Wild Oud Oil: An Ultra-Rare, or Over-Priced Commodity?
Its no secret: oud oil prices have been going up like crazy over the past 5 years. When you look at the price of agarwood in the market, even at the wholesale level, each grade of wood today is approximately 3-10 times the price it was back in 2003 (and the highest grades over 40 times more than they were in 1995)!
So it makes sense that as the price of wild agarwood continues to rise, the price of oils should go up as well, right?
WAKE UP TO THE SMELL OF…
One of the common fallacies I observe in this industry is for folks to assume that just because old trees with high-quality agarwood oleoresin are getting rarer (and hence the finished wood producs more expensive), then so too should be the case with oud oils.
The reality is actually far from it.
What you see in the photo above is the most widely used type of agarwood for producing oud oils. Call it shavings, dust, churan, habuk, pheuk or whatever you please, for wild agarwood it commands about $0.50 to $20 per kilogram (depending on the country of origin). And its the type of wood that’s produced 99% of oud oils in the market, even those with luxurious adjectives interjected into the products’ names.
Another form this wood takes is called ‘oil-grade’ or ‘kayu minyak’ or ‘asvan’ grade wood chunks:
Now here’s the kicker…
There is **SO** much of this type of (yes, wild!) wood accumulated that in my estimation it can support 2-3 years worth of global oud consumption.
That is a LOT of wood.
Why is there so much of it? Because the majority of the wood inside any agarwood tree (even those with the most heavily-resinated heartwood inside) is mostly not incense-grade wood (i.e. its mostly bunk and oil-grade wood). And thanks to the greed-driven illegal felling of wild trees indiscriminately, by hunters who hope to find Chinese grade heartwood hidden inside the trees), the Oud world has never seen such a massive stock of oil-grade wood as it does today.
THE CRUX OF THE ISSUE
Now here’s where the problem arises…
Since the majority of oud oil consumers are unaware of how oils are produced, there is the notion that they’re extracted from glistening black resinous agarwood chips.
The actual case? Most oils are in fact extracted from the two types of agarwood pictured above.
And here’s another, even bigger, problem…
In the past 3 years, there has been large-scale adoption of modern distillation apparatus and improved hygiene for the production of oud oils.
For the better part of 2014 and 2015, I myself trotted around the oud producing countries of the world, and trained many distillers pro-bono. Distillers who are now producing low-grade oils with very clean and ‘pretty’ scent profiles. Oils which, to my shock and horror, many people are confusing with actual high grade ouds (and in most cases, WAY overpaying for).
Why is this happening?
The adoption of extremely rudimentary improvements dramatically changes the scent of oud oil. They are:
1) a gentler distillation temperature
2) improved condensation of the biosteam
3) hygienic collection of the oil (no more sweat and dead skin cells mixed in with the oil)
And that’s it!
I would have added one more VERY important factor, which is: skipping or minimizing the pre-distillation soaking of the raw material to soften the wood fibres, but this is actually not an improvement – its a downgrade. I cannot stress this enough.
By not soaking the wood (a minimum of 7 days, or optimally for 14 days, as demonstrated in lab tests), distillers are not only reducing the yield (i.e. increasing the cost-per-gram of the oil) but they are decreasing the richness of the oil as well. Many aromatic compounds remain stuck inside the wood, and so you’re left with an oil that is ‘pleasant’ and ‘smells nice’, but lacks the depth and richness of oud oils from the good ol’ yesteryears.
Now I admit, I myself am not a proponent of the practice of just dunking some wood into water to soften it, which I consider rather archaic. But that’s only because I adopt other methods which are vastly superior, for rupturing the wood fibres, dilating the oil pockets, and even converting some of the resin back into oil (!!).
(this translates to a higher yield and richer extract)
If distillers haven’t discovered new ways to do this, my advice to them is to stick with conventional soaking of the wood. Sure, the resulting oil will have a barnyard twang (and that can be eliminated/reduced with aging), but the oil will be far far far superior to the new breed of anemic, uninspiring ‘new age’ ouds which seem to be on the rise.
And now, the infomercial is about to start… (you knew it was coming, didn’t you) ; )
LET’S TALK FIGURES
What you see above is the type of raw material which is used for the best of the ‘low grade’ / ‘market grade’ / ‘standard grade’ oud oils.
In the form of shavings (most common in India, called ‘Churan’), the same grade looks like this:
Oils distilled from this grade of wood are NOT high grade. But they can smell darn good, so long as the distillation was conducted using excellent apparatus and techniques.
For typical standard-grade oud oils, the price should be around $50 per bottle (and I’ve seen them priced over $200, sometimes even in the $400’s and $500’s!), and for oils extracted from the above-two pictured raw materials the price should be around $150 per bottle. Yes, I’m talking retail prices. For wholesale, no more than $30 and $100 respectively.
SOMETHING’S GOTTA CHANGE
Having been utterly flabbergasted by seeing oils extracted from these grades of woods being sold for way, way, way more than they should be, I resolved to produce an oud oil of this quality-category. And to make things more fun, I made another batch (from the very same region, but this time using actual high grade raw materials).
Both oils are from Terengganu State, Malaysia. Both wild-harvested. And I utilized the very best apparatus and techniques for producing both oils.
The former is the upcoming Ukupan Kayu. The latter is Sutera Ungu.
Both will be released on the website.
Ukupan Kayu smells lovely. In fact, it gives most so-called ‘high quality’ oud oils you can get your hands on a run for their money. Boasting lots of richness and depth, some may wonder how it could smell like this.
Its supposed to smell good.
It is the product of my angst, at seeing the abuse I am witnessing in the oud market, warping unaware consumers’ perception of ‘quality’.
If you smell Ukupan Kayu and think its a ‘high grade’ oud, then chances are you’ve probably overspent on other oils which were allegedly high quality, when they actually were not.
This particular grade of oud is something I cannot sell too easily, because the majority of Agar Aura customers want only the highest quality oils (generally over $400 per bottle). I struggle with trying to sell more affordable oils, even in the $2xx range (which, let’s face it, is still not exactly cheap when you compare to other essential oils!), which is why I rarely carry such oils on the website.
Its just not smart business for me.
So in the case of an oil that’s even less than $200 a bottle (Ukupan Kayu), you can imagine my hesitation.
But I felt it was important for folks to be made aware of what a good ‘standard grade’ oud (i.e. ‘low grade’ in Agar Aura terms) should smell like, and how it should be priced, so I went ahead with this distillation.
If this product sells well, I would be happy to also demonstrate what oils from other countries of this quality-category smell like (and how they should be priced).
Well, that depends on how well Ukupan Kayu sells. : )
THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
So… which is it?
Are wild oud oils expensive due to rare and costly raw materials, or because they’re just over-priced?
Both, but sadly in most cases its the latter, and seldom is it the former.
Now that you know the facts which I stated above, about the massive quantities of oil-grade wood across the oud-producing world, you’d think prices would drop.. right? Believe it or not, they actually have.
In most cases (India being the only exception I am aware of), standard-grade oud oil prices have dropped significantly in the past 2 years. Wholesale oud importers from the Gulf Arab countries can attest to this fact.
This is the case with oud oils extracted from ‘oil grade’ agarwood.
The only exception is oud extracted from genuine wild ‘incense-grade’ wood (by the way, this term has been badly abused every since I coined it back in 2009, but more on that in another blog post).
This is the agarwood that’s dwindling at an alarming rate, and whose cost is going up at an even more alarming rate.
But this blog post is not about incense-grade wood, or oils extracted from it. So I’ll just post a few photos of what incense-grade wood looks like (in different forms) so you have some idea of the types of wood that genuinely high-quality wild oud oils are extracted from. In a future blog post, I’ll talk about ‘incense-grade’ in more detail, what the term entails, and what it doesn’t (and what is probably a better alternative term, which I might implement soon).
So here ya go – In the order they’re shown: fully finished chips, outer skin ‘kulit’, shavings, semi-finished chips.
I hope you found this article informative.
This is something I’ve been wondering for a while now and I’m glad you’re providing the perspective. Would only trust a few distillers to do such a comparison and of course you’re at the top! I’ll be purchasing the low grade reference for sure.
Ha! Guess what – you’re not the only one.
I received emails from others overnight, saying the exact same thing. So I’m glad (and relieved) that this article was well-received.
Some important points:
1) this article was not intended to attack any distiller or vendor. I wanted to give them some advice so their oils will be less anemic, and richer like oils of yesteryears (so its brotherly advice, and not an attack). Richer oils = more justified prices = happier customers.
2) I also wanted to implicitly remind customers that they are king. By being better informed, they can make smarter choices and avoid wasting their hard-earned cash. ‘Knowledge is power’ might be a cliche, but it certainly holds true for oud!
Indeed this is very informative blog… there is so much out there in the market that it really drives the customer crazy… specially the fact that it’s an expensive hobby and using the hard earned cash on this hobby becomes very stressful experience somtimes.
Based on your experience what will you suggest people to buy in these times? High grade oils or the average/low grades? Reason for this question is only one and that is availability of high grade wood these days (though pricey but still available). I am not sure if most of your customers think this way however I think the prime motive for high grade oud oil buyers is that they want to avail this opportunity to have some collection of actual high quality stuff that they can treasure or may be use as an investment asset. My feeling is that.. going forward there will be influx of plantation wood everywhere… good quality, nice smelling and possibly in good price range… however higher grade wood oils will become things of the past that only few people can show to their next generation as a reference. Do you agree?
Oh dear…. that’s the most pertinent question indeed, and the one I am shy to answer publicly – ha!
(because in a way, it would mean that Ukupan Kayu is the most utterly useless type of oud — allow me to elaborate below though)
I personally hold every grade of oud in esteem: it has its place (when its not misrepresented).
– Cultivated/plantation oud still has a long way to go in my opinion, but it plays an important role. It is the promise of Oud Tomorrow. And so I wholeheartedly condone plantation efforts.
– High and ultra-high grade wild oils are of course the champs. No need to elaborate on this.
– Lower grade wild oils are the alternative to plantation oils (believe it or not, according to lab test results, they are almost the same). They are cheap, and they will quench the oud thirst — albeit to a lesser degree of course, for folks who’ve been spoiled by high and ultra-high grade wild oils.
I am the first to admit that I am guilty of being biased towards low-grade wild ouds over plantation ouds. This attitude is bad for the future of Oud, if this attitude was pandemic.
Currently, the ‘best’ buys in the market are:
1) high and ultra-high grade oud oils. They’re becoming more and more expensive, and when wild oud goes extinct, I would imagine even more expensive. So it makes sense to ‘milk the cow’ when there’s still the opportunity.
2) artisanal plantation oud oils. By supporting these efforts, we are supporting a bright future for oud.
So technically, that would make low and lower-medium grade (like Ukupan) wild ouds the ‘worst’ buy. They are neither going to be scarce very soon (due to HUGE piles that have been collected in the past 5 or so years) , nor do they hold a candle to high and ultra-high grade wild ouds, nor does their consumption support the future of oud (100% plantation stuff).
I’m sure you can see why I was shy to state this. : p
Having said that, I think a lot of people will be shocked when they smell Ukupan Kayu. I’ve been receiving samples of allegedly ‘high grade’ wild oud oils from folks who bought them, and I think after smelling Ukupan Kayu they will start to question the ‘high grade’ part of the description of those oils.
So maybe this category (low & medium-low grade) does serve a purpose after all…?
(bringing the same level of olfactory satisfaction of those alleged high grade wild oils, but at the RIGHT price point)
Thanks for the explanation Taha. For a beginner it’s difficult to discern easily between the high grade and low grade.
Would you have any of your low grade oils available for sale. As it would be useful to have such an oil to compare against when making purchases of oils advertised as high grade.
No doubt! I think maybe a lot of people are unaware of their own ability to discern between the grades, its something that comes with time and (more importantly) having smelled confirmed high grade and confirmed low grade oils.
Well, the low grade stuff isn’t really my calling, not the focus of Agar Aura (obviously!),
But I did indeed release a few affordable oils right around the time when I published this blog post. I have a little bit of a few different such oils in stock, albeit not full-bottle quantities. So if you’re interested in comparing and contrasting, you might want to consider getting some high grade oils from the website and then add on a few of the affordable-grade ones.