Today, I’d like to take you inside the world of high-end artisanal oud oils, as glimpsed through the experiences and work of one distiller, Feel Oud. For the men working at this level, whether it is Russian Adam of Feel Oud, Ensar Oud, or Agar Aura, oud is more than a mere scent they enjoy; it’s a life-changing passion and labour of love. It’s blood, sweat, tears, long hours, attention to every microscopic detail, high cost, tropical jungles, and the need to possess both the vision and the soul of an artist.
I’m not what is called an “Oud Head” and my knowledge of this rarefied, specialist world was limited before I tried the Feel Oud line, but what has struck me — nay, completely fascinated and obsessed me — is the sheer degree of work that is involved in obtaining just small quantities of oud oil. The sourcing of high-grade raw materials, its various stages of preparation, the incredibly laborious process of distillation, these are all things which are probably unknown to the average Western fragrance user outside of the hardcore Oud circles, but what an utterly mesmerizing world it is!
So, today, I want to bring you into that world with a look at agarwood as a raw material, the sourcing and quality issues faced by distillers, and then the many technical parts involved in the actual process of distilling top-quality agarwood in order to bring out the maximum degree of nuance, aroma, and body in the luxurious oils which are created. At the end of the post, I’ll tell you about a sample set. Then, next time, in Part II, I’ll provide mini-reviews for a handful of Feel Oud oud oils and one sandalwood one.
INTRODUCTION — “RUSSIAN ADAM” AND HIS STORY:
The man behind Feel Oud is known as “Russian Adam,” and his story is an interesting one. He was studying in Australia when he discovered Islam and converted. When he moved to London to pursue a master’s degree in business management, he started to attend mosques where he was introduced to Arabic style fragrances. He found most of them to be unpleasantly synthetic, including a scent that he was told was “the most expensive one.” It was an oud, and Adam told me that he initially thought it was “disgusting.” But, as he explained to me:
That contradiction kept bothering me and I kept smelling it until I got completely addicted to that intense, animalic and psychoactive scent. I could not like any other scent anymore as much as I was loving my ouds. So I started buying all sorts of ouds but was never pleased completely. Then one of my friends told me that if I want something really good I must contact distillers and ask them to make special oil for me.
Adam began collecting, studying, and collecting many different bespoke oud oils made from higher quality raw materials especially for him , but he was never happy with them, either, and concluded that “only the way to get exactly what you want is to do it with your own hands.” So, that is what he did: he packed up his bags and actually moved to Thailand! There, he had the fortune to meet a fellow oud-loving Russian, Ali, who became his business partner in the Feel Oud brand which they started three years ago.
AGARWOOD AS A RAW MATERIAL:
Before I get into the details of what Russian Adam does, I think it may be helpful to have a bit of background on agarwood for those who aren’t deeply familiar with it as a raw material. In the West, we’re accustomed to the word “oud” being bandied about in everything from super luxury fragrances to candles to mall scents from Bath & Body Works. (B&BW claims its “Twilight Woods” includes “oud wood” as one of its notes. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you.) So-called “oud” is everywhere, but how many of you have encountered the real thing?
If your exposure comes from what masquerades in most Montale or Tom Ford stuff (and even in some Roja Dove or Amouage fragrances), then you’ve probably tried something else because it’s unlikely to be genuine or top-grade agarwood. Most Western scents use a mix of synthetics in cypriol oil. You have to go Indie or Artisanal to try the real thing — and one of the reasons why is the rarity of true agarwood, and the sheer cost involved as a result. Genuine agarwood with its “noble rot” is rapidly becoming the 21st century equivalent of late 1980s/early 1990s Mysore sandalwood: it’s being wiped out by demand. Everyone from the Saudis to the Chinese are obsessed with it, with the pricing rising astronomically as a result. In fact, for many wealthy Chinese, burning agarwood chips or collecting big chunks to have carved into sculptures or be admired as objets d’art is the new status symbol, albeit with one with ancient cultural roots. For others, however, genuine, top-quality agarwood is valued because it bears a meditative olfactory significance, as instantly emotive as incense upon first whiff.
In short, this is not the sort of stuff that you’re likely to find even in luxury fragrance brands, but you will find it in ultra-specialized artisans who live, breathe, and transform their lives for the sake of oud. Like Adam. People like him go to the East, settling in countries like Thailand, and then traverse the region to form connections with the best wood sellers, many of who go into the heart of the jungles of Borneo, Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, or the like, obtaining rights to buy the woody equivalent of gold in order to sell to specialist distillers like Feel Oud.
Russian Adam uses a variety of woods ranging from the sustainable, organic kind to trees found in the wild, but the latter are becoming harder to purchase at affordable prices. At one point, Russian Adam lived in Borneo, Malaysia, and good-quality wild agarwood was easy to obtain but, only a year later, prices skyrocketed. Adam told me via email that:
Sourcing wild agarwood is tricky. However, it’s like a chef sourcing the best food for his dishes. Not neccessary for him to hunt or slaughter animals. Yet he must have a clear vision in his mind, connections to source fresh high quality ingredients, and the ability to examine the raw food to select only what will suit his target and provide the best possible experience to his customers.
Sourcing is one issue, but quality is an equally significant consideration. In order to obtain high-quality oud oil, one must distill high-quality agarwood but Adam explained that these are typically used only for burning (like incense). The sort of mass-produced oud oil that is easily available worldwide rarely comes in its pure form and is generally diluted, in addition to being produced from low quality/oil grade agarwood. Adam said such woods cost only $5-$10 per kilogram and yield 0.3 to 1ml of oil per kg.
In contrast, however, the high quality/incense grade agarwood which most people save for burning starts at $500 a kilogram in price, and shoots up from there. This is the type of wood used by Feel Oud for its Supreme Wild range of oils. It must be examined for its authenticity and, then, whether it’s suitable for making oil. It may yield no oil, as little as 1ml in some cases, or may sometimes generate as much as 10ml (which still isn’t a lot if you ask me). Adam said this specific grade of high-end, incense-quality wild agarwood is becoming harder and harder to obtain, and its cost is rising every month as well.
Like grapes used to make wine, the distilled essence of each tree reflects its terroir, a special mix of environment factors ranging from soil, earth, water, and other attributes, all resulting in a rather particular aroma. So, an agarwood tree in Borneo may not smell the same as one in India or Burma. From my own experience, I can tell you that Hindi oud does not resemble a Laos sort, and that’s quite separate from the issue of age. (I find youthful Hindi agarwood to smell absolutely brutal on my skin in its smoky, tar, and rawhide rawness, although I confess that I’m not particularly keen on Indian oud of any age.)
The age of an agarwood tree also influences the scent and nuances of its distilled oil, much like young versus old Mysore sandalwood oil, but neither age nor terroir/location are the only factors that play a role in how an oud oil smells: there is also the methods of treatment and distillation. Think of it like cooking: it doesn’t matter how expensive your protein or produce may be if you nuke it in the microwave or just cook it to death on the stove. How you cook something matters. And it’s the same with oud.
When he first contacted me last year, Russian Adam said something that may be eye-opening to those of you who struggle with the barnyard or burnt rubber aromas in certain real ouds, and it is all to do with the “cooking,” so to speak, or the process of distillation. He said:
As you probably know 99% of oud used in designer and niche fragrances is synthetic. Those few who choose to use original, pure oud are often forced to buy those stinky, barnyard, burned rubber smelling oils because that is how most distillers produce it. Most distillers use very low grade agarwood for making oil. Most are concerned only with profit, so they try to squeeze this low grade agarwood to get as much oil as they can. Often agarwood is soaked in water for month prior distillation in order to make it softer and increase yield. It is done in extremely unhygienic environment which results in bacteria growth and fermentation. This brings barnyard, dirty aroma in to the oil. Also very high pressure and temperature used which results in a burned rubber smell. Not to mention that low grade agarwood does not give out a nice smell as it contains very little of aroma oils and resin. So all those unpleasant notes that agarwood or oud oil is known for actually have nothing to do with agarwood itself. Instead it is a result of nearly white, uninfected wood distilled badly and harshly to be sold as “pure oud oil.”
Russian Adam gave an interview to Fragrantica where he talked about some of the big company methods versus his own during a perfume fair show in Dubai. There, Adam presented examples of “oil from oud wood soaked in water for a week, oil from oud wood soaked in water for a month, and oil distilled from dry wood, without preliminary soaking,” explaining:
“These are typical oud oils from the factory I cooperate with. Such oils are produced regularly, in sufficient big volumes[.]” […] In general, the old school traditional approach is that oud powder is necessary to be soaked in the water; it is believed that wood soaking before distillation increases the yield of oil from the wood, and also gives oud oil a stronger and lasting smell.
There is some truth in this, but there are drawbacks in this approach. Because not only the time of soaking is important, but also how to soak oud powder in water and the quality of the water. It often happens that the wood is simply put in water and forgotten for a month…or three – there is already a fungus growing, mold, bacteria, the unpleasant odor appears, which some types of oud oil are known for – and when distillation ends, then the most unpleasant smell appears.
[Adam:] “We decided to introduce our new innovative methods to the traditional distillation. For example, we could soak oud wood in a hot water of a certain temperature, or I also can soak it a few times in the refrigerator. We generally like to experiment with technology – for example, we agitate wooden sawdust in the water daily, we change the water daily so that the wood becomes softer, but no bad smell appears – so new interesting nuances appear in the oud smell. The amount of water can be more or less; the water could be more or less clean – it also affects the smell,” Adam continued.
HOW AN ARTISAN PREPARES, PROCESSES, & DISTILLS EXPENSIVE AGARWOOD — FROM START TO FINISH (+ VIDEOS):
Terroir, tree age, water, science, and a little alchemy play their roles, but there is also a whole lot of hard work involved in the finished product as well. What fascinates me the most about distillers like Ensar Oud, Agar Aura, or Russian Adam is the depth of the work, how hands-on it is, and how laborious. In the case of Russian Adam, I’ve shared some videos below which show just how much he gets hands dirty, from start to scratch, sometimes literally up to his elbows in vats of soaked oud chips, some of which cost a fortune. And all of this monumental amount of work sometimes produces only a few precious drops of oil. It’s really rather crazy when you think about it, but that’s the thing about these top-end oud distillers: it’s a labour of love; it is the beauty and their passion for oud which drives them and which makes everything worth the effort.
By the way, when I talk about monumental amount of work for sometimes just a few precious drops, I’m not being hyperbolic. In the case of Feel Oud, the partners’ first distillation involved wild Thai agarwood chips purchased from one of Adam’s distiller friends. I can tell you from my own, one-time experience with distilling essences during the AbdesSalaam Attar perfume seminar that it is a laborious process which requires constant supervision, sometimes every 15 minutes at the start. And that was merely for inexpensive cypress, not costly agarwood. Russian Adam underwent sleepless nights for several days as he watched over his first distillation, and the result was an oud oil called Ketsani. Out of 500 grams of raw agarwood, he managed to extract roughly 2ml. A mere 2 ml of oil! That’s perhaps a hair more than 2 Luckyscent sample or echantillon fragrance vials. And the retail value of that 500 grams of source material? Today, it would be roughly $750-$1000.
A huge amount of time and work is involved simply in preparing the oud chips to go through this eventual distillation process because one of the key steps that releases the greatest range or nuance of aromas from deep within the wood is the soaking stage. On his website, Russian Adam explains some of the steps involved in the pre-distillation preparation of one of the Royal Grade oils, Nayouf (and there is an accompanying video which I’ve posted below that you can look at later as well if you’re interested):
Soaking prior to distillation can make an oud oil shine like the sun above the desert or it can bring a shadowy, moonlight look to it. Experimenting with soaking is one of the stages in cooking we enjoy the most, however it can also be quite tricky. The amount of water added, type of water, the way the wood is treated while its soaking, and the material of soaking pots is all done with extensive care to highly impact, enrich and transform the final scent profile of the future oil.
We have not only introduced a few new materials for soaking, (such as teak wood that opens up a whole new spectrum of fragrance notes) we’ve also started to combine them in order to achieve an even greater depth and complexity. Imagine not only copper distilled oud oil, but oud soaked in a vintage, handmade copper vase, then a handmade, traditional Thai teak wood bucket and then finally soaked in an antique clay jug. Those pieces of art were used to soak our favourite and finest, incense grade, wild harvested Kao Yai agarwood.
The water we used came from a drinkable, virgin hot spring. The soaking process itself brought us some quite amazing results. It was an outstanding experience to daily supervise each container. By the end I couldnít believe that it’s the same wood we originally put in there to soak. The one in the clay pot has some sweet, rich and earthy notes coming into it. The wood in the teak bucket transformed into a resinous, funky, and woody gaharu cocktail. The smallest sized dust that we placed into the copper vintage vase has a simply amazing aroma that my friend associates with the finest French perfume. I was extremely excited thinking of the diffusion that was to take place once we blended all of that soaked beauty in our copper pot for cooking.
Russian Adam sometimes goes a step further, like for his Super Global KL oud oil, by employing an unusual cold soaking and refrigeration technique. As he explained to me in an email:
Cold soaking opened up a whole new chapter. Usually, oud is soaked and fermentation takes place which entails funky notes, increase barnyard and dirty aroma. However, in cold temperature, bacteria does not grow as fast and the true scent of agarwood is preserved, while the wood becoming softer makes it possible to extract the deeper, hidden aroma molecules from within the hard agarwood spores.
Please feel free to skip over the remainder of this section if you lack the time, but I thought a number of you might be interested in having a visual and virtual ring-side seat, so to speak, at the preparation and production of top-grade oud distillations, done by an artisan working with his hands and dedicated to creating something authentic, high-grade, and multi-faceted, something he’s put his whole heart and life into, with a result that is furthest cry from the alleged “oud” that you find in the fragrances of big Western conglomerates as well as in many supposedly luxury niche brands. This is agarwood individually prepared from the hand-cutting to the hand-blending to the hand-tweaking of tubes on the distillation apparatus. THIS is real oud. (All videos from Feel Oud’s YouTube channel and website.)
Selecting the best of the best chips for oud oil that is so high quality, it’s actually food grade if one should so wish to indulge. The video above and below are for one of the Royal grade oud oils called Nayouff:
Feel Oud demonstrating the careful, hand processing of the soaked wood chips in the pre-distillation preparation of the Royal Grade Nayouff:
Video (below) demonstrating the process of hand-mixing the soaked chips for one of the latest Feel Oud oil, Ta-Bu Mi-Tang, a mix of wild agarwood from South Thailand and Burma, and then, later, the actual distillation process:
Travel to the tropical, Asian jungles and see how pure, high-quality oud is made in this beautiful video that is as much a travelogue love poem to wild nature as it is a visual account of agarwood distillation. Really lovely (but, good heavens, those birds in the background are loud!):
FEEL OUD BRAND OVERVIEW, OUD CATEGORIES & PRODUCTS:
Feel Oud offers five different categories of oud oil, at graduated levels, with each level depending on the quality and rarity of the agarwood used. Below are the categories accompanied by quoted snippets of the official descriptions for each grade:
Royal Oud Oil: Basically, these oils come from the Rolls-Royce of rare agarwood trees. Feel Oud states: “You are looking at the HIGHEST quality agarwood oils ever produced by Feel Oud. These aged oils are distilled from extremely rare agarwood of exceptional quality.” I was not provided with samples of any of these and, judging by the price, that is completely understandable. I wouldn’t have given me samples, either, because this is really one of those extravagant luxuries that is best suited to a true, hardcore Oud Head. As for the price… well, to paraphrase the old saying: “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Thankfully, things are much less in the nose-bleed section from here on out.
Supreme Wild Oud Oil: Feel Oud explains that the oils here are from top grade, purely wild agarwood trees, but they aren’t quite as exceptional, rare, and aged. He adds: “Oils in this category are produced from rare and superior raw materials. The agarwood chips used for making these oils are typically sold only as incense, for fumigation. Due to its rarity and high cost, this type of agarwood is rarely used for making oud. Feel Oud, however, offers you such oils, as they provide a supreme experience that is far beyond what wild and organic oud oils can impart.”
Wild Oud Oil: The trees here are, once again, found in the wild, rather than cultivated on a plantation, but they’re one step below in quality. The distilled oils are described as: “pure agarwood oil of a wild origin, from all around the globe. The unique combination of traditional and modern, revolutionary methods, careful selection of raw materials, attention to detail and love for what we do enables us to bring wild agarwood oils to another level.”
- Organic Oud Oil: Basically, organic oud “derived from sustainable sources.” I think, although I may be mistaken, that the agarwood trees might be cultivated via plantations, rather than being found growing in the depths of some jungle in Borneo or Sumatra, but that is merely my impression.
- Oud Oil Blends: this category is basically Oud+ or Oud mixed with something else. Feel Oud states: “finest oud oil blends […] are composed using traditional methods of co-distillation and infusion. Whether it is durian, coconut or sandalwood, all of our ingredients are natural and provide the wearer with an amazing experience co-distilled.”
The brand’s primary focus may be on ouds, but it also offers two other things. The first is top-grade oud chips for burning. The second is far more significant in my eyes: sandal distilled oils, many of which come from the roots of ancient sandalwood trees of a variety that we typically associate with Mysore sandalwood. In reality, the Santalum Album genus is also found outside of its well-known Indian habitat, like in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula.
Russian Adam’s sandalwood oils are frequently distilled from the roots of old Santalum Album trees, using a mix of traditional methods with modern ones in order to bring out new facets. And this is where I start to feel badly for writing about something that is not available. I received a beautiful bottle of his top-of-the-line Feel Sandal, and it’s very good indeed, as I’ll talk about in Part II, but it sold out within days. In fact, all three of Feel Oud’s subsequent Sandal oils also sold out extremely quickly.
It’s not too surprising. For one thing, these are top-grade, authentic Mysore oils that one can’t find even in a luxury niche brand in the West. For another, people really love sandalwood. And, finally, when one is talking about an indie, artisanal brand done all by hand from truly rare materials, quantities will obviously be limited. Nevertheless, I think reviewing something like his Feel Sandal will benefit those who bought it, as well as give you an idea of what future sandalwood oils may be like.
The good news, as I’ll explain further in Part II, is that Feel Oud will be releasing two new sandal oils in the next few weeks. So, sandalwood addicts may want to keep their eyes peeled.
PRICING, SAMPLES & OTHER MATTERS:
One of my many hopes with this two-part series is to interest you in exploring artisanal oud oils, and some of you will probably be inspired to check out the site even before Part II discusses the various scent profiles of the oils. Consequently, I think it’s worth talking a bit about pricing here and now, particularly after such a detailed discussion of how much work is involved in creating these oils from start to finish.
The price of Feel Oud oils is obviously impacted by the nature of the agarwood market and the sometimes minute quantities that are distilled from wood which can sometimes cost a fortune. While the three oils in Royal line are obviously not cheap, the others are more affordable with starting prices of $40, $60, $70, $90, $150, $250, and up for a 1 gram bottle. With these oils, just like with top-quality attars, a few drops can go a long, long way, and you really get what you pay for.
One thing that I want to stress is that I really think the market dictates the pricing, and I perceive zero greed or ridiculously inflationary schemes at play. If an oil is listed as $40, $70, or even, in one extremely rare instance, $5000 for a 1 gram bottle, it’s because that is almost entirely the cost of production involved in making it, not an attempt to pad the price. Everything I’ve seen in Russian Adam demonstrates a man driven by genuine love, passion, and a sense of artistry, not a desire to become the Roja Dove of oud.
And he was amazingly candid with me about why some things are priced the way that they are. Take, for example, the Wahid, the top of the top of the Royal line, that costs $5000 for 1 gram bottle or $500 for a 0.1 vial. To produce Wahid, Russian Adam spent $5000 on 5 kilograms of “sinking agarwood” from nearly extinct wild trees from Laos, Burma and Malaysia. That $5000-worth of material yielded a mere 1.5 grams of oil. That’s it. So, basically, there is only 1 bottle of Wahid on the planet, priced at cost. Adam ruefully told me that he didn’t expect a single soul to be interested in buying it, but he loved the experience of making it. [Correction: Russian Adam said he’d been gifted the agarwood by a wealthy friend with the understanding that he’d pay back the cost or value if the bottle sold. I suppose you might consider it was a loan of sorts. I must have misunderstood his early comments regarding Wahid, and I apologise for the confusion.]
While you get what you pay for, there is no denying that consumers are justifiably a little nervous about shelling out even $60 totally blind for something like a small bottle of distilled oil, particularly given the range of aromas that agarwood can manifest. So, I spoke to Russian Adam about the benefits to consumers and, more importantly, to you, my readers, of having a sample set, and he cheerfully agreed to offer one. (He’s an incredibly nice chap, by the way.)
So, for those of you who love oud too much to wait for Part II and have been intrigued by the distillation discussion, Feel Oud now has a small Discovery Set for $50:
Our Discovery Sample Set contains 5 random oils (based on availability) approximately 0.2 gram of each…
1 oil from Supreme Wild Oud category
1 oil from Wild Oud category
2 of Organic Ouds and
1 Oud blend/infusion.
Discovery Sample Sets may take a bit of time to prepare and will be shipped after 20th of July.
Shipping is not included. The cheapest method (which is not always the safest) is via Air Mail and costs $15. So, the total price of the discovery set with the lowest level of shipping is $65.
The vials will be small, so be prepared for that. There will probably be about 3 drops in each, judging by what I received, but, if you use the paperclip method that I’ve outlined in the past for the Sultan Pasha attars, you could easily manage two good tests per fragrance. To give you a sense of the size of the vials that you might receive, I’ve shared a photo of some of the ones sent to me, but please be aware that the quantity levels for many of them are post-testing and that there is weirdness at the top of one vial because I think it probably flipped upside down while being stored over the last 7 months.
The bottom-line, though, is that I think these ouds are definitely worth sampling if you have any interest in the genre, because it’s a whole other world from what you may have been exposed to previously.
I hope my scent analysis in Part II for some of the oils will demonstrate that, although I have to tell you up front that, unfortunately, most of the oils that I received are sold out and/or no longer available. Still, what I hope to convey with the reviews is just how perfumed, multi-faceted, complex, and smooth the oils are, particularly the Supreme Wild Oils, some of which really made me do a double-take. Oh lordie, one of them stopped me dead in my tracks during its third hour and I simply stood in the middle of a supermarket sniffing my arm with a rather dazed, euphoric look in my eye. Another one had maybe 20 different tonalities and nuances in its opening minutes, ranging from chocolate to boozy bourbon, vanilla, incense, vetiver-ish peat, and sexy oud funk. And a third smelt like my new obsession in life, the gloriously raging peat and smoke-laden Islay single malt scotch called Ardbeg, layered with leather and so much more. (Also, the sandalwood oil blew Amouage’s much-beloved Sandal attar out of the water, so it’s not just the ouds that are great.)
In short, these are not mere one-dimensional, basic oils; they’re an entire perfume in a bottle that evolves on your skin, and a lot of arduous work has gone into ensuring that. If all you’ve been accustomed to up to now are Western “ouds,” then the Feel Oud oils might surprise you quite a bit. Next time, in Part II, you’ll see why.
Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of Russian Adam of Feel Oud. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.