Schrödinger’s Oud

Oudheads who love detail know that there are two sides to this fragrant coin: agarwood’s essential, intrinsic—core—smell, and its ‘auxiliary’ (or secondary) notes.

Those fruity, floral, honey-sweet, savory umami notes in your favorite ouds are all auxiliary notes—not the scent of the wood’s essence. They result from external factors, like agarwood’s interaction with copper, Evian water, high/low heat, dust-to-water ratio, etc.

So, here’s the question that keeps distillers up at night: How do you bypass the auxiliary notes and get to the wood’s core, to the smell of an oud chip heated raw, when you’ve got no choice but to run the wood through copper and Evian and light up the mix—the very things that instill these notes?

That’s the artist’s challenge. But the story that gets hustled most is this: the darker the wood, the more ‘intrinsic’ the smell—if distilled with the right techniques, of course.

If you’ve lost me at this point, you must be sniffing the same auxiliary truths I’m smelling. So, stay with me because here’s where it gets trippy.

There’s this Schrodingerian idea going around that agarwood has an intrinsic smell and at the same time contains innate auxiliary compounds that are separate, not part of, its essence. (Feel free to read that again.)

It’s more than a case of true blue vs. navy blue. How do you strip away the aux notes to reveal the wood’s essential oleoresinous core… and the next moment try to capture the ‘intrinsic’ auxiliary essence?

(One way to do it is, take a generic Cambodian oil, dump it into your distillation apparatus – sans wood – and re-distill the oil itself again. You can then argue that the notes that remain are the ‘intrinsic’ notes of the wood’s ‘a priori’ reality – the Platonic ‘Idea’ of the tree, if you will – whereas the notes that disappeared must’ve been ‘innate’ a posteriori notes which, given their disappearance, could only be classified as ‘auxiliary’ departures from that Great Reality.)

Komrad K says, “Simple. You don’t.”

Auxiliary notes are auxiliary, or they’re not. Distilling oils again is no way to strip them of ‘innate auxiliary notes’. Rather, you only end up oxidizing them to death where all you’ve got left is a bunch of airy top notes, anemic sillage, and zero agarwoody core.

Distillation is in and of itself a process of oxidation (and ‘auxiliarifying’ something by that very fact). It doesn’t and cannot ‘erase’ auxiliary notes imparted in a previous distillation. It can only add more auxiliary notes or, even worse, cancel out most of the oil’s profile altogether by oxidizing it beyond recognition.

Now, the tangible DIY proof against all this philosophical guff lies in a drop of K… See more >

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