Over the years, we’ve released numerous oud oils from countless jungles across South East Asia, and you already know by now that no two batches of wild oud are ever alike. The most obvious reason for this is the specific set of chemical reactions that take place inside the tree. Even two sister-trees standing side-by-side in a jungle will display aromatic variance.
Then there’s another key reason why oud oils smell different, as many of you know: the apparatus used for the distillation process. Things like what alloy the pot is made of, the type / shape / setup of the condenser, and things of that sort.
And finally, there are the techniques used for extraction. This is probably the least understood aspect of oud distillation and, together with the grade of raw material wood used, its what really set Agar Aura oils apart.
While we do apply different sets of techniques across different setups and different grades and types of raw materials, it is possible to group these ‘sets’ of techniques into 4 dominant categories of what we refer to as ‘generations‘.
Oud Generations. That is what the blog post is about today, so let’s get right to it.
Table of Contents
This was the first-ever category of Agar Aura oud oils, which we released in the early days of the company and up until as recent as early-2014.
The most salient feature of these oud oils was the cleanliness of the scent profile in comparison to what was commonly available in the market.
The oils were unmistakably related to their more-common counterparts: Gen1 Malaysian ouds smelled unmistakably Malaysian, Gen1 Cambodian ouds smelled unmistakably Cambodian, and so on. The key difference in the techniques was the elimination of unhygienic practices (such as allowing bacterial cultures and fungal spores to grow in the raw material which is the culprit behind the warped scent profile of most ouds in the market) and improving crude extraction techniques (such as more efficient condensation of the biosteam).
Gen1 was all about a no-nonsense, straight-forward oud experience. And that’s exactly what it delivered.
In 2014 I packed my bags, and moved from Canada to a country smack in the middle of the agarwood-producing world, Malaysia. While setting up the wholesale wing of Agar Aura (Royal Agarwood Co.), I simultaneously travelled to other agarwood-producing countries as well.
Aside from entering agreements with distillers in various regions and training them to produce the next generation of Agar Aura ouds, I also started started revamping their setups, sometimes reserving a section of the distillery exclusively for the production of Agar Aura oils, and in some cases even setting up everything from scratch.
During the Gen2 days I was exposed to SO much raw material, that I found myself heating more raw material agarwood than my own private agarwood collection at home.
Directly experiencing the effects of every little change in the distillation techniques, and by now having trained my nose to ‘map’ every aromatic peak and valley to variations in techniques, I started to gear distillations more and more towards my favourite scent profile: the scent of agarwood vapour (not smoke) released from properly heated agarwood chips.
So what do I consider ‘proper’ heating of agarwood?
I’m not a dictator with the self-ascribed right to decide what the right and wrong way to heat agarwood is. But I do have my own humble opinion on the matter, which you can feel free to disagree with.
There’s the Arab way of heating agarwood: placing a wood chip directly on a (very) hot charcoal, which releases the aroma very rapidly. Its “in your face”. I love this method for fumigating my clothes, because the oil and resin both get released simultaneously, allowing the resin to make the oil stick to the clothes. However, from an aesthetic point of view, this method has many drawbacks. Aside from the fact that the aroma is released too rapidly (which takes away the chance to really dive in deep and appreciate all the nuances, blatant as well as subtle), there’s also the issue of aromatic compounds getting combusted instead of released from the wood.
Then there’s the Japanese way (Monkoh): they like to heat wood at the ‘sweet spot’ temperature: releasing the aroma slowly. This allows for a prolonged agarwood heating session which in turn allows for perceiving more aromatic nuances, and it also minimizes the warping of the aroma from pyrolysis (less burning, more releasing).
And finally, there’s my own preferred way, but I’ll get to that when I talk about Gen3 oud.
Gen2 oud oils opened windows unto the more elusive scent notes, which you experience with the Japanese method of heating chips.
The most salient changes in techniques included the super-prolongation of distillations (up to 100 days of cooking, compared to the more common cooking period of a maximum of 12 days).
Other changes included fine-tuning the grinding the raw material to the appropriate particle size depending on the nature of the wood (not many distillers talk about this, or even know about this, but it has a HUGE impact on the aroma), treatment of the hydrosol (what to withdraw and what to re-feed into the pot, to achieve specific aromatic targets), and utilizing different alloys at the pot-level to achieve the desired effect… among other changes compared to how Gen1 ouds were produced.
Gen3 is the epitome of oud. As far as distillation goes, there is nothing that produces richness and brilliance even close to that of Gen3 ouds.
There are 2 key differences between Gen2 and Gen3 oud oils:
1) whereas the point of Gen2 oils was to capture the scent of Monkoh-style heated agarwood chips, Gen3 is the projection of how I myself experience the aroma of agarwood. Unlike the Japanese method where uniform heat is applied to the agarwood, what I discovered was that for different species and even different batches of wood of the same species and region (depending on wood fibre density, resin softness, and oil-to-resin ratio), different “temperature curves” are most optimal. Gen3 oud introduced the adaption of these temperature curves into distillation (i.e. strategic fluctuation of the cooking temperature, based on the fractions getting extracted).
2) but most importantly: I discovered a way to revert some of the agarwood resin inside the wood back into distillable oil, as well as unorthodox (but FAR superior) ways to rupture wood lignin and expand oil pockets. The conventional way to do this is to soak the raw material in a pool of water for an extended period of time. The issue with this practice is that if its done for too long it permanently warps the aroma: it doesn’t capture the true aroma of agarwood any more. The scent profile is permanently and irreversibly molested by bacteria and fungi, and the oil can never revert back to the true, original aroma of agarwood.
Yes, we do implement pre-distillation soaking for ALL of our oud oils (but hygienically, and in a disinfected environment), but the new discoveries led to (upto) tenfold increases in yield and richness. Literally, tenfold. Like 3% oil yield from Crassna agarwood as an example, instead of 0.2-0.3% which is typical.
The result of projecting the optimal temperature-curve of heating raw agarwood onto distilled oud oil, coupled with the amazing feat of boosting the yield and richness to levels unheard of, left customers speechless when they first encountered Gen3 oils. Oud like this had never been experienced by any one before.
Berkilau was our first Gen3 oud. For those Agar Aura customers who I happened to know are quite adept at the art of properly heating agarwood, Gen3 oud was pure euphoria.
It isn’t just a window that offers a view into the inner scent dimensions of agarwood (that was Gen2), its the experience of diving into the world of the richest agarwood scent notes imaginable.
So to summarize, compared to Gen2, Gen3 distillation further improved temperature optimization. Every key fraction (top, heart, and base notes) has a different optimal cooking temperature, and within each key stage, there are further temperature fluctuations done based on the hydrosol (taste, clarity, and smell) as well as oil drip patterns (primarily meniscus cohesiveness, drip speed, and color).
Also, Gen3 introduced oils of extreme potency. Third-part lab testing has shown our technique to produce oils of unparalleled richness. The oil yield is FAR more than what you’d get from even the longest soaking of raw materials prior to distillation, and this brings us to another important point…
with the birth of Gen3 techniques, we started producing oils from far superior raw materials – even compared to the type of wood used for producing closely-related Gen2 oils. Just imagine another zero at the end of our oils’ price tags — that’s how much Gen3 oils would cost, were it not for the implementation of our yield-boosting techniques.
Here’s an example of the type of raw material used for producing Gen3 oud oils (in this case, Manaka Jinkoh):
Now, check out the following video, and tell me if you can even guess what’s going on here. This is just one (out of many) of the techniques exclusive to Agar Aura. Here you see the final stage of the resin-to-oil conversion process:
Berkilau started it all. Other Gen3 oils include Ketenangan, Royal Pursat, and in fact most of our recent releases.
Soon, I will be releasing the first-ever Gen3 Indian oud oil, Lalitya. Please don’t miss out; your nose will thank you for allowing it to savour its aroma. And you will be able to experience, first-hand, the differences between Gen3 and Gen2 oud oils (our last Indian oud Sasora Jinkoh was ‘Gen2’, so compare that to Lalitya).
No Gen4 oud oils have been officially released as of yet, but I have some aging now, which I will start rolling out soon.
Speaking of aging—
Gen3 is a unique type of oud extract: ‘aging’ does not apply to it. Once I’ve ‘settled+tightened’ the oil (2-4 months for hydro distilled, and 7-10 months for steam distilled oils), there is no point in “letting the oil age to improve it”.
Gen3 oils neither deteriorate nor improve with aging. In fact, they don’t change at all. They are extracted in such a way that only curing and “settling+tightening” are required (which I always do).
So if you’ve stashed away Gen3 oils, with the hopes of enjoying a superior oil some years down the road, please don’t. You’re wasting days of your life, where you could have been enjoying these ouds. : )
To understand why this is the case, one has to understand what aging is, what it does, and what it does (and doesn’t) apply to.
Not getting into the scientific aspect, practically speaking aging is the ‘fixing’ of distillation error(s). Period.
It is always something that is required if there was the presence of ‘crude’ elements in the extraction process. The 3 most common ‘errors’ are:
1) either fermenting or rotting of the raw material, prior to distillation (resulting in the presence of barnyard or cheesy notes, respectively)
2) high extraction temperature, which warps the aroma (usually a butyric sourness or bitterness that dissipates or disappears with time, but results in a flat oil devoid of peaks and valleys)
3) poor condensation of the biosteam (overly-pungent, burnt, plasticy, ‘agitated’ ouds).
Tying this to the two common styles of heating agarwood (the wood):
1) the basic method of fumigation (toss the chip on a hot coal) will burn your throat and make your eyes water, if you inhale the smoke directly. It is more suitable for fumigating clothes and your home, and the scent is enjoyed after the smoke has disappeared.
2) more sophisticated heating methods emit vapor from the agarwood which is to be enjoyed while the aroma is being released. It doesn’t make sense to leave the room, and to come back to ‘enjoy’ the aroma the next day.
Admittedly, its not a perfect example, but hopefully it does the job. Crude aroma extraction (be it pyrolysis of raw agarwood chips, or the use of flawed distillation practices) results in something which cannot be enjoyed right away. Time is needed to ‘fix’ the errors.
Controlled and sophisticated extraction (be it the heating of raw agarwood following the right temperature curves, or distillation using immaculate equipment and techniques) results in an aroma that doesn’t require fixing. It doesn’t require ‘aging’.
Our Gen1 oils have shown marked improvement with aging over the years, sometimes very drastic changes were observed.
Gen2 oils showed some improvement as well, but less changes were observed after a year, and almost none after that.
Gen3 oils show absolutely no change once settling+tightening are complete (again, that’s 2-4 months for hydro and 7-10 months for steam distilled oils).
What about Gen4 oils? Now that’s a tough one. First let’s talk about what exactly Gen4 oils are all about…
Gen3 is the scent-equivalent of my personal diary (olfactory diary?). It is how I perceive the aroma of agarwood chips heated the way I deem most optimal… and then the scent is converted into an oil.
But I soon realized that my nose had become too esoteric, due to the process of seeking the most optimal temperature curves for different batches / species / regions of agarwood. Its a lot like espresso aficionados who tastes berries, chocolate, herbs and flowers in artisanal espressos which to others “just taste like coffee” (by the way, you won’t believe how many overlaps there are between pulling the perfect espresso shot and crafting an artisanal oud oil — I might do a blog post about that at some point). The same applies to fine wines, teas, and a few other things that fire up olfactory receptors in connoisseurs very differently compared to the vast majority of people. This is the case with Gen3 oud oils as well.
And so, I decided to take a step back.
Gen4 was given birth in late 2015, with the advent of a large-scale multi-country distillation project that we conducted for, lets just call him… a “very special client”, from the Arabian Gulf.
The aim was to make Gen3 ouds more approachable, more recognizable.
There are two key differences between Gen3 and Gen4:
1) All Gen4 oils display the aroma of high-grade unheated raw fragrant agarwood
2) Gen4 oils boast the esoteric scent notes of Gen3 oils that Monkoh-heads drool over, but also incorporate the more easily-recognized scent of heated agarwood that less-experienced fumigators amongst us encounter/perceive.
In other words: Gen4 is a crowd pleaser. Everyone gets to experience what they personally love about the aroma of heated agarwood (and how they themselves perform the heating).
Technique-wise, I will confess that certain ‘crude’ elements are deliberate (but carefully) incorporated into the Gen4 distillation process, most significantly: altered cooking temperature curves and a modified biosteam condensation process.
But these, and other small changes, result in oud oils that are instantly recognized by one and all as capturing the aroma of heated agarwood perfectly.
Sophisticated agarwood fumigators will still get their Gen3 fix, but others will also make the connection instantly. Best of all (at least I hope so!), Gen4 should serve as ‘training wheels’ for better appreciating the aroma of Gen3 oils as well as optimally heated agarwood.
Want a real-life example? Hindi Maliki.
This was an oud oil that I privately shared with about 30 Agar Aura subscribers, and it was received with unanimous love — far more than its (publicly released) predecessor, Sasora Jinkoh, a Gen2 oil.
If you missed out on Hindi Maliki, stay tuned for King Koh Kong and Royal Papua — they’re both Gen4.
Coming back to aging-
Unlike Gen3 oud oils, Gen4 does require some aging. This is understandable, because as I mentioned earlier certain ‘crude’ elements are deliberately introduced into the distillation techniques (even thought they’re controlled). This means that some level of ‘fixing’ is required, which only comes with aging.
But since the crude elements are carefully controlled and minimized as much as possible (no more than what’s required), not a lot of aging is required. Based on my observations only an additional 3-4 months’ worth of aging (on top of the settling+tightening process) is required, by which time the oud has already settled into its fixed, final aroma.
A Word on Aromatic Complexity
Back in 2014, I was trying to explain to a customer about the two different types of aromatic “complexity”. And so, I coined two terms:
1) horizontal complexity, or “richness”: the number of scent notes in one layer of the oud oil’s scent profile
2) vertical complexity, or “depth”: the number of scent layers.
So the more horizontal and vertical complexity an oud has, the more overall complexity it will display.
And aromatic complexity is, without a doubt, one of the most alluring aspects of oud which keeps us coming back for more, and more…
The kings of complexity are Gen3 and Gen4 oud oils, nothing else even comes close. However since the top notes shine so brilliantly in Gen3 oils, a less discerning nose may be blinded from noticing the deep base notes, despite the fact that Gen3 base-note sesquiterpene concentrations are FAR more than any ouds on the market — sometimes quadruple, and sometimes even achieving the extraction of certain sesquiterpenes which are otherwise never extracted from the wood using distillation.
But if you found Gen3 oud oils to be too top-note intensive, you’ll be delighted by Gen4 oud oils because the base notes are given the illusion of amplification, so you won’t get blinded by the top notes.
So there you have it, folks!
If you’re still relatively new to oud, I hope that the information shared in this post acts like a roadmap, assisting and guiding your nose on its journey in the world of oud. And for the rest of you, I hope this blog post gave you a better understanding and deeper appreciation of your Agar Aura oud collection.