The Great Cambodian Experiment: XI
As you’re about to enter his home, on your left, you’ll see Mr. Nhek’s well. Round, poured of cement, and very deep, with a cracked up plastic bucket tied to a rope resting on the rim on top. I’ve been down the streets of Koh Kong City many times, through the back alleys and hotel mainways, and he’s the only man with a well out on the sidewalk leading to his house’s front gate.
You can’t help but wonder why Mr. Nhek’s well is more famous than you’d think a well could be until you’ve spent some years traveling across Cambodia. To veteran distillers as far away as Koh Kong and Kampong Speu – even as far as Kuala Lumpur – Mr. Nhek’s well isn’t just a pit in the ground. To them it’s the very emblem of classic Oud Cambodi.
“Listen: Forget about your old Cambodi. You can’t make it without Nhek’s water. It’s the secret behind all the great Cambodian ouds. But today, even if you got some buckets of Nhek’s water, there’s no one around to help you distill anything.” Advice I’ve heard time and again, but never fully appreciated until now.
As his distillation pots and the pots of others around the province are now home to spiders and their prey, today Mr. Nhek and his family use the well water for their food, their washing and cleaning. It’s been years since it’s drowned and bubbled up a batch of agarwood dust.
But why all the hype about water?
There are a number of things that come into play in chiseling the ‘profile’ of each oud oil, not the least of which is your water. The mineral content of the water you use during distillation has a spectacular effect on the oil. Distil an Indian oil in Evian drinking water and you might just end up with Oud Yusuf, as we’ve done with ouds like Assam Sur Fleur.
But water is only one out of a dozen factors. The material the pot is made of plays a major role, as does the soak. What the drums you soak in are made of matters, too, as do the ducts inside the boilers. And don’t forget the condenser. You might distil 100-year-old Bhutan raw materials in copper with zero soak and get a rosy Oud oil, yet if you soak them for two weeks and cook in steel the oil will smell more like champaca and tuberose.
You might soak in Evian for a week and cook in groundwater; or soak in groundwater for a month and cook in Evian. You might soak in Evian for two weeks then re-soak in groundwater for another two weeks; or soak in groundwater for a week followed by a three-week Evian soak. You might soak in plastic or in clay or in ceramic. You might cook in copper or in stainless steel or in glass. The variables are many, and the ways you can combine them virtually endless….
To recapture the vintage pure bred Cambodis from twenty years ago you have to get everything right down to the tee, the way old timers used to do it. This meant that for the water we had to go all Nhek, from the soak through to the cooking. But it was way easier said than done! I couldn’t have imagined the effort and expense it took to make it happen.
Our distillery is in Thailand, about an hours’ drive from the Cambodian border. In addition to two customs clearances, you have to answer to four police checkpoints on the way back. “It’s just water” should ideally suffice as an explanation, if only it were that simple. You might get away with telling the officers that you’re bringing the water to your aunt who needs it for her shower because of the water’s special mineral content. Only, when the same guards stop you a second time, a third time, a fourth time, a fifth, they’ll start to wonder about this aunt of yours. So we had to budge, and like with any good old broken down bureaucracy and underpaid law enforcement staff, telling the truth about the blue tank filled with close to one ton of red-brown liquid didn’t make things less of an ordeal.
The way it goes in the oud business is that you can’t trust anybody, not even to fill a tank of water. It’s very easy to tell you that we got water from Koh Kong because that’s what the guy who brought the water will tell us. But it’s all too easy for him to make a quick buck by filling your tank from the nearest tap. Problem is that you don’t just need any water from Koh Kong. You have to get well water… from Mr. Nhek’s well! The smell we’re after depends on it. To make this happen, you have to be there and watch it happen. Just like you have to see to it that the incense-grade chips that are so widely available if you go on the word of others, are in fact incense-grade.
So far I told Kruger that this will stay between us. Nobody will ever know about Nhek’s water. But at the end we decided against keeping it secret. It took many trips to get enough water to start distilling the line-up of oils in our Great Cambodian Experiment, and we continue to go to Koh Kong for more.
As for what’s brewing in Mr. Nhek’s water, keep an eye on our website and on upcoming posts here.
For now, here’s a taste of smells to come…