Oudh (often also spelled oud) is omnipotent – way beyond the ‘trend’ it was first thought of when it began wafting in the fragrance aisles of the Western hemisphere, it’s practically become its own perfume family. Though beloved in the Middle East and in many cultures around the world for centuries, there are some who still clutch their pearls a little at the mere mention of the word, let alone a whiff of that ultra-woody, multi-faceted fragrance.
But all oudhs are not the same beast (though they can indeed be redolent of the farmyard), and just as with any fragrance ingredient, depending on the type, quality and quantity the perfumer has used, the over-arching olfactory effect can be massively different. Think of it like giving a cheese naysayer to a slab of blue-veined Stilton as their very first taste, or an oozingly ripe Camembert – perhaps a more gentle intro might have been a nibble at a mild Cheddar, or the cool, crumbly creaminess of a Wensleydale? It’s the same with any potentially heady ingredient in a fragrance, you might want to dip your toes in a softer evocation before drenching yourself with the olfactory equivalent of an offensive weapon.
Before we dive in to the fragrances themselves, let’s start with a 101 refresher on what oudh actually is…
WTF is Oudh, anyway?
The resinous heart-wood from fast-growing evergreen trees – usually the Aquilaria tree – oudh is actually agarwood: a result of a reaction to a fungal attack (stick with us, here), which turns this usually pale and light wood into a deliciously dark, resinous wood with a distinct fragrance. From that ‘rotten’ wood, an oil is made, then blended into perfume, and the highly scented wood of the tree can also be burned – often at prestigious or religious occasions and celebrations, such as marriage ceremonies – because it’s believed the fragrant smoke creates harmony, removing negative energies from sacred spaces.
What does it smell like?
The aroma of natural oud is distinctively irresistible and attractive often with bitter sweet and woody nuances: seriously earthy (and in small quantities, seriously sexy). It can equally be fresher, softer, reminiscent of a romp in a hay barn, or the dry grasses of a meadow on sweltering summer day. Because of how long it takes to produce, and the protection of Aquilaria trees (in a similar way that sandalwood is now highly protected and restricted), as an alternative, perfumers have often now turned to synthetic oudh. Highly trained noses will tell you that the synthetic version can smell plainer (thinner), more woody and leathery, but without the rounded, warm, ultra-animalic and balsamic qualities of the original. Of course, in many compositions this may be desirable and, therefore, more suitable than natural oudh.
Why is it so expensive?
Collection of agarwood from natural forests is now illegal under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endanged Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), but some is now beginning to be plantation grown in Vietnam. This process can take hundreds of years, hence the high cost – it’s also known as ‘liquid gold’ – the scarcity of the real stuff, and why sythetic oudhs may be blended with a natural ingredient, or used instead of.
A really good introduction to how oudh can be used in a nuanced way – almost as a seasoning instead of the main flavour – this one is actually delicious (as in, if it came in a jar, I’d want to slather it on buttered toast and guzzle it, or perhaps slather myself in it and roll on a meadow). The dark, spiced honeyed note deepens as the oud kicks in. Intensely nuzzle-able, there’s nothing whatever to frighten the horses, here.
Floris Honey Oud from £22 for 10ml eau de parfum
Using pure oudh oil from their own plantations, Fragrance du Bois weave woodiness through a salt-tinged sea breeze wafting mandarin’s freshness, and the cool, cardamom-infused whoosh of mountain air. Warming the heart with a resinous, gilded gleam of frankincense and warm amber, the oudh wraps sacred onycha (an ancient spice added to incense) and sweet myrrh in the kind of heavenly mistiness that invokes rapture.
Fragrance du Bois Oud Bleu Intense £295 for 50ml eau de parfum
Unashamedly salacious, the Turkish and Bulgarian roses entwine with gently powdered violet for an evocation of bare limbs caressed by silky sheets; add to this mental image a silver bowl of decadent white chocolates decorated with violets, slowly melting into your sensorially satiated smile. An animalic smokiness underpins the sensuously draped covers, making this the perfect after-dark fragrance for illicit encounters…
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud Satin Mood £215 for 70ml eau de parfum
Described as ‘the olfactory projection of silence’, you can guess this one is hushed, evoking a gentle yet meaningful glance which fosters an immediate understanding, a merging of souls. But you don’t need to relate to the esoteric explanation. Simply delight in the pairing of blossom-y florals rippled with raspberry and a drift of tobacco, the smoothest Iranian oud billowing to benzoin, white spruce and airily transparent musk.
The House of Oud Empathy £220 for 75ml eau de parfum
By Suzy Nightingale