Aquilaria: A Requiem

We’ve just wrapped up our Qatar and Oman OudFests, and guess what? Most of the demand for expensive oils and wood didn’t come from our retail customers. We had farmers from Thailand – pioneers of cultivation and master distillers – plead with us for ouds they’ve been unable to make themselves.

All the ‘Oud Something’ and ‘Something Oud’ brands of the fragrance world just happened to be in Doha at the same time as the Ensar OudFest for a perfume exhibition.

And the Sheikhs, knowing the difference in the smell, but not knowing where it came from, insisted on the batches we had sold the Thais and Doha locals, and gave a miss to whatever wares they were showcasing.

As a result, we spent the entire OudFest closing wholesale deals because once the Sheikhs had had a taste of the Maroke Ceylon, they’d lost their appetite for much everything else.

You might have noticed Sri Sereine happened to disappear at the same time. That, along with kilograms of wood from our reserves. With a heavy heart, I bid farewell to some of my most cherished batches of oil and wood, which then got resold in Qatar to the locals by Thai agarwood farmers.

Things have skyrocketed so suddenly that being in Turkey for just a few months, I wasn’t even aware of what’s been happening. The latest batch of oud produced at this same juncture, set us back $4,700 per tola. Fortunately, I had just received the news, along with the oil. They begged me to buy certain oils at the full retail rate of $2,200 a tola, wholesale – and I politely declined. Had I not known the cost of my latest production at that very moment, I would have sold many an oil for money I could never buy back – or reproduce – my own oil with.

Coincidentally, people are still sending PayPal payments for bottles of Sri Sereine – which are politely refunded. You will not see a bottle of Ensar Oud of such caliber for less than $1,500 going forward.

I am able to offer lower prices on ouds produced years ago, before the inflation and insane costs we’ve been paying recently. However, my productions from recent years will not be sold for less than $1,500 a bottle. If I wanted to, I could not reproduce the same oils for less than $4,000 – $5,000 a tola.

Consider all of those bottles that you got for $390 and $550, even $790 all these years my gifts to you.

*  *  *

In 2011/12, we reported how oud men smack in the middle of the booming China Market predicted that in about five years’ time there’d be practically no wild agarwood trees left, and here we’ve just again tasted this reality.

Yet today, some tell you that agarwood breeds faster than rabbits. That in reality, there’s no scarcity and that CITES put agarwood on the list of endangered species for no apparent good reason.

Some people aren’t aware. They don’t realize that, like our beloved aquilarias, entire fish populations, birds and bees and animal species are being wiped out every minute. They might just not have heard that farmed salmon is ranked the most toxic food in the world. Some have heard rumors, but assume the fish farms are the answer.

But some people are deliberate. They want you to believe the oceans are clean, that nobody is dumping toxic waste into our rivers, and that those fish farms are just fine.

Why? Probably because they are the ones who sell us that salmon, or own the factories dumping the waste that kills our fish…

The same kind of people tell you that agarwood breeds faster than rabbits.

So then, why are the Laotians and Vietnamese importing wood from the Philippines to sell as their own? Why are they importing thousands of crassna saplings into Sri Lanka from Thailand? Why on Earth are hunters risking everything to dig up dead oud wood buried five meters underground in Papua if the trees are breeding like rabbits around them?

Go to Cambodia, go to Vietnam, go to Laos, to Thailand, and Bhutan, and please show me all the new aloes. Let’s see all the wild trees they claim are sprouting all over Hainan and Yunnan and Nha Trang.

Qatari shop owners took time off from that perfume convention in Doha to sit with us, and left dumbstruck at how we’re able to make the likes of Sri Sereine when they and all their fellow traders fail to do so. With the entire Far East at their bidding, they didn’t have anything like it to satisfy demand.

Oud bigwigs in Thailand have teams in the Philippines, Papua, and Sabah, neck to neck up against Chinese and Indian teams competing for rare harvests. They don’t even bother with Thailand itself anymore. They have vast networks of hunters, brokers, and distillers across the oud producing world and spend their waking hours in search of quality agarwood. Yet, they come to us because they have the hardest time finding anything.

Not long ago, we reported that Borneo and Papua are the final frontiers of the oud journey. At that stage, the Philippines was still off-limits, as it technically still is today. Just last week, a whole group of Indian hunters got arrested, while the partner of one of the dealers in Qatar is sitting in prison. (Which begs the question: What are the Indians doing in The Philippines if there’s supposed to be all this wood right at home?)

Take a tour through Sri Lanka and Mindanao and count the number of police patrols watching out for poachers. Watch the ports around Davao and the bus stations and the channels to Tawi crowded with officers on the lookout for only one thing.

Did you know? Most of the Filipino brokers on Facebook are actually undercover law enforcement, or in close collaboration with them, to bait any potential smugglers and land them in jail with all their money cleaned out, and a minimum $50,000 bail to be deported back to where they came from.

I’m writing this from Sri Lanka, where the locals are already talking about the ‘Golden Era’ we witnessed hardly two years ago. The cost for the same wood we distilled Sri Sereine from has quadrupled since then, while the cost of the batches Sruriranka Senkoh was made from has at least tripled for an inferior grade. Like I said, if you own any such caliber oils, you’ve already profited big time.

The rabbit story is deceptive jargon spewed by guys on their couches in London and Kentucky who don’t have the faintest idea of what’s happening on the ground – because they’ve never been on the ground. Not even for a quick selfie to pretend they have, as some others have done…

Sri Lanka is full of distillers now, all juicing up the same leftover wood – worthless to an artisanal distiller – which you’ll probably see hit the oud scene at some point. You’ll probably be told about how great these are and how the stories of Sri Lanka are made up. That, while behind the scenes, real agarwood dwindles into non-existence.

I phoned Mr. Lean as my last thread of hope in Colombo, one of the most experienced Chinese brokers in town. He answered the phone from the casino he’s invested in, with an alarming tone of surprise: “I do have some small-small, but other than that nothing. Because in Sri Lanka, agarwood is finished. There is no more wood. If you want wood, I suggest you go to the Philippines.”

*  *  *

Jakarta is moving to Borneo, the Amazon forests are about to be cut up and handed out like slices of pizza, while palm plantations are all you see as you fly over the Far East. Wild forests are disappearing at a rapid pace.

Yet they have the audacity to say oud – already on the endangered species list to the extent that police themselves are actively baiting poachers on social media – will ‘never go extinct’ because… well, ‘this stuff breeds faster than rabbits’.

The flood of new, and very sophisticated methods of fabrication didn’t pop out of nowhere – there’s a simple reason for it. And it’s an insult to any ten-year-old’s intelligence to say it’s because agarwood breeds like rabbits.

Take a look at our Oud Legends. The youngest oil available is six years old. Our ‘new’ Borneo 3000 was distilled five years ago, and we’ve given up on distilling the same caliber Malinau oud today because Malinau, my friends, is a thing of the past.

Could it be because the predictions of those Chinese tycoons were pretty much bang-on? Could it be why those same tycoons are getting out of the oud game because they aren’t sitting on their couches getting their information from Facebook and the pseudo community forums launched as advertising platforms by our rabbit-breeder friends? Why do you think they flew to the Gulf to buy back wood they sold to them in the first place? And now, why are the distillers in the Far East coming to us for oils to offer their wealthy Qatari clientele?

In 2014, we went searching for old un-drilled, un-inoculated trees in Trat. We found exactly seven – this was five years ago in the heart of the oud world. You probably won’t hear about these trees again until at least the year 2024, at which time you can begin to think about distilling anything from them. Go to the same spot we found those seven today…… no rabbits in sight, I assure you. Not a single one more popped up. And we’re talking cultivated trees here.

As for Papuan oud chips…… chances are they’ve been dug up at great expense from underground because, believe it or not, there aren’t many rabbits running around above ground either.

So, when you hear such rabid claims that make a logician’s brain hurt and a real oud distiller’s blood boil, you have to wonder: what’s their agenda? Or are they really that clueless? Or are they part of the game that puts foresight aside to only focus on the here and now and the money to be made today – the very cycle that brought us to this point?

As a result, you’re witnessing the proliferation of the Something Oud and Oud Something brands popping up all over Paris, London, and Dubai with a new breed of oud oils which does, unfortunately, resemble the proliferation of the bunnies.

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