on the nose which moves in the direction of sweet tobacco, moreish ambers, and boozy fruits… With a hint of something that reminds me of tuberose’s bubblegummy sweetness and cedar’s woody freshness.
Image from Grandawood
It becomes clear from comparison that the oud note within commerical perfume is a fantasy take on the note. But, fantasy is good. Within the oud vibration, there are unpleasantries. The beauty of a synthetic oud (whether used totally or in addition) allows for mesmerising ideas of oud to be achieved. The spiritual purity backed with woods in Tom Ford’s Oud Wood, the liturgical haunt of Interlude Man by Amouage, or even the crisp freshness through continual construction within YSL’s M7 or Amouage’s excellent Epic Man, where the oud is built on, and built on, and built on by the way of spice, citrus, and resins.
Real oud within this format allows the single oil to expand as a multidimensional perfume in itself, and offers an impressive point of reference as the standard used in comparison.