The Great Cambodian Experiment: III
Mosquitos are bad company. Their whining went on all night. At 8:00 AM the scream of a chainsaw brought me to my feet. New Year’s is old news now, everybody’s back to chopping wood. My eyelids crave caffeine. Feels like I haven’t had any real sleep in weeks. But, though low on energy, I’m excited. For now there’s no more Koh Kong, no more Cambodia. Just oud.
After a crazy few weeks we finally had all the batches of agarwood gathered at the distillery and I couldn’t wait to start juicing them up. The agarwood shavings we ground up into dust today came a long way, and from long ago. Pure Cambodian, wild harvested, stashed away since the late 80s. The man we got the wood from had no reason to distill any of it for years. In his words: “Whether I make oil from this wood or the normal white wood, it’s all the same to them and to me – they’ll give me the same price. Besides, I promised you years ago that I’d keep it for you. So it all worked out in the end.”
Who knew you had to grind the wood, anyway? To this day, they hardly grind anything in India. They just pile up the shavings, funnel it into a barrel, add water and start soaking it like that. They must have learned that to soak shavings instead of dust needs more time and that’s probably why Indian oud now has a reputation for its ‘potent’ aroma. All that barn, just because they never got around to buying a grinder!
It would have saved us a world of time to run the distillations in Cambodia, spared us the mission of dragging the wood into Thailand. No customs, no tax, no police, no questions. But Cambodian distilleries are a disaster. All the veterans closed shop years ago and along with their equipment died many of the secrets that brought fame to Oud Cambodi. New generation distillers try to be more progressive as they look to modern Indo-Malay style distillation where the set-ups are designed for quick extraction and maximum yield. Sounds good on paper, but to capture the classic Cambodian scent of the 70’s – in 2014 – demands patience.
It’s been years since these pots saw any action. Rusted up so bad we had to scratch away with a knife to find out if it was copper or steel.
Kruger and I were discussing the wood-to-water ratio to use once the soak’s done. If you can picture a color chart of the typical Cambodian scent progression during distillation, it goes something like this: green – orange – light brown – yellow. Kruger knows the ratio profiles better than most and made an interesting suggestion for how we can sustain the deep red character of vintage Cambodian oud throughout the cooking, skipping the green notes at the start (which affects every stage that follows).
If we were going to employ the ratio he had in mind, the pre-cooking temperature had to be spot on for just the right amount of time for the condenser to do its job. I’ve seen a similar procedure ruin copper condensers, so to play it safe we’re going all steel. We calculated that three and a half hours at x degrees is ideal, and that any longer will quickly turn the red smell yellow. We’d have failed before we even began, and lost a batch of agarwood nobody could ever find again.