The “Oud Note” Myth

Oud is all the rave with big perfume companies, where just about every big name has jumped on board with its ‘oud’ perfume. The only problem is, none of them smell like oud. While reviewers and critics promote (or berate) ‘the oud note’ in their favorite new niche, its defining feature—the oud note—is fantasy. Let me explain.

One batch of iris inevitably smells like another. Rose smells like rose, whether it’s from Turkey or Ta’if. I’ll concede that some über rare jasmines are quite remarkable, but the majority of all jasmines are all clearly jasmine-y. Frankincense is still frankincense, only with a tinge of Yemeni or Somali twang. Same goes for the most expensive frangipani, champaka, or tuberose.

This is totally not the case with oud.

Oud is not like coffee, where no matter which brew you’re tasting, you know you’re drinking coffee, not tea. Nor is it like any other essential oil. In a blind test, you could dish out Ta’if and Turkish rose. Folks might not be able to tell the difference, but they can still easily tell they’re smelling rose. South African vetiver might be richer than Haitian harvests, but in a blind test both are still clearly vetiver.

But how about this? Papuan oud on your right wrist, and Indian oud on your left. Then a swipe of Cambodi on your arm. People will probably identify the Indian oud as ‘oud’ because ‘Hindi’ oud has dominated and defined what oud means to the mainstream, but the other two? Unless you’re a connoisseur, the Papuan and Cambodian ouds are so radically different, you’d easily guess they’re some exotic breed of flower, or a unique leaf extract, or a funky kind of citrus—not intuitively oud.

Oud has more in common with fruit. Although there is a sweet, sugary association with smells that are ‘fruity’, you can never really pin them down, and the smell ultimately reminds you of specific fruits (e.g. peach or orange or mango), not all fruits at once.

There is no ‘fruit’ note, as there is a coffee note. Apple ≠ orange ≠ durian ≠ mangosteen. While Sumatran coffee beans have their unique subtleties, few can detect the difference between it and a Guatemalan grind, even advanced connoisseurs. That, while even an amateur oudhead can tell a Cambodi apart from a Borneo in a matter of seconds.

And then you have the microcosm of scents within oud. You can literally smell the peach and lilacs in Thai ouds, the guava in New Guinea, crushed cacao in a Sumatran, or the cinnamon and vanilla in a fine Malinau; the mimosa in Ceylon. That’s why it’s easy to wear oud neat, because it’s like you’re wearing perfume. You can literally pick up more notes in a single-origin oud oil than in a perfume with 20 ingredients.

This is where folks inexperienced with oud get it wrong.

And how can you blame them? It’s easier to generalize. It’s easier to talk about the latest ’oud’ line when oud is oud is oud. It’s easier to diss oud, or to sound like an authority—or both, like the famous British perfumer who recently said that oud that doesn’t smell ‘stinky’ isn’t real oud.

Dishing out Stereotyping 101 talk sounds clever, unless you know better. Oud is oud is oud, unless you’ve smelled a couple. Pine is mahogany is teak, or is it?

Here’s the best place to start your oud journey.

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