Interview with Ensar Oud: The Man Who Brought Oud to the West
Possibly all geniuses are obsessives. “Obsessive. Opinionated. Poetic.” These are just a few words that would fall short of describing the breathtaking devotion of Ensar Oud to his craft.
(Please note: We’re reprinting this interview from 2011 as a complement to our interview with one of our favorite master perfumers, Kilian Hennessy. And for yet another obsessive artisan — of a very different variety — see our interview with the irascible Brent Black.)
In the beautiful case of Ensar, the obsession is oud oil, a substance distilled from agarwood. Agarwood is a dark aromatic resin that forms on evergreen trees in Southeast Asia. It’s also endangered, one of the complex scents on earth, and — not surprisingly, as a result — one of the most expensive materials in the world.
Oud is one of the complex scents on earth.
Oud’s cultural and religious significance stretches back time immemorial: it appears in the Vedas, the works of Wa Zhen of the Eastern Wu Dynasty, and the Sahih Muslim.
A number of modern fragrances attempt to synthesize some of the notes of oud; and some of these, I confess, I like. But nothing prepares you for the complexities of the real thing, which can contain notes of everything from peanut butter to mint, to animal, all in the same whiff.
In the end, your nose will educate you profoundly. In the end, it really depends on the purity of your own understanding and heart. — Ensar Oud
Among purveyors of Agarwood, Ensar Oud stands at the forefront, with one of the most storied histories, hands-on productions and the most expensive collection for sale (with 29-year-old “Oud Royale” at the pinnacle for $6,999).*
His surprisingly personal and honest blog details his journeys: India, Burma, Borneo, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia and beyond. The funny thing is how much it really reads like a spiritual quest.
Q: How long have you been in the oud “business” (or maybe it’s more of a calling)? How did you get started in scent in general, and oud in particular? How has it been catching on in the West?
I contracted my oud craving back when I started attending the mystical gatherings of the Sufis. They’d always have these little stalls at the “bazaar” section, where all sorts of Sufi goods would be on offer, among them little greasy vials of oil called “oud.” Most of them nameless oils obtained from nameless sources. But the scent had its appeal.
I contracted my oud craving back when I started attending the mystical gatherings of the Sufis
Being somewhat of a snob by nature who could never be pleased with anything but the finest quality in all things, I started looking for higher and higher quality oils. The quest, needless to say, was extremely difficult.
Believe it or not, as recently as 2004 there was almost no awareness of oud in the West. Far from the fad it has now become, most folks did not even know oud existed. I packed my bags and started looking around the Gulf, initially, for the “perfume of the sultans and rulers of the Eastern lands”.
Believe it or not, as recently as 2004 there was almost no awareness of oud in the West.
This led nowhere, and all I ended up with was a collection of DOP-laced oils similar to the offerings of the major oud companies from the Gulf: Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Al Haramain, etc. These companies openly mix their oils. I’ve visited their factories in the UAE, met the staff, the chemists, and the “artisans” as some rookie internet entrepreneurs like to call them. There was nothing artisanal about it is all I can say, and I was grossly disappointed.
Heading to Amman to live by my Sheikh in early 2005, the Sheikh ordered me to travel to the Far East in quest of oud. “I want you to bring me back the finest oud oils in the world,” the Sheikh ordered me. The story is re-told in my blog.
in early 2005, the Sheikh ordered me to travel to the Far East in quest of oud. “I want you to bring me back the finest oud oils in the world.”
With his blessing, and by the grace of God, we were able to fool certain Quixotic souls into the profitless venture of distilling artisanal oud oil for us. Not caring about the costs, the potential major losses if the distillations went bad, we soon ended up with oils that are to this date referred to as Oud Legends by fellow distillers, collectors, entrepreneurs, what have you: Kyara LTD, Borneo 3000, Royal Kinam, Borneo 4000. And the list went on.
How has it been catching on in the West? That is a funny question. And I crack up as I say this, because now everyone, including previous customers of Ensar Oud, have launched their own website, with their own “Beginner’s Guide,” “Starter’s Guide,” “Oud Guide,” Oud Regions, Origins, what have you; and everything else as we had it arranged on our old site.
Everyone now distills oils worthy of the title Oud Royale [an extremely famous Ensar Oud Legend]; and recently someone even juiced an “LTD” oil. No doubt, everyone is now a purveyor of “the highest quality oud oils in the world” in his own right.
I recall a poem by W.B. Yeats titled “To A Poet, Who Would Have Me Praise Certain Bad Poets, Imitators Of His And Mine.” It goes something like this:
You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung,
‘Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?
So in short, oud’s been catching on, that’s for sure. Needless to say, what money-driven exploits do is water down the meaning of the word “oud” in the West as it was watered down long ago in the East, where it no longer stands for the pure essential oil of the Aquilaria tree but for a mere scent family. “Oud” scented tissue papers are readily available in the supermarkets of Amman.
“Oud” scented tissue papers are readily available in the supermarkets of Amman.
Ever smelled “musk” hand lotion at your local pharmacy? How much genuine deer musk would you guess is in there? Well … that’s how much oud is in most “oud” fragrances being mass-marketed at present.
Q: You’ve been all over the world in search of oud. What drives you? What has been your most memorable experience?
This oil has a soul. It has the power to transcend the senses and put you in touch with a higher reality most people seldom get to experience, entrapped as they are in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Some meditate. Others do yoga. Others do drugs. Others dance. Yet others wear Oud Nuh. The spiritual pull is something very palpable and unmistakable in our oils.
This oil has a soul. It has the power to transcend the senses and put you in touch with a higher reality.
I’ve always wanted to go to Laos, and produce the foulest, most fecal specimens of oud the world has ever smelled. For some reason, I’ve never made it. While the appeal of “oud” has caught on in the West, the appeal of the “fecal” varieties of Assam and other types of Indo-Chinese oils has yet to develop.
Q: The search of oud seems like a developed intuition. What kind of climate is ideal? How do you know when you’re on the right track?
The extremely moist, tropical climates of Assam, Indochina and Indonesia are ideal for producing oud. While almost all over Indochina wild oud has been harvested to extinction, there are certain areas of Assam, Borneo and Papua that still produce wild agarwood. I have absolutely no interest in the cultivated varieties of agarwood. I’ve always meant to write an article to explain the differences, just never got to it.
Q: Very generally speaking, how do ouds differ from region to region?
The same way teas differ from climate to climate, so do ouds.
Each climate is unique, each soil has a different mineral content, the water used to treat the wood differs in each jungle; these are all factors that contribute to the different aromas of oud oils. Most importantly though, different species of oud trees grow in different jungles. This is the most significant factor that dictates the differences between each region’s juice.
Different species of oud trees grow in different jungles.
Q: You work hands-on with numerous distillers, and you have a reputation for being stringent and exacting. What sorts of things do you require from your distillers that are usually neglected?
For one, I demand that incense quality oud be used in the distillation of the oils. This will automatically disqualify most distillers. Many have even thought I was playing a practical joke when I presented this demand to them.
Secondly, I don’t want the oil to be “pasteurized and homogenized” as it is for distribution to the Gulf market and other Internet retailers. I want each batch to be labelled individually so I can study the different factors that went into the distillation and see the impact they carry on the resulting oil. Another distiller got into a mix-up with his brother when he tried to implement this for my sake. Now, thankfully, we have our own still in each distillery, and our oils are distilled separately from other suppliers’.
Q: It’s been said that one way to get in touch with the spiritual is through the senses. Although the senses are usually thought of as a “lower” faculty, in a way they can be said to be closer to the holy or spiritual because they are untainted by the vagaries of our mind, and a direct connection to the world as created by the Creator. Perhaps, as a sincere appreciation of the world as it is, they can be said to be an expression of gratitude, and thus a kind of prayer. Do you believe this? Or perhaps, what do you see as the connection between the olfactory and the spiritual?
With heart and soul, yes, that is exactly what I believe! You have summarized the spiritual journey most eloquently in your question, my friend. In our spiritual tradition, fragrance is perhaps the only material thing that carries a significance so great wearing it is considered an act of worship.
In our spiritual tradition, fragrance is perhaps the only material thing that carries a significance so great wearing it is considered an act of worship.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) used to say, “Beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.” If you study that statement closely, you’ll quickly realize the only material “thing” he really loved from the world was perfume. Women are people, one’s spiritual as well as physical partners and companions. And the prayer is an action, not a material “thing.” So perfume was the only worldly possession that the most spiritual of men was fond of. That says a lot.
Perfume was the only worldly possession that the most spiritual of men was fond of.
Fragrant greetings to you Pablo. Please do keep in touch.
(*Note: Most products from the original interview are no longer available. And the state of oud, as predicted by Ensar, has changed considerably as well. For current products and information updates, please visit EnsarOud.com.)