Ensar something puzzles me about oud distillation. Maybe you could enlighten me. The way I see it, oud distillation is a trade and an art form. Traditionally trades are passed on by father to son to son and so on through the generations. All the time the trade is perfected as knowledge is increased. It becomes a fine tuned art. So why it is difficult to procure fine crafted oil? I understand there is massive adulteration and the use of very poor material, the result of which mostly ends up in the middle east.
This was not the case.
Why doesn't the average distillery produce quality oil if it has been in the business for 50 odd years?
Many distillers are aware of just how ‘standard’ their oils are – having tried and even made some great ones in the past. But today, our commercial mind-set simply doesn’t allow them to employ their creativity as much as they were able to previously. For most, it’s a rat race, where the unfit are left behind. Whether they produce high quality oil or a mediocre quality, there’s a price ceiling on what they’ll be offered either way – ‘so why bother?’ the thinking goes.
The market doesn’t differentiate much between quality. Most distillers who supply to major Middles Eastern perfume houses all sell their oils in large quantities at low prices. It’s that, or no sale. Although we’d like it to be otherwise, today oud distillation is predominantly a trade, not an art form.
Are there still family run distilleries that have been in the same family for generations that produce outstanding oil? (seeing the huge demand for oud I dont suppose it is a dying business.)
The family-run businesses I’ve come across were not much different from the rest. Having a craft handed down from one generation to the next doesn’t necessarily mean that a particular family will excel in the craft. It takes passion to excel, and often the child to whom the business is handed down lacks that passion or is even disinterested in the business altogether.
But aside from this, a major factor seems to be that the one-dimensional market to which each distillery caters has pretty much leveled them all out. The quality may range from bad to good, but rarely ‘excellent’.
The techniques, tweaking and vision you apply to your custom distillations can hardly be new given that this trade/art has been around for a couple of thousand years and should statistically be known and practiced most family distillers.
Like many cultural norms and traditions, crafts and technologies can stay static for a long time. I always think of medicine, where there have been some really absurd practices through the ages that went unchallenged for centuries.
This appears to be the case with oud distillation as well. We don’t want farmers to spray their fields with strange chemicals, but they do. We don’t want to see young saplings being indiscriminately cut down, but we do. We’d like distillers to take greater care each step of the way, but they don’t.
Anyone can easily contact any of the hundreds of distilleries across the East, so it’s easy to judge the ‘best’ quality available for oneself. But like in any industry, the true artists in the field are few and far between. Since I started, there have only been two distillers with whom I had no issues working with right from the get-go; who shared my vision, and knew how to deliver what I was after . The one is the man behind works like Oud Royale and Kyara de Kalbar; the other, the man behind Oud Yusuf.
Everyone else I’ve ever worked with was taken aback by my approach. Time and again, they'd tell me this is the first time they heard of this kind of thing being proposed. Not a single one of them ever did the kind of work I asked of them to before, despite having been in business for decades.
Some things don't add up. Why has it become so hard to get good quality oil regardless of the adulterations on the market? Certain groups such as Buddhist monks, Japanese artisans etc surely use only quality products in their daily lives / worship. Do they have relations with secret distillers that have spanned generations or do they go out shopping too?
In this competitive atmosphere, the things we ask are just too much of a pain in the neck for most distillers. ‘My employees won’t listen. If I’m too demanding, they’ll leave. I can’t keep watch over them all the time,’ the one told us. Which is why we literally have to supervise and do a lot of the physical work ourselves – to be sure it gets done right. At other times, our way of doing things simply interferes with the given distiller’s scheduled production quota. We often demand pro-longed soaking, lengthier cooking periods, a certain combination of pots, a great deal more care in the cleaning of the wood, the equipment, etc., which means that their regular productions need to be kept on hold at times. For them it’s just too much of a bother, however much we try to explain how the endeavor is mutually beneficial.
The amount of incense that gets burned at common peoples’ homes, never mind monasteries, is incredible. If they were burning ‘the good stuff’, I can’t imagine how our resources would have lasted for more than a week. But it’s an interesting point about the monks. I haven’t actually asked any about the quality wood or oil they use. It’s something worth keeping in mind for upcoming trips. However, if Middle Eastern culture is anything to go by, I suspect that the monks don’t necessary use anything exceptional. Religious devotees here (the Middle East), no matter how fervent they might be in their practice, for the most part wear some really nasty stuff.
Yet you do find really fantastic oud out there. But only a bottle, here and there. These are usually kept as mementos or religious tokens. Still, what you say is true: ‘Such a refined alchemical artform must retain a quality core at its heart that is easy to find.’ It’s easy to forget that each oud drop’s very existence is a wonder, and from this point of view every [pure] oil has a ‘quality core’, and is easy to find. That said, although I try to savor each oud oil I come across, no matter how ‘bad’ it might be, it’s the potential that drives me. As a trade, oud distillation might be alive and kicking, but as an art, it’s not at the level it can be. Through my productions, I’ve tried to show people what I mean.