March 24, 2014
The Great Cambodian Experiment: VII
I was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with my head squeezed in between a web of red ropes bound around a huge empty blue tank. Sort of half-way seated on a dirty oil container toward the back of the truck, my legs awkwardly tucked between the ropes and the blue tank which took up most of the loading space. I gazed out at the ocean as we crossed the longest bridge in Cambodia. Judging from how hard the wind slapped my cheeks we were going over 80 miles an hour, and with squinting eyes I began to think about how I ended up here.
I had been in the oud business for a while and was all too familiar with Cambodian oud. Recognizably more fruity than oud from anywhere else, Cambodian oud was ideal for newcomers, since it’s fruitiness made it especially accessible to scent lovers who came from a tradition of designer fragrances catering to an olfactory palette used to an overly sweet (synthetic) scent.
It wasn’t until early 2010 while visiting a veteran distiller in Phnom Penh that everything changed. Until then I found that despite its sweetness and fruitiness, its accessibility and its availability, there weren’t many Cambodian ouds I considered extraordinary. Along with Indian oud, the Cambodian variety was at that stage probably the most popular in the world. But nothing I tried stood out. Even after several years in the business, it wasn’t until later that year that I launched the first Cambodis on our site. Yet, the thing that haunted me most ever since that trip was the two bottles of oud I tried at the distiller’s house. One was from Pursat, which he’d made himself around fifteen years earlier; the other was one he got from a friend, a pure Koh Kong Cambodi from twenty years ago.
But when it comes to aged oud we should be careful how we use the rule of thumb that ‘old oud equals good oud.’ Age certainly can mean something, but it’s not the alpha and omega of what makes great oud. A Cambodi from 1980 doesn’t automatically qualify as the greatest oud in history. It might well just be the worst oud distilled that year and aging it for a hundred years will do it no good. So there’s a huge difference between ‘old oud’ and ‘quality oud, aged well’. It takes oud like these two to show you how the wonder of quality and maturity joins together perfectly.
I offer to buy the two ouds from him every time we meet. But they’ll forever stay in his prayer niche next to incense sticks and vintage pieces of wood; sacred offerings money can’t replace. ‘I already gave them in offering to my god,’ he’d explain, ‘taking them back for money would be an insult.’ At least he always lets me smell them.
All I’ve done since 2010 was hope to find the likes of those oils, somewhere, anywhere. I’ve explained the smell to every distiller I know and they all instantly smirk as if to say ‘of course we know that smell, but forget about finding it today.’ When I discovered those oils were no more than unicorn relics older generation distillers reminisce over and that those two bottles might well be the only proof that oud like that even existed, it was clear what any insane man in my shoes would do.
“You realize you’d have to find wild wood for this, don’t you? But not just wild… old wild wood. The kind they would have used back then. And how would we make it? We’d have to find somebody who was around back then and knows the system. And how on Earth would we get the same water?”
He wasn’t saying no, but Kruger was understandably skeptical when I told him what I had in mind. He’d been around long enough to see what we’d have to go through.
“The wood, you’re right, I don’t know how we’ll pull that off. As for an old school guy who knows the system, I know just the man. At least that’s a start, isn’t it?”
At that stage Kruger had never met him. All he knew was that this was the man behind Oud Dhul Kifl. That was enough to throw some doubt on his skepticism.
February 20, 2014
The Great Cambodian Experiment: VI
This is a rerun of one of my earliest distills which sold way back in 2004. To this day I get emails asking for Sultan Murad, so I thought it was time to revisit the old timer and see if I could improve on anything while retaining his distinct Papuan character.
For one, only trees with living resin were used in this run—no marsh agarwood that is dug out from the Maroke wetlands. Since the great Filarias of Maroke got wiped out along with everything great that was agarwood, aborigines started digging in the riverbeds, marshes and swamps for remnants of dead trees.
While it does make a nice story for telling folks, dead Maroke wood is the most abundant in the market. It’s the only wood you find in the Arab world, where trees with real resin became too costly to sell. Warehouses from West Java to Kuala Lumpur to Qatar stock tons upon tons of this ‘three hundred year old resin’ and anyone with firsthand experience in distillation will tell you it’s nothing to write home about.
So we turned to the less explored jungles of New Guinea to hunt for live resin this time, and instead of semi-fossilized Filarias employed the towering trunks of healthy Gyrinops. Quite a welcome tweak, because dead wood imparts a sharp blunt top to the overall profile. Whereas live resin imbues the oil with verve while retaining all the therapeutic properties of agarwood.
You probably know this by now, but agarwood is medicine moreso than perfume. Rather than smell nice the oil is meant to heal. The smell is just a secondary thing.
Because it’s sought out in certain markets for the smell alone, the healing properties of agarwood are often lost in the way raw materials are handled. For one, dead wood resin is of no therapeutic value. The tree must be harvested while still alive.
Secondly, oxidation might ‘improve’ the smell according to some but it is of little benefit to those looking to ingest agarwood oil. An oxidized oil might do more harm than good so you should be extremely cautious when choosing to ‘eat’ an oud oil for your health.
The new Sultan Murad is an oil I enjoy eating as much as I adore putting it on my skin. I took great pains to make sure the oil is edible by manning the pot in person through soak and distillation—and this has turned my Great Cambodian Experiment upside down.
The wood that went into Sultan Murad was so densely packed with resin that it’s been almost forty days that the pot is cooking—and it’s still cooking! There is literally no end in sight to this record-breaking run, and I’ve never seen anything like this in my ten years’ hunting, crafting and collecting oud oil.
Our Cambodian pots run a maximum of nine days before the water turns clear in the glass, signaling the end of distillation. Our Burmese, Indians and Bhutanese might cook up to ten days. The Centennial set a record twenty-five days in the pot. Sultan Murad was lit on January 5th. It is February 13th as I write this, and there is no end in sight. Now that is resin, my friends.
Another tweak to the Sultan was the copper pot. So far as I know, not one copper run of a Papuan oil has ever been done, and every single still that was ever lit on the island was made of steel. From Oud Royale to Green Papua to Purple Papua to Sultan Murad, all of them were steel distills. I’ve wanted to smell a copper Papuan for years, and the logistics just wouldn’t allow. Copper pots don’t exist in Papua. Everything’s kissed by steel.
So we had to fly our Gyrinops out to Thailand. It took three people going on six flights just to transport six pots of raw materials. People don’t do that.They slap a CITES paper on the box and hand the wood over to a cargo agent. But we can’t do that. We can’t leave the wood alone. It holds the significance of our progeny, this wood. We can’t take chances. I said a prayer that this run be blessed with an incredible yield, and my prayer was answered.
Now flying the wood to Thailand might seem like a hurdle at first look but it opened the door to a dozen other tweaks which couldn’t be done anywhere else. And because we could do something even crazier now than fly the wood to Bangkok and drive it all the way to Khao Ra Kam, we sent a special truck all the way to Koh Kong, right into Mr Nhek’s backyard. Mr Nhek’s well water is famed throughout Southeast Asia as the finest water to soak your wood in. It is red.
Facepaint red meets old Cambodi red, in Mr Nhek’s well water. This is the water all the old Cambodis were cooked in, and I’ve met distillers as far as West Malaysia fantasizing about flying over a couple pots’ worth to cook their oils in. So how’s that? New Guinea Gyrinops soaked in Mr Nhek’s redwater then cooked in copper. Old Cambodi kissed by an aborigine’s facepaint red. It smells like it, too.
The dozen other tweaks I’m not going to go into lest the ‘highest form of flattery’ dog me, but this is one gem of an oil. And no one’s even dreamed of cooking the likes of it, even if they should tell you otherwise.
To give you a crash course in Oud and illustrate what I keep going on about there being two kinds—Legends and Experiments, keep in mind—and to show you how they differ, I’m parting with a small amount of a 2005 Gyrinops harvested in Papua New Guinea and cooked in the wake of Kyara LTD which I cherish like my life’s blood: Port Moresby.
February 5, 2014
The Great Cambodian Experiment: V
The warehouses in the oud center of the world do not stock Cambodian agarwood anymore. If you want to get a look at the best pieces go see the ones up on display behind the boss’ desk, but don’t bet on getting a piece of your own. This is largely because major oud hubs across the Far East are preoccupied with cleaning up Indonesia and Malaysia, from where everything gets cargoed off to China. As for Cambodia, even if brokers track down a batch of premium wood there’s no incentive to buy any of it because the Cambodians already sell directly to China. Scour as you might for quality chips at ground level, to get incense-grade agarwood in Cambodia you have to accept that you’re already up against Chinese mark-ups. But that’s not the biggest problem.
All the great batches of Cambodian agarwood collected in recent years ended up being used either for burning (incense) or carving (bracelets, miniatures, sculptures). All at spectacular prices. The ultimate calamity for all of us in the oud oil sector is that this meant the death of Oud Cambodi. The Chinese simply don’t make oud oil from their precious wood. This is why for the last few years ‘Cambodi’ ouds have only been so by name. It’s why every single one of the big Gulf companies’ suppliers of Cambodian oud sits back at their home smack in the middle of Trat, Thailand; not Phnom Penh, Pursat, Pailin or Kampung Speu.
But what if there was one last Herculean effort to produce the last pure incense grade Cambodian oud oils ever? What if we were in the middle of what veteran distillers called ‘the most elaborate distillation project in oud history?’
Agarwood collectors across Cambodia started to cash in on their stowed away stashes when the Chinese market started to boom. Some of them began clearing their display cabinets four to six years ago, while others only decided to give in since a year ago. But the one thing they all have in common is that now they offer their wood on a first come first serve basis where negotiations are out of the question because you can bet that if you don’t take whatever you can get, a broker for the Chinese business barons is already on his way to clean up after you.
I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps the Chinese are even more insane than we are. I’ve come to respect their discerning standard for wanting nothing less than the best, and since I learned about their appreciation for agarwood I started to love it more myself. They’ve brought back to life those stories about a revered and cherished magic wood that repeatedly comes up in feng shui literature and early texts of Chinese medicine, features in some pre-war ritual of the Samurai, and was on display at the emperor’s court. Modern Chinese art and culture show that all this is still real to many — and they spend a grand fortune to prove it. Isn’t that something?
Whatever our differing degrees of sobriety, we are up against the Chinese collectors to secure wood they’d use toward a rich tradition of incense burning and craftsmanship — to use in an even greater esoteric and more fragrant tradition.
The scope of our adventure isn’t limited to crafting a single great oil. We have something bigger in mind: a line up of oud oils that defy description. All the while keeping within the boundaries of our conscience, careful not to chase trees that ought to be left to live.
Have you ever smelled oud distilled in Cambodia or Thailand that didn’t smell yellow or orange, fruit and fig? You might have been teased by an exotic green note flying way on high, only to disappear behind a cloud of mild earthy spices. Or a hint of red that peaks from behind the curtain. But for the most part people enjoy these ouds exactly because of their lighthearted fruitiness, because they’re playful and accessible. Like pop music. Open to all, something to enjoy in the background without thinking much about it. But the connoisseurs in the crowd will demand: Where’s the jazz? Where’s the intrigue, the complexity, the soul?
We have two themes in mind for this canvas; classic and avant garde. Prepare yourself for oud that’s green, oud that’s red, oud with a hue of navy blue; mysteriously woody heart notes clad in incense — courtesy of the sickest grade of agarwood any distillation pot ever had in its belly.
We started with the avant garde, and after two full weeks of distillation collected our maiden oil: incense grade agarwood amassed over ten years turned into fine dust turned into an ocean green wonder. Made from the same calibre dark grain heartwood that went into crafting Kyara LTD Centennial, Kyara LTD: Zen is oud on another level. Where the Centennial is incense-green, Zen is ethereal-jade. A shoreside forest tranquility laced with an enchanting floral airiness reminiscent of Borneo 5000.
Fresh from the still, the scent has hardly begun to reveal itself, but a seasoned nose can tell you with certainty what this oil will turn into six months from now. For one, the incense heart note will by then have emerged and settled, rounding off the fragrance to perfection. The subtle floral notes that already permeate the scent will blossom and be transformed into an otherworldly ethereal bouquet. This is the kind of oud oil that could cause the Chinese collectors to have a change of heart. A fragrance that makes you swap the finest miniature carving for a bottle. Or a drop on the tongue. Anyone blessed enough to own a bottle can tell you why.