Monday, March 26, 2012

Some Straight Talk on Sandalwood

Oh dear, it doesn’t sound good, does it? And it’s not, as a matter of fact. This is all about Santalum album from India, specifically Mysore. I’m writing this from Mysore, and today I went to visit the State Sandalwood Distillery. The last time I visited was February 2010 and there are some changes.

Visitors are allowed, but not encouraged, and it’s assumed that you are a tourist with no experience or knowledge of essential oils. I wrote to them in advance, but maybe not enough in advance. They will show you the most rudimentary things and it’s ok if you are really not that interested. But for the burning questions we have......forget it.

On my original visit in 2010 I was the only visitor and managed to worm my way into the bowels of the distillery, in all its splendid decrepitude. You can read more about this visit if you like, on absolutetrygve. The post is called The Holy Grail.

Today finds the distillery physically repaired somewhat, but now bristling with surveillance cameras. This will work against anyone trying to get anywhere inside because visitors are not allowed to see anything, nor take pictures. There was a guy cutting wood in a corner, and they had him hidden behind some machinery and it’s forbidden to step into the room to see what he’s doing. They even have a barricade up! The cameras mean that you can’t slip away from the guards like you could before because they won’t let you since their bosses are watching.

They let me in, (although not to see that guy carving,) basically because they had to. I can be a pest of immense magnitude and strength, absolutely relentless, particularly when one of my three loves (sandalwood, agarwood, frankincense) is there.

There was lots of wood around; most of it not heartwood, but the outer wood and this was stacked and on its way to be sold as cremation pyre wood. The trees were mostly babies, and young saplings, most of them without any rings, which signifies when the trees start to make oil.

The huge and magnificent stills still stand, unused throughout March at least. The guide said they distilled in February and will do so again in April. Maybe. But I doubt there will be any sleeping at the distillery during the distillation now. It’s all very secret. Why it’s secret I have no idea. They are the State Distillery in India--they have all the wood, farmers have to sell it to them. Even if someone in Australia took pictures and tried to copy the early 20th century equipment, they’re still going to distill Australian Sandalwood, which can’t be compared with Mysore’s. But the aromatic world is usually secret.

India’s sandalwood production was approaching 4000 tonnes per year in the 1970’s and has fallen to less than 300 tonnes today. That’s before oil is made. Sandalwood has been imported into India, from Australia and Tanzania, in the past, but today they told me that none of the wood I saw is from outside of India. And this seems to be backed up from my previous visit when the men (distillers? scientists?) in the office old me about that they had indeed tried the Australian and the African but that these were just not the same as the Indian and therefore no longer welcome in the distillery.

Apparently we can finger the beginning of the end of Indian Sandalwood to 1978, when Indonesia stopped sandalwood exports and India took up the slack, sending wood to the markets of the Far East. It’s used for incense there, not so much for oil.

Prices rose and continued to rise, with trees and forests being exploited like crazy, without thought. The government owned all sandalwood trees until 2001, when it started to encourage farmers to grow it. But, unwilling to offer any incentives, private cultivation didn’t really take off.

Farmers now have the right to grow sandalwood, and to own the trees, but are responsible for the health and life of their trees and must report any dead or sick trees to the government. The absolute minimum time that trees need before being harvested is 10-15 years and during this time they need 24/7 security due to the high risk of poaching. So it’s a big investment with payoff way down the road. Plus, once the trees are harvested, they must be sold to the government, who set an artificially low price for it, even now, yet they (the govt) sell it at current market price. And also, export permits were only issued once you had bought the wood. Then they might take 2 years to come through. It’s a disaster, just like with agarwood. See my agarwood post.

And let me point out that you have the usual costs and issues with cultivation and/or distillation--production costs, transportation, labour, living expenses, taxes, etc

So let’s revisit: Anyone can now grow sandalwood and the trees no longer belong to the government. But if you grow them you are responsible to the government for their health and safety. You must wait 15 years to see a return on your investment. During this time you must also provide strong security against poaching. Once you harvest you must sell to the government consortium at a fixed price but the trees are yours to sell. If you want to distill sandalwood, you must buy your raw material at a government log auction for a fixed price approximately 5.5 times higher than the farmer sells it for. To my knowledge there has not been a log auction in two years.

Theoretically, after you bought your legal logs, you could have applied for an export permit. As far as I know, there have been no export permits granted in at least two years, maybe longer.
The situation is completely impacted.

It’s not a big surprise that farmers aren’t rushing to plant sandalwood. Huge investment--long time to recoup--endless hassles--tons of paperwork and potential problems--low payoff.

Unfortunately for India, Australia has had no such compulsion and they have encouraged farmers to invest in Sandalwood productions with the result that they are due to become the world’s largest producer within a couple of years. And even though most of that is Santalum spicatumm, they have also planted Santalum album and will likely start exporting Indian sandalwood to India by the end of the decade.

Australia claims that not only can it produce 2000 tonnes of sustainable sandalwood per year, but that they are the only region capable of producing it. True? Maybe. I think it might be. In any case, it seems sure that starting in 2014, Australia’s sandalwood production will outstrip India’s.

Hopefully India will relax its stranglehold on sandalwood and encourage farmers (financially) to plant it. Sandalwood is synonymous with India for God’s sakes!

So what about companies that say they have Mysore sandalwood for sale? There are sure plenty of them all over the internet, both in India and outside. I’d take that statement with the usual salt. I just don’t see how it’s possible.

Maybe if it’s poached, and distilled in secret, you can still find it. They still have to get it out of the country though; you’re not allowed to ship it out. I traveled to UP in January 2008 to explore the attar industry in Kannauj, and saw one of these illegal factories. I don’t know where the wood came from, I can’t say whether it’s bad or good, ethical or not. It's better not to make emcompassing statements, even if they're politically correct unless you actually know. But I can say it’s illegal. Meaning it’s going to cost you plenty. But don’t buy it from India expecting them to ship it to you in America. Chances are you’ll pay for it and never see the oil. I have seen this happen. Know the risks; no one is allowed to export quantity now. No. One.

My guess is that in the next few years we will see sandalwood prices come down as the Australian S. album oil hits the market. But that’s going to depend of the quality of the oil of course. No one can predict how it will match up against Mysore. The oil we have at Enfleurage is S. album from Indonesia and it’s very nice. In the past we had different S. autrocaledonicum oils from Vanuatu, Tahiti, and New Caledonia. All of them were very nice quality, for a limited time. Then, in each case, the quality fell. I think it must reflect the stampede of buyers to those markets that led them to harvest earlier and earlier. Something like that.

Ok, so what about attars? You can read my attar post from 2008 and I was extremely skeptical then. Now? I can’t imagine there are any attars available. The market for pan masala and tobacco, which insists on low prices (and it’s a huge market, so it’s able to dictate those low prices) basically took over the attar market starting in the 1990‘s and there is no way to use Indian sandalwood oil in those compounds; the price is too high. That’s why you see DOP (di-octyl-phthlate) and liquid plasticizer attars now.

Basically, the price of Indian Sandalwood brought other regions into the market (Indonesia, Australia,) and now those other regions are poised to take over. Indian government policy has not done much to encourage domestic sandalwood production although it’s possible this will change in the future. Maybe.

If you think you might want to plant sandalwood, here is a link for you. I can’t vouch for the validity of its information but it would be a place to start.

Sandalwood growing in India

In view of all this, it seems a bit pointless to write about what sandalwood is “good for” in aromatherapy terms. If you are not a sandalwood lover, if you are not craving the sweet soft round deliciousness of the Mysore oil; if you are just looking for an oil in your aromatherapy recipe, then you can substitute another oil (not necessarily another sandalwood.)

I don’t know if the Australian (spicatum) oil has many of the same properties as the album. We don’t carry the Australian spicatum although we might reconsider Australian origin, in the future, once the Australian album species becomes available.

If you are in Mysore, and want to see the sandalwood distillery, you can go by auto-rickshaw. You can go in, but there will not be much to see. You can take pictures of the grounds from outside the gate. If its really really really important to you, you can get in, but you will have to find your way, using an official letter perhaps, or just relentlessness. Depends on how bad you want to see it. I think it might get harder and more restrictive in the future.

As far as buying the oil though: two years ago you could buy 5 ml bottles (the maximum size allowed to take out of the country) of the real, certified, agmarked, pure, Mysore sandalwood at the Karnataka Soaps and Detergents kiosk outside the factory. No longer. Now you must go to the Kauvery Silk emporium across from the hospital or in the Palace grounds and the oil is no longer certified, or agmarked, or anything. It’s also available in different sizes.The clerk told me it was pure and real and that since the receipt says “Gov of India” it’s the same as a guarantee of purity..........I bought one bottle only. How is it? If you get there, you can be the judge.

Please note--the photos on this post were taken from several locations, and at different times.


  1. Truly depressing. Is there a ray of light in this scenario?
    Beside going there myself is it possible to purchase it on line from the Kauvery Silk emporium directly and is there a limitation on how much you can buy on line?

    1. I don't know if you can get from them online. I wouldn't bother. I bought one bottle only because of how it smelled--suspicious. Still haven't been able to get the bottle open.......

  2. All so fascinating. I will definitely be referring people to this post when they ask about Mysore. During the early 90's when I was in college I could get sandalwood for $30 - $40 an ounce ... if I knew then what I know now stockpiling would have been wise. My favorite to use now is the Santalum austrocaledonicum from Vanuatu.

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