You can divide oud fragrances in two general categories: those that smell like the real thing and those that imitate only certain parts of the real thing.
To put it crudely, think of the former as real Chinese food and of the latter as the Chinese food take out from your local food court. The latter gives you the flavour but even the most mainstream Westerners know it's not the real thing.
The smell of oud oil is very complex and can be harsh and offensive in many ways. Depending on its origin and kind, the oud oil could have nuances of rotten cheese, barnyard, dirty camels, goats, etc.
Yet, despite these unpleasant facets, the smell of oud is complex, interesting and surprisingly appealing. It has been a staple in Arabic perfumery for centuries, and the Middle East has embraced its smell with all its facets wholeheartedly.
In the West the history of oud is much shorter. It didn't gain mainstream popularity until 2011-2012 when many niche brands started featuring oud-based fragrances.
The trend continued to grow and over the last five years it ballooned into an all-encompassing monster. In 2014 there was virtually no fragrance house that didn't have an oud offering. In late 2015 it has gone so mainstream that even Axe released a deodorant spray with an oud note in it.
The natural question that arises from all of the above is how come all of a sudden the popularity of oud exploded, especially if it the real thing smelled like feces and dirty goats?
"It is a Middle Eastern oud fragrance that has spent too much time in the West and has adopted the manners typical to the French perfumery."
The answer is complicated. The oud note you find in 99.9% of the mainstream Western fragrances has nothing to do with the oil that comes from the rotting Agarwood tree. The real oud is not only very challenging to work with but it is also very expensive. There is no way for Axe to put real oud in their sprays and still sell them for $5 a can.
The explosion of the oud trend in the West was largely driven by the successful production of good quality of aroma-chemicals that approximated certain facets of the oud aroma.
The miracle of modern Chemistry is that it can isolate the molecule responsible for the dense woody note in the agarwood and produce it as a stand-along aroma-chemical. This is how you have an oud scent without all the baggage the real thing comes with. To boot, to produce an oud aroma-chemical (even a very good one) is only a fraction of the price of the real oud oil.
The oud used in most commercial fragrances in the West is a cleaned up, streamlined approximation of the real oud oil. In many cases, the oud aroma-chemicals are so detached in smell from the real thing that they have no resemblance to it.
"Oud Assam is a true reflection of Rania's past. It has a Middle Eastern heart and French refinement."
Considering all of the above, it is fair to say that there hasn't been any explosion of the oud fragrances in the West. Rather, there has been an explosion of the oud-inspired scents.
To be fair to Western perfumery, many of the Western niche perfume houses have been producing excellent oud fragrances long before the trend exploded. Notably, YSL released M7 in 2002. It was a designer fragrance featuring an amazing oud note. For all its novelty at the time, however, M7 didn't start the oud revolution. It took the industry another another 10 years to popularize it.
If you've been patient enough to read so far, you may be wondering what all of this rambling about oud has to do with the fragrance at hand. The purpose of the preamble above is to form a framework within which to place Oud Assam. We can look at oud perfumery as a spectrum. On one end you have the typical Middle Eastern attars that feature real, unadulterated oud oil. On the other side, you have the most mainstream oud fragrances, boldly represented by Axe's Oud Wood.
If most oud fragrances fall somewhere in the centre of this spectrum, Oud Assam belongs strictly into the quarters of the real oud perfumes. It is a Middle Eastern oud fragrance that has spent too much time in the West and has adopted the manners typical to French perfumery.
This cross-over between the East and the West is not unique only to Oud Assam. All of Rania J's fragrances (notably Cuir Andalou and T. Habanero) sit on the crossroads of the Eastern and Western perfumery. This dichotomy is reflective of her heritage.
Rania Jouaneh grew up in the Middle East and Africa and later in life moved to France. For her creations she gains inspiration from her childhood memories of "the jasmine trees under which she played, the spice markets, souks and African bazaars".
Oud Assam is a true reflection of Rania's past. It has a Middle Eastern heart and French refinement.
What Oud Assam Smells Like
Oud Assam opens with a beautiful dusty Indian oud note and a light citrus. Referring to the notes on Rania J's website, the opening features bergamot, sweet orange and bitter orange. In the first minutes of the opening, I can't distinguish the orange accord. It becomes evident to me 10-15 minutes after the first spray.
The bergamot and orange in the opening play a supporting role. They temper the oud and dress it up. As the name suggests, the oud oil in this fragrance likely comes from Assam, India. The Assam region is one of the biggest producers of oud. I suspect Rania plays homage to the region and the oil coming from it.
The oud here is very similar to the note I smelled in T. Habanero. It has this dusty, creamy quality to it. In T. Habanero, maybe due to the tobacco, the oud feels more chewy and edible to me. In Oud Assam, the oud doesn't come across as creamy. Upon a closer sniff, I detect an animalic undertone.
"If the occasion calls for a short sleeve shirt, and let alone short pants, then skip Oud Assam."
If the animalic note concerns you, it shouldn't. It is barely perceptible and I pick it out only when I bury my nose in my hand and inhale deeply. From a distance, I get more of a dusty orange-chocolate combo but without any of the sweetness.
Throughout its development Oud Assam remains dense and dry. What sets it apart from other oud fragrances is that there is no sweetness to it. It is common for oud-based fragrances to feature another note (e.g. florals, amber), which gives some sweetness to the composition. This combo of oud and oriental notes is what many refer to as a Middle Eastern scent.
Oud Assam is an oud scent but without the sweetness. It stays dry and dusty without being astringent. The creaminess of the oud makes it smooth, almost buttery.
Upon another deep inhale I get more of the smoky character of the fragrance. There is a certain earthiness to it, which I attribute to the vetiver. I don't get much black pepper, even though there is a faint spiciness to the composition.
As it dries down, Oud Assam turns into a soft scent that stays close to the skin. During my wears, the fragrance lasted for more than 12 hours. On a couple of occasions, I could even smell a residue of it 48 hours later after I had taken numerous showers.
Even though Oud Assam may stay on your skin for several days, for practical purposes it is detectable without searching for it for around 12 hours.
At around the 12-hour mark, Oud Assam has dried down to a soft musk base. A faint scent of oud is still present but at this stage a residue of musk is mostly present.
Where to Rock It
If I were to classify Oud Assam, I'd probably put it in the dark-woods category. It is not heavy or cloying and I can see it working great in almost any weather. The only time I would avoid putting it on would be a sizzling hot summer day. It would be for the same reason why I wouldn't wear a sweater on that day. Oud has a warm scent and wearing it on a hot day would be like wearing a parka.
Oud Assam is a versatile fragrance and would fit most occasions. The rule of the short sleeve applies here. If the occasion calls for a short sleeve shirt, and let alone short pants, then skip Oud Assam.
I'd consider wearing Oud Assam to the office, even though I wouldn't put more than two sprays. The oud in this composition is not the type found in the mainstream fragrances and some people may find it odd or off-putting.
Oud Assam comes across a somewhat mature fragrance. Despite its versatility, I don't see anyone in their teens wearing it. It also leans on the masculine side and any guy over 20 can rock it.
What The Other Frag Heads Say About Oud Assam
In her detailed review of the fragrance (read here) Kafka analyzes Oud Assam in full detail. For her Oud Assam is a pass but whether you like it or not would depend on your experience with oud. She says:
"Bottom line, it’s really going to depend on your taste for this sort of oud, and possibly on your tolerance for aromachemicals. If you enjoy authentic Middle Eastern oud in all its complex nuances, if you have no issue with the cheesy or barnyard whiffs, and if you like both incense and vetiver greenness as accompaniments, then you should give Oud Assam a test sniff."
I don't find too many aroma-chemicals in Oud Assam and for the most part it smells natural to me. The only place where I could smell some synthetic presence is in the dry-down. On a second sniff, the dry-down musk doesn't feel 100% natural, which, after all, is to be expected.
The reviews on Basenotes are 65% positive. Several reviewers confirm Kafka's view that whether you like this fragrance depends on your experience with real oud. Animalic undertones and blue cheese accords are often mentioned in the reviews of Basenotes.
Despite these descriptions, Oud Assam is not such a difficult fragrance to wear. It is interesting and different but by no means extremely challenging.
The Bottom Line
Oud Assam is an interesting fragrance exhibiting some of the best qualities of the Indian oud oil from Assam. Despite its undertones of blue cheese and barnyard, it is versatile and moderately easy to wear.
Would you buy Oud Assam?
Oud Assam is worth the purchase for a newbie oud lover. It strikes a good balance between challenging and accommodating. Oud Assam is a good introduction to the genre of real oud fragrances.
Would I get compliments wearing Oud Assam?
It's hard to tell how others will react to Oud Assam. I like the scent but I also come from a point of a certain bias. I've smelled quite a few oud fragrances and like the genre. From the perspective of someone who has never smelled oud, this fragrance may come off as difficult. Yet, I don't think the uninitiated will react negatively to it. I do expect them, however, to be intrigued.
What rating would you give Oud Assam?
Oud Assam is a good fragrance that will keep you excited for days to come. Yet, it falls short of a masterpiece status. It fully deserves its 4-star rating.
Bergamot, Orange, Bitter Orange
Cedar, Vetiver, Olibanum, Black Pepper, Tonka Bean, Musk