Case Study: Betonamu Jinkoh, Sumatora Jinkoh, & Rakoku Jinkoh
My previous blog post (here) covering the behind-the-scenes of Manaka Jinkoh and Sasora Jinkoh was received with a ton of interest and enthusiasm (congratulations, you’re all officially Oud NERDS!), so I’m going to go ahead and do an exegesis of our other three Rikkoku-Gomi inspired oils as well.
I hope you’ll find it enlightening, and enjoy reading about some of what goes into designing these super-customized distillations.
Betonamu Jinkoh ベトナム沈香
‘Betonamu‘ is simply Japanese for ‘Vietnamese‘. In a Rikkoku-Gomi set, the Vietnamese agarwood is Kyara. But given the insanely-high cost ($USD seven-figures) of distilling even a tiny batch of actual Vietnamese Kyara agarwood, we went with the next best option: Vietnamese Crassna agarwood of the same species as Kyara, from the same bottle-neck region in central Vietnam, and using raw material with the closest possible aroma to actual Kyara.
Out of respect for genuine certified Vietnamese Kyara, I decided not to call it that and instead just indicate the country of origin in the product name.
Without a doubt, gram for gram, this was our costliest distillation ever. If I had used farm-grown Vietnamese agarwood, it would have been about 1/20th the cost. But (for now at least) Agar Aura’s focus is on wild and most importantly high-grade agarwood. Also, I simply would not have been able to achieve the aroma I was after, had I used agarwood from young farm-grown trees.
So I had to swallow the bitter pill and plunk down the cash to fund this extremely risky project. Would it be a failed project (i.e. too low a yield = too high a cost per gram = unsellable)? Would it be the best oud EVER?
The good news is that due to our unique extraction techniques, the yield was almost 2.8x more than what typical distillation methods would have yielded. The bad news: its still hecka expensive. I suppose value is in the eyes (or should I say nose) of the beholder, and I know folks will sometimes spend even more on oud oils, but I always like to keep the prices of all oud oils under $1,000. I’m afraid that simply can’t be the case with this oil.
Enough on that, let’s talk about the actual oil now…
Right off the bat, one of the first things you’ll notice is that this oil packs a MIGHTY punch.
Except… its a caress more than a punch.
And enveloping more than mighty.
Sound contradictory? It is. Its hard to put into words, but if you’ve tried our oils like Manaka Jinkoh and Royal Chen Xiang, you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about. Betonamu Jinkoh is powerful, but given its translucently ethereal aroma, that power is delivered with gliding grace and decorum.
This oil is NOT Kyara.
This oil is NOT Kyara.
This oil is NOT Kyara.
I’m repeating this because I’m still getting enquiries about our upcoming “Kyara oil”. : P
So having made it clear that its NOT Kyara, I’m very proud to announce that Betonamu Jinkoh’s aroma IS the closest oud oil you can get to the scent of genuine Vietnamese Kyara.
…which should be no surprise. We’ve made oils from Myanmar (Royal Chen Xiang, which by the way has 2 more siblings, to be released later), Sumbawa (Ketenangan), and Malaysia (Manaka Jinkoh and Sutera Ungu), which bear an awful lot of resemblances to some of the facets of Kyara. Some facets, and not Kyara in its entirety (because Kyara is Kyara, and non-Kyara is NOT Kyara).
I managed to achieve this in the above-mentioned oils by combining art and science. So now, imagine the results when everything is deliberately designed to maximally align the outcome with the scent of Kyara, AND the raw material consisted of high grade wild agarwood of the same species and region as true Kyara.
Yep, its awesome. : )
I couldn’t afford to sacrifice any of the costly raw material in conducting a trial distillation before the full-scale one, so I had to jump the gun and go with my gut feeling for the optimal setup and techniques for extraction.
Full hydro distillation, vintage centenarian copper pot, glass fractional ‘super condenser’ system, and of course most importantly: our exclusive techniques for maximizing the yield and richness without warping the aroma (you can read more about that in my previous blog post, “How Do You Like Them Apples?“)
The opening is a frosty blast of blinding oudy bliss. Green, purple and gold are colors that immediately come to mind, one morphing into the other.
There’s no fruity and floral notes… something which might be surprising to some of you, since most Crassnas on the market (Cambodian, Thai, and cultivated Vietnamese) are the fruitiest ouds you can get.
But we’re talking about wild Vietnamese Crassna here. Its all liquid resin and sweet wood. No fruits, no flowers. And of course no funk, rubber, or leather either (which is what most non-sweet Crassna oils smell like).
In the early stages of the scent development on skin, I find a lot of resemblances to Baieido’s top and one of Yamada-Matsu’s green-oil Kyaras, coupled with the energy of Kyukyodo’s top grade Vietnamese agarwood chips (similar to what’s in their Murasaki sticks). These two Kyaras have more of a ‘liquid’ and vibrant quality compared to the other Kyaras in my collection (and from oil offerings, it reminds me a lot of Kyara LTD, a Burmese gem that was offered in the past by my esteemed colleague in the Oud game, Ensar).
The latter stages of the oil’s scent development, on the other hand, are where the smoother sugary-milky notes emerge, similar to Yamada-Matsu’s Purple Kyara, and actually the salient feature of most of the Kyaras I have.
I manipulated the temperature for each of the stages of the extraction, because it was crucial to capture all three of the salient identifiers that the Japanese masters documented:
– bitter: like Korean ginseng, something you find in Royal Chen Xiang in abundance, but much softer in Betonamu Jinkoh (I deliberately didn’t do hybrid copper+steel and stuck with only copper, because I don’t find the bitterness to be very dominant in Kyara. With steel, the bitterness would have been amplified)
– sweet: honeyed-milky. In Royal Chen Xiang there was more coumarin and vanilla, but in Betonamu Jinkoh its closer to condensed milk (in the heart and base). Yay!
– spicy: shucks… I wasn’t able to make the oil too spicy (like the hotness of clove), but there is a bit of a betel or kola nut “bite”. Had I used a hybrid copper+steel system instead, the spiciness would have been more prominent in the base fractions from the steel (most prominently agarospirol), but certain other necessary notes would have been sacrificed and other unwanted notes acquired. Hope the mellow spiciness will be okay with the white-browed Japanese masters!
So what are my thoughts, now that the project is complete?
First and foremost: relief!
Had the yield been low, I would have had to write off the entire project as a (major) loss. Thank goodness that’s not the case.
And of course, there’s a great sense of accomplishment. Wild Vietnamese oud was the ‘holy grail’ for me, something I wanted to make at least one batch of, in my career. I’m SO glad I got the opportunity to work on this after extensive learning, and the development of Agar Aura’s latest distillation techniques. I’m proud to have been able to use these in-house techniques, for what is Agar Aura’s tribute to the finest agarwood on earth: Vietnamese Kyara.
Please note: given the SUPER limited nature of the batch, I’m not able to take any more reservations for this oil. It will be sold on a first-come-first-served basis, so don’t forget to set your alarm in advance for when this oud will be released (estimated: early 2016)
Sumatora Jinkoh 寸聞多羅
Burn Sumatran agarwood, and you’d think a Sumatran oud distillation would be straightforward… far from it.
I’ve always loved agarwood from this island, there’s something very satisfying about the bitter oudiness that smell oh-sooo-good on a shirt that was smoked with the wood one day before.
But when it comes to distilling the oil out of the wood, its a nightmare. Rotten seaweed, beef broth, and a dirty turtle tank. These are sadly what most Sumatran oud oils smell like.
Salty (marine-like), bitter (like Oriental medicine), and sour (fruity). These were the identifiers the Japanese masters had set in stone for the Sumatora scent profile.
So that’s what we set about to achieve.
Given the over-saltiness that most Sumatran oud oils somehow acquire during distillation, presenting the salty notes in an accurate (and beautiful) way was the biggest challenge.
Bitter was easy. If you burn Sumatora agarwood, the most distinctive quality you’ll observe right away is that satisfying deep bitter oudiness.
Fruitiness was something I was forced to include, because I personally don’t get any fruitiness from any Sumatora agarwood I’ve tried, but the Japanese masters’ decree had passed, and my aim was to remain as faithful as possible to the scriptures.
The solution we came up with after the trial run was phenomenally successful. Not only does Sumatora Jinkoh match the aroma of Sumatora wood of the Rikkoku-Gomi, but the most important thing (for me, as a perfumer) is that the final result is something which is very fit for wearing as perfume.
The ‘saltiness’ is like a beautiful combination of gold and silver ambergris. Shimmery, clean, and plenty of marine notes without becoming dank or animalic (like black, brown or grey ambergris). The trick was to use an exaggeratedly low temperature for collecting the top note fractions. As well, the distillation had to be conducted in a hybrid system — i.e. copper+steel. Copper alone would have done the trick, but the steel was needed for some of the other scent facets (I’ll get to that below).
One of the neat things I realized is that if you take Manaka wood (or other west-coast Malaysian Malaccensis wood), place a tiny piece of ambergris on top of the wood chip and then heat it, it smells a lot like the top notes of heated Sumatora wood. If you’ve never smelled gold or silver ambergris before, its that shimmery note that almost all Creed perfumes display in the drydown (although, they use Ambroxan… but you’ll get the general idea).
Fun little experiment you can try yourself: if you have gold or silver ambergris, layer a little bit of it with our Manaka Jinkoh oil. You’ll be amazed at how the top notes suddenly smell a whole like Sumatora Jinkoh! Its no surprise; hop from west-coast Malaysia over the Straight of Malacca to the left, and guess where you’ll land… North Sumatra.
But Manaka wood isn’t even remotely bitter, or sour (i.e. fruity). Here, again, the setup came to the rescue.
As I mentioned above, we used a hybrid copper+steel setup. Steel alone would have given the oud a nice dark, bitter incensey bite (and it did), but the inclusion of copper was essential for getting the salty and fruity aspects right. A little bit of temperature fluctuation, and we got a lovely’popping’ bitter oudiness from the middle stages of the extraction (kept in check though, by the vanillic sweet-woodiness). In Sumatora, its not the ginseng-like bitterness of Kyara (which is very light of course), but more like a nicely steeped cup of raw (unfermented) Puerh tea. Bana Tea Company’s Moonlight White from Jingmai is the first thing that comes to my mind every time. A nice robust core, with brighter uplifting nuances around the edges.
As for the fruitiness, I decided to let the copper do its thing. Thank goodness it didn’t turn into a cornucopia of fruits. Instead, something very unusual happened… Sumatora Jinkoh has an ever-so-slight hint of apples. Granny Smith apple rind to be more precise. Or to be even more precise, something like the tart bite of Granny Smith apple rind, without actually making the oud smell like apple juice. The reason I’m thrilled about this is because although I always get bitter and salty notes from Sumatora (and in fact ALL Sumatran) agarwood, I never really get fruitiness.
…and yet, the majority of the Japanese sources that I’m aware of do mention it as one of the characteristics of Sumatora wood. So I’m glad that I was able to satisfy this criterion while at the same time ensuring that it was very subtle.
So in the end everything turned out quite dandy. A little more than dandy, even. Whereas most Sumatran oud oils are an absolute fail from a perfumery point of view, we managed to make an oil that was the exact opposite: a complete perfume.
I mean, come on… ambergris, oud, and a hint of apple rind? That just about sounds like the scent notes of Creed’s next concoction. : P
As a side note: we are currently working on a 100% Aquilaria Hirta (i.e. ‘Candan’) Sumatran oil as well. The wood smells awesome, but its different from the Sumatora of the Japanese tradition, so that Candan oil will not be part of our Jinkoh series.
Rakoku Jinkoh 羅国
Envision a fierce showdown between a fierce Samurai warrior and… a peaceful Zen monk. The outcome is interesting: the monk wins, not by defeating the warrior, but rather by instilling gentleness and clemency in him.
Rakoku is that wood of the Rikkoku-Gomi, which has two very conflicting identifiers depending on which sources you refer to. To some experts, Rakoku is ‘bitter’, whereas according to others its ‘sweet’.
To me (and many others have made this observation as well), Rakoku is all three of the above. 50:50 bitter-to-sweet, and sometimes with a touch of hotness/spiciness. It starts off with the bitterness dominating, but as the scent evolves, it becomes smoother and sweeter.
Rakoku agarwood is nothing like the fruity/bubblegummy Thai woods that are so rampant nowadays: farm-grown imported Cambodian saplings of Aquilaria Crassna agarwood.
Au contraire, to me Rakoku is probably the most ‘mature’ agarwood of the Rikkoku-Gomi.
Our wild Thai agarwood raw material (from the Pattani region) was remarkably close to the Rakoku woods you find in various Rikkoku-Gomi sets. Testing the raw material prior to distillation, it was a no-brainer: a hybrid copper+steel setup would be perfect, and we went with a full hydro extraction to further amplify the dramatic ‘tug’ between the top and the base notes. South Thai oud has a tendency to smell damp/dank and quickly develops funky notes if the raw material is soaked prior to distillation (which is the customary practice), so needless to say we opted for our own unique set of pre-distillation processing techniques to rupture the wood fibres to maximize the yield and increase the richness of the oil.
And rich it is!
The copper really brought out the honeyed sweet nuances (with a nice touch of mulberries), whereas the steel (coupled with temperature fluctuation for the middle stages of the extraction) bequeathed it the necessary dark/serious/bitter elements, as well as a ‘popping’ mace/black pepper hotness beneath the sweet-and-bitter dominating duo. And as is the norm for Agar Aura oils, this is a full-spectrum extraction consisting of every single fraction – something which was more essential than ever, because it was important to preserve the dynamic and massively high-contrast scent profile of Rakoku agarwood.
I think that for many of you, the scent of Rakoku Jinkoh will be “The scent of Oud” (capital-T and capital-O). It is the scent of that underlying oudy core that you smell in every oud, from every region. If our old Malaysian oils Agar Supreme and Kemegahan were 90% sheer oudiness, Rakoku Jinkoh is… 99% oudiness. It is also the natural (and obviously, the real oud) equivalent of what mainstream perfume companies attempt to capture in their ‘Oud’ sprays. So I have a feeling this oud will resonate very deeply for many of you.
As a side note – some of you may recall the troubles we faced with our Thai harvests (in one instance, the agarwood Mafia robbed my hunters Naseat and Sarit of our wood, literally with a rifle to the skull).
Previously I was only able to receive part of my wild Thai agarwood haul (i.e. the raw material for Rakoku Jinkoh), but just this past Monday, we received some great news from Ahmed’s Thai half-brother Ayiee. Looks like I’ll (finally!) be able to receive my other wild Thai wood. This time we’re looking at Phetchaburi (south-west of Bangkok, connected to the Burmese Tanintharyi jungle), Chumphon (adjoining the largest, wildest south Burmese jungle), and Surat Thani (equidistant to Burma and Malaysia).
Can you imagine the love child of Aquilaria Sinesis, Crassna, and Malaccensis? : )
Wild Thai agarwood from the crossroad region where Burma, Malaysia and Thailand meet presents some remarkable scent profiles. Some woods present unexpected phantom notes from regions far, far away, and others have something totally unique to offer. Like Papuan Gyrinops to someone who’s only smelled Indian Agallocha all their life.
But I’m getting carried away…
First stop: Rakoku Jinkoh, the mightiest of all Thai agarwoods.
The rest to come later.
Hope you enjoyed this blog post, and found the information to be enlightening and useful!
I am new to agarwood world. I am realizing intensely great appreaciation for Kyara. Would you mind to post an article which talks about Kyara from A to Z plus why the agarwood nerds are appreciating Kyara?
Thanks for the message! Well, I consider myself a humble admirer of Kyara, and nothing more. I do have thoughts and opinions on Kyara, but I keep those to myself and just defer to the experts (especially the Japanese masters).
If you want to learn about all things Kyara, I would highly recommend you check out kyarazen.com. I think that’s exactly what you’re looking for. : )