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.