• Sandalwood Dreams, Part 6: Distillation

      This is the sixth in a series of posts by Jordan River (of The Fragrant Man website) about the myths and legends of sandalwood, as well as day by day coverage of the 2013 Santalum albumsandalwood harvest currently taking place in Australia. There are links to the previous posts at the foot of the article.

      In the old days sandalwood logs were sold at auction in India to distillers who would then produce the oil for international trade. Tropical Forestry Services (TFS) has their own distillery in Albany in Western Australia which is 1,500 crow flying km’s from the harvest we are following. The logs have been trucked in from the north. Recoverable oil percentage in heartwood varies anywhere from 2% to 7%. According to TFS the projected oil content of this harvest is 3.7%. What happens next?



      The TFS distillery in Albany, Australia.
      Photo: TFS


      Oil Separator at the Albany distllery.
      The stainless steel and glass separator allows the distilled oil to gather, waiting to be collected daily by a trained operator.
      Photo: TFS

      Steam distillation is the process used to extract the essential oil which contains compounds such as alpha santalol and beta santalol as well as other significant and trace elements.

      The wood is placed in a large drum and steam is pushed through the ground wood. The process is alembic with the steam containing the oil condensing in a pipe.

      After some further processing the next step is to analyse it with Gas Chromatography. An Odour Panel look at these results especially the %’s of alpha and beta santalols and consider the olfactory profile. Batches can then be blended to have a consistent presence of these fragrant compounds. This addresses any scent variations in terroir across the plantations.


      Sandalwood oil filled drums ready for export.
      Photo: TFS

      After blending and pouring into large drums or small flacons a Certificate of Analysis is logged to the batch number. This means that the final analysis of the oil is traceable back to each plantation. A legal, traceable and transparent supply chain from soil to oil.


      Sealed sample vials on the Gas Chromatograph carousel awaiting analysis.
      Photo: TFS

      The Albany distillery in Western Australia has 14 stills with a total production capacity of around 25 tonnes of oil per annum. The ‘spent’ heartwood powder is used for incense making.

      I interviewed Andrew Brown, the R&D Manager for Tropical Forestry Services. Here is his overview on processing:

      The production of sandalwood starts with the harvest of the tree. The whole tree is taken with the only parts left in the field being the leaves and small branches and small roots. On receival in our processing centre the process of extracting the valuable heartwood starts, this is the part of the tree that contains the luxurious sandalwood oil. The harvest is sorted into various products, not all of the heartwood goes toward making sandalwood oil, certain pieces of sandalwood lend themselves toward other traditional uses, for example; wood working into beautiful furniture, artefacts or use in incense or traditional medicinal applications such as Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine. Nothing goes to waste; after sorting and removal of sapwood a home or market is found for all byproducts from this process.

      When the heartwood has been extracted it is chipped and ground to a specific particle size designed to optimise the yield and quality of the oil. The next step involves steam distillation of the oil from the chipped and ground sandalwood heartwood. The process involves passing steam over the chipped and ground sandalwood, the sandalwood oil volatises in the steam and on condensing the oil separates from the water and the oil not being soluble floats to the surface and it is collected. The only chemical that comes in contact with our sandalwood oil is pure water.

      Steam distillation of sandalwood is energy intensive. In order to minimise our carbon foot print we use a waste-wood fired boiler, we utilise waste-wood from the local timber industry that would otherwise go to waste and be burnt. Reuse of resources also extends to our water and all water that exits the steam distillation process of sandalwood is processed and reused in the production process again minimising our foot print.

      Again nothing goes to waste, we take the exhausted sandalwood powder and process it into a product suitable for sale and valued by customers. It’s far too valuable to burn in our boiler!

      Quality is vital, our customers expect it and rightly so. If you purchase a fine fragrance containing sandalwood oil it will be expensive and you should expect it to perform. Quality is built into our processes and involves checks and verifications along the entire process. All wood delivered is analysed and the chemistry of the oil in the wood checked. From here the whole process is monitored to ensure that the final product is within specification and will perform according to expectations; analysis includes bench methods such as optical rotation, refractive index and specific gravity, and Gas Chromatography which measures the concentration of the various constituents as well as our trained noses. Olfactory qualities are important and no chemical analysis is a substitute for a good nose. TFS has a panel of noses that appraises each batch of sandalwood oil and just like wines differ and have flavours which are typical and flavours which should not be presents so does sandalwood oil have notes that are typical and notes that should be absent.
      Andrew Brown
      Research & Development Manager
      Tropical Forestry Services
      TFS Corporation Ltd
      Albany, Australia


      Tomorrow we will find out how the Australian album oil smells. We asked a perfume critic, a perfumer and a perfume writer for their reactions and impressions.

      Australian album oil.
      Photo: TFS

      Sandalwood Dreams Series - by Jordan River


      1. Myths & Dreams
      2. The Perfumed Chamber
      3. Planting Santalum album Sandalwood in Australia
      4. Harvesting
      5. Grading, processing and shipping to the distillery
      6. Distillation
      7. What does it smell like?
      8. Uses and Markets



      About the author Jordan River
      Author AvatarJordan River is the host of The Fragrant Man and also writes for Olfactoria's Travels and Australian Perfume Junkies. Jordan has been been reading Basenotes and other fragrance websites for the past few years and enjoys the confluence of subjectivity, knowledge and opinion. He is not a Perfume Pontiff and is always happy to be enlightened by your own knowledge and challenged by differing opinions.

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