A Side Trip:
Traditional Indian Attars
The photos on this page of attar making were taken by Christopher McMahon and Manoj Avasthi, with the support of Ramakant Harlalka. They used by permission.
Thus far in our perfume journey we have discovered that flowers are reluctant to give up their scent, that boiling water can extract scent from non-floral materials, and that by using controlled heat and pressure we can extract high quality essential oils from various natural materials through distillation. At this point, as a side journey, it is useful to take a look at another application of distillation — the production of traditional Indian attars.
Here, without going into depth on the subject or exploring some widespread misconceptions, I want to review the basics of traditional Indian attar making as this art differs from Western perfumery.
What We Look For In An Essential Oil
In the Western tradition of perfumery, essential oils are sourced from the far corners of the earth and at times extracted using the same type of stills used in attar making. But, in the production of essential oils, the goal is the production of an oil that represents the essence of a single flower, plant or other natural material.
In the Western tradition of perfumery, the purity of the essential oil is judged by the lack of contaminants from materials other than that from which the extraction is being made. For example, if we are distilling sandalwood, our goal is to produce pure sandalwood oil. Any "non-sandalwood" materials in the finished oil would be considered contamination.
Moreover, in Western perfumery, we look for a consistency from batch to batch. This is achieved through a variety of high and low tech methods that give us confidence that when we place a reorder from our supplier, the new batch we receive will be a close match to our original order so that our perfume formula, unchanged and unadjusted, will yield the same aroma and tenacity.
The Attar Philosophy
Whereas purity and consistency are the virtues in the production of essential oils, the attar maker strives for originality. While, in the production of essential oils, the natural material from which the oil is to be extracted will be as unitary as possible — everything from one single natural material — the materials in the attar maker's "deg" will be ... a closely guarded secret!
In traditional Indian attar making, the "formula" for the attar is as closely guarded a secret as that of a French perfume. For the attar maker, the "formula" is what goes into the deg and the bhapka — the still and the receiver.
Making an attar is a bit like making soup with leftovers. All sorts of leftovers and seasonings will go into the pot and the taste of the finished soup will depend very much on the skill of the cook to "adjust" by eye, nose, and tongue rather than following a cookbook recipe.
Attars are original perfumes, created in a distillation process. The product of the distillation is the finished perfume. There is no mixing of separate aroma materials from a row of bottles. The product that emerges from the bhapka (receiver) is ready to be aged, bottled and sold.
The Attar Business
Whereas the business of essential oils was always a global one, with a production chain that stretched from Asia to the United States and Europe with parts of the production taking place at each end of the chain, (i.e., harvesting in Asia, distilling in New Jersey), production in the traditional attar business is strictly local. Only in the marketing of the finished attars does the business become national and international with the largest markets being India and the Muslim Middle East.
The manufacturing of attars has been, traditionally, a family business centered in particular villages close to the source of raw materials. As two friends have explained to me, each village would produce its own attars which would be distinct from those produced in any other village. The production and marketing, of course, would be under the direction of the owners — the family that owned the "formulas" and production facilities of that particular village.
The Attar Making Process
The process of producing attars would be familiar to anyone skilled in producing moonshine as the techniques are quite similar.
The process starts with gathering the raw materials from which the attar will be made. These are placed in a still (deg) and covered with water. The deg is heated and vapors from the mash risk to the top. These fragrant vapors exit through a small hole into the a bamboo tube (chonga) which leads them to a receiver, the bhapka.
The twist to the process is that the receiver — the bhapka — is not empty at the beginning of the procedure but is partially filled with what will become the base or fixative of the attar. Traditionally this had been sandalwood oil and thus the finished attar is a blending of the distillate of various natural aroma materials with sandalwood oil.
Like the skilled cook making soup, production of traditional attars depends on the skills of the supervisors. Modern manufacturing methods are not employed. There are no gas burners, no thermometers or pressure gages, no chemical sampling kits. All depends on the eye and the nose.
The wood or charcoal fires under the deg must produce the right amount of heat — but this is measured by touch and adjusted by adding or subtracting logs or charcoal from the fire.
The condensation in the chonga (bamboo condenser pipe) and bhapka (receiving vessel) must be just right, but again, this is checked by touch and adjusted, when necessary, by cooling the chonga or bhapka with wet cloths.
The process is "repeatable" but not precise (by Western standards). The exact details of how each step of the process is accomplished remains a very closely guarded secret within the family making the particular attar. When we describe the manufacturing process, we speak in generalities as we simply do not know what subtlties in the process have been learned over the years and passed down from generation to generation. What we can assume is that for each family making attars, both the fine points of selecting the particular fragrant materials and the distillation process itself have evolved over time and are not to be shared with those outside the family.
For all its rich history and use of natural materials, attar making has its problems. The biggest problem faced today by attar makers is the cost of sandalwood. Today (real!) sandalwood oil can fetch over $1,000 per pound.
Thus what was once a business where the profit was 900 percent of the cost of raw materials, of late the profit has dropped to around 10 to 20 percent of the cost of the raw materials.
As a result of the current economics of the attar business, paraffin and dioctyl phthalate (DOP)are commonly substituted for sandalwood as a base and today the "big market" is often the cigarette industry where attars are used to scent cigarettes.