Arabian perfume oils, ouds, attars – where to start? For people interested in perfume, it’s like being hungry and knowing there’s a massive box of chocolates on the table. It’s within your reach, the card in the box make them all sound utterly delicious, but you know from bitter experience that some of them are going to be coffee creams (bleuch!) and some of them champagne truffles (Mmmmm). And because it only takes a few chocolates to be fully sated, you’d rather know upfront which ones are the champagne truffles. Right?
Well, I’ve been testing about fifty different concentrated perfume oils (CPOs), oud blends, pure ouds, and attars by companies such as Amouage, Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, Al Haramain, Swiss Arabian, and Book of Oud, and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. But I think there is a real thirst for information about these oils out there, so I am going to write out a list of oils that I think are worth investigating, as of this point in my exploration. I won’t talk about spray perfumes here, and I think I’ll leave Amouage attars for another day, but I think the list below will serve as a good starting point for anyone curious about the genre.
A word about oils in general, though. In terms of application, put a small drop on each of your pulse points, along your jawline, and even on the tips of your beard (if you have one) or the ends of your hair. The sillage is not enormous, but don’t be fooled by a “quietness” you may perceive when dabbing them on at first, because the weird thing with oils is that they often grow in power and strength as they begin to be warmed up by your skin and movements. Better to err on the side of caution, at first.
Price usually, but not always, correlates with quality. But I have found very cheap oils that give me as much pleasure as the higher-priced Amouage blends, and some really expensive oils that smelled no better than their cheaper counterparts. But in general, the higher up you go on the money scale, the better the raw materials used and superior the end result. Test as you go, or if possible buy a quarter tola (3mls approximately) instead of a whole tola if you are buying blind.
By the way, a tola is an ancient Arabic unit of measurement that is usually translated as 12mls, but in reality, it is more like 11.6666 grams. Keep in mind that a little oil goes a long way – these are super-concentrated, so in reality, one tola of one of these would likely last you as long as 30-50mls of a Western spray perfume. I have suggested a range of options for each wallet, from $10 per tola to $365 per tola.
One last thing – some Arabian oils and attars are designed to be layered or blended with other perfumes in order to either increase complexity, create a new smell, or simply to “fix” the upper scent onto the skin for longer. On the list below, I will note where blending or layering is recommended, and even suggest some layering combinations for you to try.
From Arabian Oud
Ghroob Oil: Ah, Ghroob. It’s really quite wonderful. Orange blossoms, syrupy sweet, piled on top of sweet Cambodi oud, spiked with saffron and cinnamon – it’s like standing under the window of a Middle Eastern bakery and having them pour liquid baklava into your mouth. It is ferociously sweet at first, but little spikes of something green and citrusy save it from toppling over completely into the syrup jar. The oud used here is subtle and is present only as a little woody buzz in the background, but that’s ok, because the stars here are those creamy white flowers, most notably orange blossoms. This oil smells like sunshine in a bottle. For fans of By Kilian’s Love (Don’t be Shy), I suggest layering Ghroob with vanilla oils or lotion (or even a pure vanilla perfume) to get an orange-creamy popsicle scent that is incredibly similar to the By Kilian scent for very little money. Cost Factor: Reasonable (about $20 for a quarter tola – 3mls)
Mukhallat Al Siraj: Although this has officially been discontinued by Arabian Oud, you can still find this beauty sold online (mostly eBay) – but hurry while stocks last! The notes are Laotian oud (a sweet, mild oud similar in smell profile to Cambodi oud, I believe), Istanbul rose, amber, tobacco flower, and sandalwood. Al Siraj is the first attar I smelled that rolled my eyes back in pleasure and had me seeking out a precious two more quarter tolas on eBay right away. The oud used here is deliciously smoky, dry, and woodsy. The amber is so toffee-sweet and rich, it smells like cubes of caramels have set atop the smoking oud and are now beginning to melt. In the middle of all of this sweet smokiness, a bold Turkish rose blossoms. Drop dead gorgeous. This particular oil gives me so much pleasure and satisfaction that I fear running out one day. Cost Factor: Reasonable (about $21 for a quarter tola, 3mls, or $50 for a full tola).
Mukhallat Najdi Maliki: This contains notes of amber, Indian oud, saffron, and Taifi rose. All you need to know about this one is that it is a fabulous, fierce saffron and amber bomb. Terrifically radiant and potent, it goes on with a sharp, almost animalic twang I put down to the touch of Indian oud (whether synthetic or real, I don’t know) or the pungent, fiery saffron. Sometimes I think the sharpness must come from bergamot or neroli, but there are none listed here, so probably just my nose playing tricks. Later on, it mellows out to become this sweet, creamy saffron dessert thing that I adore. It has the same sort of vibe as White Aoud by Montale (vanilla, saffron, rose, oud) and even my beloved Safran Troublant, by L’Artisan Parfumeur. Since Safran Troublant is rather quiet, I like to layer it over Najdi Maliki to become one big, massive saffron-rose-amber bomb, like a walking Indian pudding. It also works wonderfully under the smoky Anubis by Papillon, where it acts to magnify the leathery saffron in that. Cost Factor: Reasonable (about $24 for a quarter tola, or $65 for a full tola).
From Al Haramain
Attar al Kaaba: This is one of Al Haramain’s bestsellers, and I can see why. It is a fabulously thick and potent oil featuring a fruity pink rose, creamy sandalwood, and sweet amber. I am not sure if there is really any oud in here, considering how inexpensive it is, but there is a pleasant woodsy, almost coffee-like note swimming through here that I really like, and you never know, this could be a synthetic oud I am catching. It is a simple and lovely treat, especially if you like syrupy roses and amber. It leans a little too sweet on me, so I like to dab a little bit of the ASAQ Deer Musk (from a sample) underneath it to make it a little darker and more “adult”. Cost Factor: Inexpensive (about $60 for a fancy bottle containing 25mls of concentrated perfume oil).
Mukhallat Maliki: This is slightly similar to Attar al Kaaba, in that it has rose and amber in it, but Mukhallat Maliki is less sweet and thick. It also features a large dose of what I think is either bergamot or lemon oils at the top, giving it a lighter and fresher feel. There are coffee grains in my tola of this, but oddly enough I do not get any notes of coffee in the actual fragrance (whereas I do in Attar al Kaaba). The base is soft, vanillic amber with hints of rose. I can’t smell any oud, synthetic or otherwise, in this. It is more subtle and less potent than Attar al Kaaba, and I don’t think there is any need to own both, so choose according to your tolerance for sweetness! Cost Factor: Inexpensive (I paid about $16 for one tola, or 12mls of this).
From Swiss Arabian
Mukhallat Malaki: This is truly excellent, one of the lower-priced ones that I find to be much better than the price tag would suggest. It is a very masculine-leaning, woody fragrance with a lot of medicinal, leathery saffron, a bit of rose, and quite a lot of cedar and musk. The notes for this would have you thinking along the lines of a traditional rose-oud fragrance – but it is definitely not. It is more about the woods and saffron. It smells dark and somewhat dusty, and every time I put it on, I am reminded of going into old furniture shops, where they have piles of old tables and bookshelves piled on top of each other towards the back. It is also quite potent, so one drop goes a long way. I love it. Cost Factor: Inexpensive (about $26 for a tola).
From Abdul Samad Al Qurashi
Rouh Al Aoud: Rouh Al Aoud smells just wonderful. As real ouds go, it is easy for a beginner to like and to understand. It is a lightly-aged oud oil, blended with other notes such as some spices, rose, and a touch of musk. But really, it is the sweet oud note that shines through here – soft, balmy, deep, ‘brown’ all over, but sweet and nutty. Because the oud has been lightly aged, it does not smell rotting or barnyard-y – in fact, there is nothing remotely challenging about this oud to the typical Western nose. It manages to be both balmy and powdery at once, giving off a ‘mouthfeel’ that is close to the sensation of biting into a marron glace, with syrup dripping down your chin and powdered sugar getting up your nose. If anyone is looking for an oud oil blend that is accessible and not challenging, then this is the one for you. It is a pleasure to wear and to smell – deep, honeyed, tobacco, sweet (Cambodi I think) oud, musk, subtle spices, a shy rose. Anyone who likes Chergui would like this too. Highly recommended! Cost Factor: Expensive ($289 per tola, but this is real aged oud, not synthetic, and you have an option to buy a small sample of 0.25mls for about $14 if you prefer).
Al Ghar: Al Ghar is beautiful and I’m more than a little obsessed with it. Perhaps it’s the recent shift of weather into autumn coolness, but I am craving scents like this – creamy, ambery, warm, and maybe a little bit spicy. The oud, saffron, and rose opening feels fairly medicinal, but not in the least bit challenging or surprising to anyone who has ever sat out one of the Montale openings.
A couple of hours in, and a subtle creamy, ambery warmth starts stealing over the medicinal opening – it flickers in and out over the top, like someone spreading a lace cloth over a table and then flicking it off again. The hints of it are delicious and sweet, like toffee, and when combined with the medicinal aspects of the oud and saffron, feel simultaneously honeyed and salted. The amber also has a nicely-judged sprinkle of spices added to it – I pick up a tiny bit of black pepper or clove perhaps – not enough to make the scent spicy or fiery, just enough to add warmth. Finally, a creamy, sweet sandalwood rises from the base, adding a warm, milky feel to the entire experience. The total effect is a smell that approximates the comfort you get from sipping a spiced pumpkin or caramel latte you start to see in the coffee shops once the first leaves have fallen. Except, because this has oud and saffron in it, it is more adult in feel than that. Imagine a latte with salt, and you are halfway there. Cost Factor: Quite expensive ($135 per tola, with the option of buying a 0.25ml sample for $9).
Princess Jawaher Blend: This is a top-notch floral oud recommended for either sex (despite the “princess” in the title). I find it irresistible and elegant. It opens up on a juicy, sweet bergamot-type note on top of some warm, somehow also sparkling oud, and then spreads out into a beautiful bouquet of creamy, sweet flowers, among them (I think) a fruity jasmine, neroli, and maybe ylang. The beginning is really beautiful, actually – sparkling, but also limpid, floral, and sweet without being sickly. Backing it is a beautiful clean, warm oud with no stinkiness or anything that would challenge the average Western nose. I really like the way the oud note is handled in this blend – it starts out high, warm, clean, but towards the very end of the oil’s lifespan, it begins to pick up a little bit of smokiness and deep woodiness. After the mixed white and yellows florals of the start, a warm rose blooms suddenly into life, appearing as if out of nowhere. In the base, I pick up on a chewy, sweet, almost caramelized amber note, but as this is not listed, I must be wrong. Cost Factor: Expensive ($365 per tola, or there’s an option to buy a half tola for $189).
ASAQ Oils Perfect for Blending or Layering:
Body Musk: Simply the best and most luxurious white musk on the market. It’s a creamy, powdery oil that slips right onto the skin without any tackiness or stickiness. It smells like clean skin, cream soda, vanilla ice cream, and warm, folded cashmere blankets straight from the laundry basket. Beautiful on its own, I also wear it layered under sharp rose oils or even darker musks and ambers to give whatever I’m wearing a soft, musky undertone. I love that I can wear it on its own or as a fixative for other scents. For anybody who loves creamy, clean musk fragrances like Serge Lutens’ Clair de Musc, give this one a try and you won’t ever look back. Also, a drop in your bath is amazing too. Cost Factor: Reasonable ($65 per tola).
Sweet Blue Amber: Sweet Blue Amber by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi is only ok on its own. But layered with other fragrances? Oh my. Sweet Blue Amber, like the Deer Musk and the Body Musk, is a material just begging out to be used intelligently and thoughtfully as a base or fixative. It’s just a question of mixing and matching (or sometimes deliberately contrasting) certain notes in the base oil with notes in the other scent. With Sweet Blue Amber, I wondered whether it might be possible to breathe new life into either current scents that were missing a warm, skanky, ambery feel that fragrance fans often complain is missing in this day and age (compared to vintage scents which had all the advantages of nitro-musks, real oakmoss, civet, etc.). To test out my theory, I applied Sweet Blue Amber on one wrist and then a drop of modern Shalimar pure parfum on top of that. On my other wrist, I applied a drop of vintage Shalimar pure parfum onto bare skin (no base oil). The result was jaw-dropping. I’m not saying that the Sweet Blue Amber made the current Shalimar extrait smell exactly like the vintage, no. But I can say that the version with the current Shalimar extrait layered over Sweet Blue Amber was miles better than the vintage version. I found that the Sweet Blue Amber also had the effect of ‘fixing’ the extrait on my skin so that it lasted a few hours more than the vintage version. I think that a bottle of Sweet Blue Amber could be a brilliant, DIY solution to fixing modern versions of scents that could do with a dose of old-fashioned animalics, or even adjusting the civet level of some older vintage scents. Cost Factor: Expensive ($109 for half a tola. But when you think of the experiments!)
FeelOud (Now Book of Oud or Kitab al Oud)
Amber Absolute Attar: I’m not normally a big fan of dupes, but I have to say that the Amber Absolute Attar by Kitab al Oud is one of the most amazing perfume oils I’ve had the pleasure of trying. I own a small decant of Tom Ford’s famously discontinued Amber Absolute, but I am afraid of finishing it, so I layer this oil with the spray, and the result has me happy as a bunny for the next eighteen hours. The oil contains smoky vanilla notes, labdanum, amber, and spices, and although not as rich or as fierce as the original, it is about 75% the same smell as Amber Absolute. I paid $33 in an eBay auction for three full tolas of this (which works out at a crazy $11 per tola), and I still think it is probably the best blind purchase I have ever made. I am not sure if Kitab al Oud is still making this, but if they aren’t, I’m going to start bombarding them with e-mails to put it back into production, because I have decided that I simply cannot be without a stash of this oil. Cost Factor: Inexpensive (I paid $11 per tola, although I can’t vouch for that price because I won an eBay auction).