Sabaidee, Laos! – Chapter 2

For lovers of ‘barnyard’ style ouds, it doesn’t get any better than Lao oud. For those averse to animalic/fecal/cheesy ouds, Lao oud is probably at the bottom of their wish list.
But is this funky aroma really intrinsic to Lao oud?

A few days ago, as I set across the table from one of the distillers I met, I looked at him smiling, as he raised his left and right arms up to his nose, one after the other. Sometimes he would nod, and sometimes he’d shake his head. An eternal frown of confusion adorned his brow.
I had swiped a Malaysian oud oil on his right arm, and an Indonesian oud on his left.
“Yes”, I smiled.
“This cannot be pure.”
“Brother, I made these two myself. I assure you, you’re smelling pure oud”
“So you see now what I was trying to explain…”
“This is definitely mixed!”
“Think of the scent of cloves, then clove oil. Sandalwood, and sandalwood oil. Roses, and rose oil. Do they smell the same?”
“Yes”, he muttered.
“Oud wood, and oud oil?”
“No” he smiled, and finally realized what I was trying to explain to him.

In an earlier blog post (“How Do You Like Them Apples?“), I had discussed what it is that makes feral ouds smell feral.
Long story short: its because of either fermentation or rotting of the wood, prior to distillation. There is no third possibility.

A distillery I visited, the closest one to Vientiane (the capital) actually. Had I never been here before, and someone showed me this photo, I would have guessed this was in Assam, India. Everything here is a carbon-copy of how things are done in Assam. Which should be no surprise: this distillery is run by an Assamese gentleman.
The first distillery I visited — the closest one to Vientiane (the capital) actually. Had I never been here before, and someone showed me this photo, I would have guessed this was in Assam, India. Which is no surprise: this distillery is run by an Assamese gentleman.

When it comes to feral scent notes, there is nowhere else in the oud-producing world where the cause of that aroma is deliberately implemented more than it is in Laos.
Most folks usually equate the barnyard scent with Hindi (i.e. Indian) oud. Well, knowing what we know about the cause behind this scent profile, that would make Lao oud more ‘Hindi‘ than Hindi oud itself!
But we’ll get to that in a little bit…

Let’s first talk about the nature of the Agarwood industry here.
What I was most surprised to find was that its an oligopoly on the supply side with extremely rigid barriers to entry. It is tightly controlled by a handful of players, Chinese and Indian, most of them with powerful ties and influence.
(I am ignoring trees that were planted by locals in their backyards, and of course trees in agarwood plantations. There are more than plenty of those here too, but they’re not the topic of discussion)

But the most shocking thing is… there are plenty of 100% wild agarwood trees as well! Yes, plenty. P-l-e-n-t-y.
I had heard about this from a few trustworthy people, but had found it hard to believe. C’mon… China to the north (no one pays more for genuine wild, high grade Crassna and Sinesis agarwood), and Vietnam to the East (no one fells and smuggles wild agarwood trees more than Vietnamese smugglers)  — and you expect me to believe there could be even a single wild tree left standing in the jungles here in Laos? I was skeptical, to say the least.

Hard to believe, right? Well, seeing is believing! Not only are these 3 chunks wild Laotian, they are Chinese-grade Laotian (and in fact the one in the Middle is top Japanese-grade, which is even more precious).
Hard to believe, right? Well, seeing is believing. Not only are these 3 chunks wild Lao agarwood, they are top Chinese-grade (and in fact the one in the Middle is top Japanese-grade, which is even more precious).

That is.. until I saw, with my own two eyes, not just wild Lao agarwood but wild, Chinese-grade (and even Japanese grade) Lao agarwood.

6 months ago, before I started hearing about this from reliable sources, I would have dismissed this as a joke.
Last week, the most I could be convinced of, was the existence of some human-planted agarwood trees in some jungles.
Today, as I’m typing this, having seen, held, and smelled  genuine wild Lao agarwood… I can tell you that I was as shocked as you probably are reading this. I am still unable to wrap around just how wild (and more importantly, high grade) Laotian agarwood could exist in 2016.

I am sure many of you have read what two esteemed colleagues in the Oud world, Trygve Harris and Christopher Hoeth, have said about the non-existence of genuine wild Lao agarwood. Given their extensive experience in Laos, it will most likely be very difficult to swallow what I am saying in this blog post.

Two simple monks who were walking in front of me, as I was returning to the hotel after having my double-shot cappuccino. These poor guys probably can't even comprehend the
Two simple monks  walking in front of me one morning, as I was returning to the hotel after having my double-shot cappuccino. These poor guys could probably never even comprehend the value of the Agarwood game in their country!

At the present time I have observed absolutely no involvement by Laotian locals in the wild Oud market here (at least not in the upper echelons). From what I have seen, it is solely the domain of powerful Chinese and Indian players (and just a handful). Unless you deal with them, wild Lao agarwood is as good as non-existent.

So far, I have found there to be two varieties of wild agarwood here. One is unmistakably Aquilaria Crassna, and its aroma is quite similar to the wood I used for producing Betonamu Jinkoh. The other, amazingly enough, *appears* to be Aquilaria Sinesis — Chinese agarwood. There is no way for me to state this with full certainty (the hunters in the jungles aren’t exactly taxonomical scientists!), however it smells almost identical to my own private collection of genuine Chinese agarwood. It has that unique ‘temple’ aroma (the best way I can describe it is: Vietnamese agarwood minus the fruity notes + frankincense without the citrusy notes, or Umumburi resin without the plastic), but it also has bitter Burmese elements as well as some sweet Cambodian flavours.

A thought had occurred to me — maybe the wood is smuggled into Laos, and then marketed as wild Laotian agarwood. I know for a fact that this is the case with most so-called ‘Cambodian’ agarwood (and Vietnamese), which is usually agarwood from Malaysian and Thai jungles.
But I quickly dismissed this theory, because what I saw and smelled were undoubtedly Crassna and/or Sinesis. These two species are prized and rare enough in the countries they are indigenous to, so it would be silly to incur more expenses (and risk) by smuggling the wood into Laos from e.g. China or Vietnam.
In other words, simple inference and common sense dismiss that possibility.

Oh dear... I wouldn't even pay $1 for the entire bottle. In Laos, they've taken the whole barn thing a litttttttle too far.
Oh dear… I wouldn’t even pay $1 for the entire bottle. In Laos, they’ve taken the whole barnyard thing waaaay too far.

The Chinese players here mostly focus on supplying to China, Taiwan, and Singapore (collectors’ grade chunks, and shavings for joss sticks). The Indians supply to the Arab market (oils as well as Arab market burning-grade wood), but interestingly they are also selling collectors’ grade wood to the Chinese market.

Now this unusual dichotomy of the wild Oud industry is very, very advantageous for me (and hence for you, the customer). To understand why that is the case, I will first have to talk a little about the Agarwood market in India.

The heart of the Indian agarwood trade is, of course, Assam. Although agarwood was (and occasionally still is) sometimes found in other areas of north-east India, the trade is tightly controlled by a small Assamese oligopoly, a ‘cartel’ of sorts. In the past 50 years, the prices of Indian agarwood has hardly fluctuated. That is partly due to the fact that many people planted agarwood seeds in various jungles in India as far back as 200 years ago (hence supply is very stable), and more importantly: it is completely immune to the ‘China market’ phenomenon.
Whereas in all other countries agarwood prices have shot up, in India they have hardly changed. For all intensive purposes, the sole market of Indian agarwood (and its byproducts, like oud oil) is the Arabian Gulf, and both the demand as well as supply side are happy with the prices and the products (wood and oil).

Now, the Indians who are controlling the agarwood trade in Laos are… guess what — Assamese! But here in Laos, unlike India, they are catering to the Chinese market as well. However, the grades of agarwood that they offer to Chinese clientele are far far higher (and thus more expensive) compared to what they offer the Arab market.
There is a clean, crisp divide between the two market segments.
And therein lies the secret as to why the situation is so advantageous for Agar Aura.

Let me expand on that now…

As I mentioned there is a clean, crisp divide between the Chinese and Arab market offerings. When the Chinese players sell, they are solely interested in supplying ultra high grade wood (and carving dust, for producing joss sticks) to the Far East markets. When the Indian players sell, they do the same, but they additionally cater to the Arab market as well (Arab-grade wood chips for burning, and cheap affordable oils extracted from ‘churan’, carving dust).

By carefully ‘tightrope walking’ on the fine line that divides the Arab and Chinese markets and utilizing supply from both parties, and most importantly taking advantage of the wood-grade ‘gaps’ between the two markets, believe it or not: I am able to replicate costs similar to Malaysia!
That is a big deal. Remember, in Malaysia I am 100% vertically integrated (from the jungle to the bottle, I am my own source).

Medium-grade carving dust. For the price, not bad at all!
And here’s medium-grade carving dust. For the price, not bad at all! Let’s see how the upcoming Malaysian oud “Ukupan Kayu” sells. If its popular, then I could also consider offering a Lao equivalent.

From both the Chinese and Indian suppliers, I am able to acquire top-grade agarwood shavings (collected from cleaning and carving Chinese-market bead and statue grade agarwood).
On top of that, the Indian folks have distilleries too!
Now most of these distilleries are very primitive, and its very clear that oils are produced sub-optimally (the distillation setup + method is identical to what is mostly found in Assam nowadays, which is disastrous for Aquilaria Crassna due to its softer oleoresin, so many volatile compounds get combusted = low yield and terrible aroma).

On my way to one of the distilleries, sitting in a 'tuk-tuk' with a poorly-padded seat.
On my way to one of the distilleries, sitting in a ‘tuk-tuk’ with a poorly-padded seat.

However, there was one distillery way up north, where the apparatus is satisfactory — it is in fact identical to one of the setups at our Malaysian distillery, which was used for producing Sempurna, Kemewahan, and Cantik Candan.
Copper as well as stainless steel apparatus, with borosilicate glass receivers (at all the other distilleries, its done the traditional Assamese way: the oil is separated from the hydrosol by hand which I’m not a fan of, due to the introduction of sweat and dead skin cells into the oil).

But the biggest issue with how oils are produced here is the soaking process.
Unlike most oud-producing countries, here the wood is soaked in large ‘swimming pools’ uncovered (and for a very long period of time). The amount of rot that is inflicted upon the wood is something you cannot imagine. The white wood literally turns black from rotting. And its contaminated with thick, jello-consistency cultures of yeast and bacteria.
The wood (along with the lovely scoby) is then scooped out and cooked to produce the oil, and this is the reason why Lao oils are typically so abrasive.

Neglected ancient copper pots (the type used for producing sandalwood oils in Mysore a century ago), with beautiful jade-colorer patina on the surface. If the pots are restored, they would produce amazing Lao ouds!
Neglected ancient copper pots (the type used for producing sandalwood oils in Mysore a century ago), with beautiful jade-colorer patina on the surface. If the pots are restored, they could be used to produce amazing Lao ouds!

The moral of the story is: its not Lao agarwood itself that smells like mouldy cheese, or faeces, or raw cow hides. It is solely due to how Lao ouds are typically distilled.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love a good barn, tastefully done. What I don’t appreciate is a harsh, uncontrolled barnyard aroma which is ‘inflicted’ upon the oud (as opposed to being carefully designed and incorporated).

Our Hindi 1 and Sokh Khmer were examples of oud oils with tastefully-done barnyard elements.
During my stay here in Laos, I have come across one (and only one) VERY tastefully done barnyard-genre Lao oil, which was distilled from the shavings of Chinese-grade agarwood chunks. If there is interest in this oil, I may consider trying to buy some from the distiller (if he’s willing to sell!) to offer it on the website.
The neatest thing…? It seems to have been distilled from Lao Aquilaria Sinesis! And so, the drydown glows with the enchanting aroma of Chinese agarwood.
So… do let me know if any of you are interested in this oil.

For the most part though, my aim is to produce ‘clean’ Lao oud oils, with maybe the occasional barnyard-genre oud oil once in a while. I apologize to lovers of barnyard ouds; you see, since most of my customers don’t like this genre of oud, its a poor investment to put my money into barnyard-genre projects — even awesome barnyard genre ouds like Hindi 1 and Sokh Khmer were very slow sellers.
Since full-scale distillation projects cost many a sweet penny to fund, I am compelled to drop my pennies in the choicest of baskets. I’m sure you can understand.  : )

So let’s summarize:
1) Between the Chinese and Indian suppliers, I now have access to low, medium, and high grade shavings (and even came to an agreement to reserve ULTRA high grade shavings of exclusively Chinese grades of agarwood — the equivalent of Pencerahan), as well as actual agarwood chips (the equivalent of Manaka Jinkoh). I will try to get both Aquilaria Crassna as well as (what I am convinced is) Aquilaria Sinesis.
2) Based on my experience with Aquilaria Crassna, it responds very well to Agar Aura’s yield-boosting techniques. My guess is that will be the case with our upcoming Lao projects as well. If so, then we’re looking at really amazing cost-effectiveness.
(triple the cost countered by triple the yield = balancing out to achieve the same costing as our Malaysian productions)
3) The distillation apparatus is satisfactory. I would have ideally preferred more glass parts in the setup, but what’s presently available will do just fine without needing too many modifications.
4) The distillation techniques are always hard to sell to distillers, they are always very skeptical and perplexed by the requirements. As usual, I have to keep reminding them that I am funding everything upfront therefore there is no burden of risk on their shoulders.
Given that Laos is not well-developed, and thus doesn’t have a lot of companies supplying a whole lot of things, we are having some difficulty tracking down some of the things required for the most critical set of Agar Aura’s unique techniques (for resin-to-oil conversion and wood cellulose disintegration = amplification of yield + richness). But we’re on it. Worse comes to worst, I will ship the stuff out from Malaysia to here, after I return back home.

So, gentle ladies and gentlemen, what does this all mean?
It means you better get ready for some totally awesome Lao awesomeness. Agar Aura style!   : )

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