The End of Organic Oud

We went into this, heart and soul. Pots boiled up blood, tears and sweat for the last five years. Grey hairs have grown plenty and we’ve gotten to know many beautiful people and distilled some exquisite oils. And so, it’s with a heavy heart that I look through the peephole to see a dark, dismal future that lies ahead.

On a visit to Thailand last year, I was eager to show Furhaad (who had just joined our team) the famous Oud Yusuf grove, lush with an entire plot of oud trees the farmer never cuts down. As he chisels away at the resinated parts, his practice heralds the supreme example of sustainable cultivation.

This day, the farmer wasn’t there, so we started off in the direction of the grove. We wandered about for a while until I finally told him I must have taken the wrong turn, there’s nothing here. 

I found out to my deepest regret that I took the right turn but that the farmer had recently harvested all those trees. That he had to, to stay in business. The farm used to be run by family only, from the chopping to the cleaning to the cooking but eventually they had to double up their pots and with that their production to keep up. You can only chisel out so much resin at once…

For years and years the Oud Yusuf grove rooted hundreds of trees. That day, Furhaad didn’t get to see a single one of them. All that’s now left of the plot of land that juiced up one of the most acclaimed ouds of the decade is a video of a magical place that once was. 

Why does the news hurt so much? Because there will never be another Oud Yusuf? It hurts because you feel the sting of an idea that’s been smashed to the ground, into splinters you can’t ever patch back together again. Many of those trees were over forty years old, and growing still. Now that plot of history is barren and the wind blows freely through, soon to be lined with newly planted saplings – but this time, we won’t be around to see them turn forty. That’s what hurts. 

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Sadly, our farewell to the Oud Yusuf grove is just one stitch in a sinister story that’s starting to unravel.

I was shocked to hear that a farmer friend of mine is scouring the country, buying up each and every old tree tree he can find. I consider him one of the most progressive and well intentioned agarwood farmers out there, so I listen closely to what he has to say. 

He keeps telling me how in a few years there will be no good trees standing. They’ll all be young, and new ones will get cut even younger. He’s invested big money in agarwood farming and is unnerved that the future of cultivated agarwood is looking far bleaker than what he saw when he started out. “The day will come,” he says, “and I want to have the upper hand when it does. So, I have to act now.”

It took us four years to collect enough kyen (a type of resin you only get in old, mature aloes) to craft the likes of Satori Kensho and Satori BashoAnd we’ve already cooked the last of it, halfheartedly hoping that we’d see the same kind of resin again. Remember, we’re not talking wild centennial Vietnamese sinensis here. We’re talking four whole years to collect quality cultivated wood… in the very Mekka of agarwood cultivation!

One start-up farmer I know planted 40,000 agarwood saplings on his new land. Of those, only 10,000 survived the first year. Of those, most will be cut before they reach 15 years of age. Before that, the trees will get injected with fungal infecting chemicals. That leaves you with a five year-old sapling stuffed with forced resin, infused with artificial goo. The oil from those trees will get mixed and blended and cut and DOPed and sold under the guise of ‘Oud Cambodi’ or ‘Oud al Hindi’ as the finest Dehn al Oudh on the market.

This past Ramadan, I paid a visit to a veteran of forty years distilling oud to find his factory largely shut down, with news that he’s selling off his trees. He’s one of the few who has mature cultivated trees and other distillers are eager to buy the rights to harvest them. Instead of planting new oud trees, the only new crops I saw were rows of jasmine sprouts, mangosteen and mangoes that weren’t there before.

I once told a distiller and his staff that they’re running a McDonalds factory. They all laughed, but I wasn’t joking. They’re so determined to earn a quick buck, to save time they don’t even soak their wood. The irony came the last time I met them. Many of their pots are empty and they’re doing the same as our veteran distiller – selling off their trees instead of making oil from them. 

These guys are old timers in the oud scene and pioneers in cultivation and they seem to know something others don’t.

In Malaysia, there’s a new super inoculant released every week, advertised with the amazing ability to have an agarwood tree bursting with resin and ready to harvest after only two years – two years! For God’s sake, what kind of oud can you expect from that?

Many of you are acquainted with a big company hustling to recruit new farmers across the Far East to buy thousands of their saplings (inoculants included), promising a return on investment in eight years, max. (That means piles of eight year old saplings cut up and juiced and sold as ‘oud’.) Their get-rich-quick scheme and their far-reaching presence in every corner of the oud growing world hints at what the future holds in store…

I can go on.

But I feel like I’m back in 2011, about to trigger a backlash. The End of Oud was received with such pessimism that many called it a marketing stunt, a made up piece of sensationalism. Five years on and every respectable name in the oud trade confirms what we said back then. The China Market is real. The rapid decline of wild oud is real. Price hikes have hit all of us hard.

I didn’t name this article The End of Organic Oud just to cause a stir. This is what I believe is happening. There will be a future for cultivated agarwood, yes. But it’s a future of chemical inoculants and growth enhancers. It’s a future of saplings being harvested before their teenage years. It’s a future of mixed, mediocre oud oil good only to blend into cheap mainstream perfume. A future with no Oud Yusuf, no Aroha Kyaku….

I know that there are many many agarwood trees growing out there. Take a drive through Trat and you’d think the future is all set. Go to Vietnam and you can find boxes full of black looking farmed wood. If you’re on a solo mission you’d see a big oasis. But believe me, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a mirage.

There’s an expanding Gulf market, and Duty Free perfume houses all have their ‘oud’ lines. Demand is high. And the supply is there – for now. Just like there were tons of Mysore trees fifteen years ago, until French perfume companies bought up every last twig. 

People forget that agarwood is not a seasonal fruit. Oud trees take decades to mature. So, you ought to shoot the agarwood scene with a wide lens and look at things from a distance.

We often only see the truth of things in hindsight, but it’s my sincere conviction that we are living in the heydays of agarwood cultivation just as we did through the golden years of wild oud just over a decade or two past.

So, it’s with a tear in my eye that I have to face the facts and realize that pursuing Organic Oud is not something we can keep at for much longer. Not unless something radically changes. Oud Yusuf is already one for the archives, so are the Satoris. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll have to ‘quit while we’re only this far behind’ as my Shaykh often says. 

I’d like to thank you for tagging along on this amazing journey over the last half decade. Without your support none of this would have been possible. There would be no Oud Yaqoub, no Oud Mostafa No 5, no Xen Ji, Assam Organic, no Thai Encens – no Oud Yusha and no Encens d’Angkor.

From here on, I will be focusing on a few last batches of wild agarwood. Though even there I’m only picking up the pieces….

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Ensar

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